Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Snead and Company: Builder of the MMA Library Wing, 1933

In the early 1930s, the Maria Mitchell Association realized that it needed more room for its Library. The William Mitchell Schoolhouse (the shingled portion of the Library that opened as such in 1920) was overwhelmed with the book collections and the Maria Mitchell Papers, Mitchell Family Papers, and Maria Mitchell’s own books and those of her family. All needed better and more secure space. So, in the midst of the Great Depression, they began the process of planning and fundraising for an addition that would be fireproof and secure. This was no small feat at this time and letters in the MMA Archives discuss that they were knowingly taking on such a project when people were facing economic hardship. They feared they would struggle to raise the funds but knew that this was very much needed for the organization. They also knew it would be of great benefit to islanders and visitors alike. Money came from far and wide, from small amounts to fairly large amounts.

After putting the new Fireproof Wing (Wing) out to bid with many separate bids for the different components, the MMA heard from Snead and Company of New Jersey, a company well-known for the state-of-the-art library stacks and libraries that it created. The Snead and Company cast iron book stacks were found all over the world and even closer to home at the likes of Harvard and the Washington, DC Public Library. Snead and Co. would go on to “revolutionize and standardize” library book stacks. They would also develop a lighting system and the first compact shelving. Their shelving could be easily modified and they helped to advocate for open stacks beginning in the 1930s. MMA made the decision to use Snead and Company with local contractors working with Snead to complete the project from foundation to dry wells to paint and stucco.

Because of its decision, MMA was the recipient of state-of-the-art library stacks and the new Snead lighting system. Snead oversaw all of the building of the Wing, under the direction of well-respected architect Alfred Shurrocks who lived up the street, was a friend to the MMA, and was married to a Mitchell family descendant! In building the Wing, they utilized the NatCo Double Shell Load Bearing Tile, a wall system of terracotta tiles that is fireproof and exceptionally strong. Just take a look at one of their advertisements that I found.

As MMA works towards the conservation of the exterior of the MMA Library and Wing, funded by the Community Preservation Act, and the re-use of the interior into a lab/classroom and state-of-the-art natural science collections storage, we will be working within the framework of the building, continuing to utilize the Snead stacks for storage. I have already written about the conservation of the roof tiles last fall, so stay tuned for reports on upcoming work which includes the beginning of work on the stucco, steel, and terracotta tiles this spring.

JNLF

Paper, Please!!

I think I have said this before, perhaps many times before, so I apologize but I think it needs to be repeated every so often (though this is a completely different piece of writing). I fear for the historians, curators, archivists, researchers, and other who come after us. Our devotion to email, the Internet, and text messaging is leaving a vacuum of documents. There is no paper. There is no paper trail. There is no information found in a file, a letter, or a journal for those in the future to learn about us and what we do, choices made, our thoughts. We still have books – though people do not treasure or respect them as they should. But very few still write letters or keep journals.

I rely on paper for my research into the Mitchell family, Nantucket history, Nantucket women … I rely on paper – letters, receipts, bills, 1933 specifications for the MMA’s Science Library. This particular information has allowed me to determine how the building was built, even the original color of the stucco as we move through the conservation process of the exterior of our Library building as it becomes an ecology lab/classroom and natural science collections storage space. To me, it’s not just fascinating “Stuff” to read, it is paper I learn from, words that inform me, words that help me learn, information that I pass onto others so that we may all learn, learn from mistakes, learn from discoveries made but forgotten but that are more relevant today than ever before. From paper, I have learned how the concrete roof frame of the Library Wing is attached to the walls – something the structural engineer needs for the conservation work. From paper, I see notes in the margins; see notes written on envelopes; see ephemera stuck between pages of books; and a small bloom from a rare plant found at Quidnet in 1922 that was pressed between the pages of a plant book, noting where on island it was found, when it bloomed, and how it had never been found anywhere else on island before. This information can be used by scientists – not just MMA’s but others from on and off-island.

If so much of our conversation is by text or email, what will those of the future know of us? Will they consider us to have gone backwards? Will they know why you made a decision if it was only in an email, never printed, and their future computers cannot read any computer data from 200 years before? CDs don’t last forever – and technology changes rapidly no matter the “safeguards” technology seems to think it puts in place so that we can access old computer data.

