Found Between Sheathing and Lathe!
A few weeks ago I wrote about the re-shingling work at Mitchell House and what the removal of the shingles revealed – carpenter’s marks, sawyer’s marks, and coils upon coils of wood shavings circa 1790.
Well, here is a sample of what was uncovered and what I saved to become part of the Mitchell House collection. The shavings had not seen the light of day since 1790 when the House was built. These fell down between the sheathing boards and the interior walls. As the carpenters worked – Hezekiah Swain and others – the shavings fell down between and were not removed – it is just wood shavings after all. Many were in pristine condition, some a little dirty from dirt slowly working its way under the baseboards and down through the space between the outside and inside walls. That white curl is plaster that squished through the lathe and the rusted iron piece is part of a very long nail used in the main timbers of the House. The sheathing board which hid these treasures had not been removed since the House was built and since we had to cut out two small areas of rotten sheathing, these treasures were revealed.
Mitchell House Gets A Facelift …
Or maybe we should call it a chemical peel since nothing was sagging.
With the tremendous support of grants, the Mitchell House’s southern façade is currently being re-shingled. The shingles we are all used to seeing – the dark almost black shingles of many decades – are no longer sufficient to protect the Mitchell House from weather. They have shrunk, curled, and left significant gaps between one another courtesy of sun, rain, and age. This can allow water to penetrate to the sheathing and thus cause rot and those dreaded leaks.
Nathan Killeen of Nathan Killen Old House Restoration is up to the task. Nathan has worked on the Mitchell House for many years with Sanford Kendall who is now retiring and passing the torch. Nathan is very “in-tune” with historic properties and only works on historic structures. He is incredibly knowledgeable. With carpenter Matt Anderson, they have been getting the job done carefully and respectfully – both of the historic house and the carpenters who came before them – mainly in 1790 when the House was built!
Nathan’s work has uncovered some things we knew about and some new things such as sheathing rot. He carefully cut out just the rotted areas and placed in old wood, trying to re-use what he could of the