So this here is a plea for more paper – try and keep a journal, record the weather, write some letters. Because if it wasn’t for paper, I wouldn’t know what Maria thought of her travels through Europe with Nathaniel Hawthorne and neither would you.

JNLF

More from the Special Collections: William (Cap’n Bill) Gould Vinal

Again, you might not think there is much “exciting” to the book until you crack it open! Never judge a book by its cover they say and here is another example of that. This was an inscription written by Cap’n Bill (William Gould Vinal) in his book Nature Recreation in 1946 for the MMA. He gave the book to the MMA Library that summer when he came to give a lecture for the MMA. His lecture “Natural History of the Pilgrims” was given while he was Director of Nature Education at Massachusetts State College (UMASS). He also gave the last two nature walks of the summer season for the MMA. The book is inscribed in part to Grace Wyatt who was the Director of the Natural Science Department for many years.

Cap’n Bill, as he was known, (1881- 1973) was the author of many books, this one featured here among them. Born in 1881, in Norwell, Mass (then called South Scituate), he graduated from the Bridgewater State Teachers College and then from Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard where he received a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Later, he received a doctorate from Brown. He became one of the first formal nature educators in the United States. He taught at several universities, taught summer nature camps, served as a ranger naturalist in parks, and then went on to introduce nature education at Western Reserve University in the School of Education. In 1937, he returned to Massachusetts and established the Nature Guide School at the Massachusetts State College (UMASS) from which he retired in 1951. This made him the first instructor in nature education at UMASS. His passion was nature, its conservation, camping, nature guiding, and enjoying and teaching others about the outdoors and nature – a perfect fit for the MMA! Among other things he was a biologist for the Massachusetts Fish and Game Commission, active in Massachusetts Audubon, and he was a prolific writer authoring not only nature books, but nature guides, nature pamphlets, and a nature newsletter that ran for about two decades. There is at least one school named for him in Massachusetts – as well there should be! His papers, in part, can be found at the UMASS libraries. An interesting man and I am glad to learn a bit about him.

JNLF

Women’s History Month – Alice Paul

This link for a blog came to me last week from the Mitchell House’s 2013 summer intern, Sarah Scott, who is a 2012 graduate of Vassar College.

Alice Paul was a Quaker suffragist who was born in 1885. She most likely knew of Maria Mitchell but she was born just a few years before Maria passed away. Quite a remarkable woman, Paul often faced controversy in how she went about making her point. Take a look at these links to learn more about her.

Blog Post forwarded from Sarah on Alice Paul: http://officialnj350.com/joining-alice-paul-on-the-picket-line-a-century-later/
Alice Paul Institute: http://www.alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 31 {1857}. We are at length in New Orleans, and up three flights at the Saint Charles, in a dark room, at the pretty price of three dollars a day … .The peculiarities of the city dawn upon me very slowly. I first noticed the showy dress of the children, white waists and fancy skirts – then the turbaned heads of the black women in the streets, and next the bouquet-selling boys with their French phrases.

Maria and her charge, Prudence Smith, arrived in New Orleans after a seven day trip down the mighty Mississippi River; they had embarked at St. Louis. This was the American leg of their tour, Maria serving as Prudie’s chaperone in the Southern United States before they would journey to Europe several months later. I have posted Maria’s journal entries before concerning these trips. Having lived in New Orleans for few years myself, it is fun to read her comments about the city – from the people, to the French market, to the streets themselves.

JNLF

Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

I have posted this twice already but because it is Women’s History Month, I find it a good time to do so again. It’s clever and at the same time helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist. It comes from the National Women’s History Project.

http://soomopublishing.com/suffrage/

JNLF

Women’s History Month

Yes!! It is Women’s History Month for the ENTIRE month of March. I encourage you to learn one fact about an important woman in your community. Here is one for you – did you know that the first American born female to receive a medical degree was born and raised on Nantucket? Her name: Lydia Folger Fowler (1822 - 1879) and she specialized in gynecology and working with women and children. Just four years younger than Maria Mitchell, I am sure they knew one another, possibly went to school with one another, and Lydia may have even attended William Mitchell’s school, but that is just a guess as we have no records from his private school.

For the past eight months or so, I have been writing for “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online magazine – http://www.nantucketchronicle.com/soundings/nantucket-nation-nantucket . My column is called “The Nation of Nantucket” and there you will find several articles on island women called “Daring Daughters.” Take a look.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Feb. 5, 1882. We have had two heavy snow storms since Feb. came in. We have twice been unable to get out of the Observatory without help. The first time 6 men, two horses and a girl came to our rescue; today four men and two horses and a girl came.
Phebe’s picture, painted by Fanny came; it is far the most pleasing she has done.

In 1882, Maria Mitchell had been teaching at Vassar College for approximately seventeen years. At that point, the Vassar Observatory was fairly remotely located in relation to Main Building where all of the college’s activities took place. One can image how hard it was for Maria to get out of the Observatory, but also how hard it was for her “girls” to get to her.

This entry is one of those gems I come across. Actually, there are many gems. For many, many years before I was curator, there was a portrait stowed away and the inventory was listed as “Unknown Woman.” Finally one day, as I was again looking at it trying to figure out who she was, I realized it was Phebe Mitchell Kendall, one of Maria’s younger sisters! Now, I come across this in Maria’s journals and it really makes me wonder if this oil portrait was painted by Frances (Fanny) Mitchell Macy, the daughter of Anne Mitchell Macy and her husband Alfred Macy. Fanny was an accomplished artist, maybe taking after her accomplished artist aunt, Phebe. I don’t recall any artist’s signature on the painting, but this could be one in the same! I am very excited to investigate further!

JNLF

More from the Special Collections

Since the Wing has been emptied and all the Special Collection books have been cleaned and moved to a climate-controlled space, I miss meeting “new” books each day. But, as I cleaned the books, I took images of ones that struck me as interesting or had ephemera inserted, or had lovely covers or plates. This was one such book. It actually was not very “exciting” but when I opened it, this is what I found inside. The book is Quaker Ways by A. Ruth Fry, a British Quaker born in the late nineteenth century. She was an active promoter of peace, a writer, and came from a well-known activist Quaker family, her father being instrumental in the negotiations at the Hague Tribunal in 1917. One of Ruth Fry’s books, probably the more well-known one, A Quaker Adventure, concerned her travels through war-torn Europe helping refugees and others affected by the Great War.

I am sure that many of her books were found on the shelves of Quakers and others in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This book in particular appeared to be on the shelf of Ethel Parish Fletcher, the great-granddaughter of Lucretia Coffin Mott! Inside the book an envelope was pasted that revealed a calling card belonging to Mrs. Fletcher with what you see written on the verso. At some point, the book came to us. Pretty interesting and, dare I say, cool!
JNLF

In Memoriam Elizabeth “Betty” Daniels

Vassar College and the MMA have lost a treasure. For the MMA, it is the loss of another friend. Betty Daniels was the Vassar College historian for at least twenty years. Before that, she had been a professor of English at Vassar, also serving as dean (several times in various capacities) and head of the English Department. Before that, she was a Vassar student. Except for the years she earned her master’s Betty was always at Vassar, commuting to NYC for many years to get her Ph.D. while teaching at Vassar.

I came to know Betty because of her work as the Vassar College historian, a post she took up (she was the college’s first historian) after retiring from the English Department. I am not sure when I first knew of her or spoke with her, but we consulted one another from time- to-time about all things Maria. Maybe eight years ago, I finally had the opportunity to visit Vassar to work in the archives. Betty and I met, had Maria and Vassar discussions, and went out for a lovely dinner. When I found a particular something in the Maria Mitchell papers that were left at Vassar by Maria’s sister and niece, I was very excited and knew of the only other person at Vassar who would share in my excitement, Betty. And she did! When she was on island to visit her son, she usually stopped by the MMA and we would have a brief catch-up.

She was a remarkable woman. Like Maria, she accomplished a great deal in a time when women were still expected to remain at home. Think about raising four children in the late 1940s and 1950s, teaching at Vassar, and also working for something like seven years towards your Ph.D., this at a time when people were a lot less supportive of such a situation. I think Maria Mitchell and she had a lot in common.

While I knew Betty only a little bit, I feel that a piece of her will always be with me. I learned from her and she serves as an inspiration. Thank you, Betty.

To learn more about this remarkable woman, you can visit the “Vassar College Encyclopedia” at: http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/about/index.html and read this piece about her from 2003 in the “Vassar Quarterly:” http://vq.vassar.edu/issues/2003/04/features/living-history.html .

“The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands.” Maria Mitchell

JNLF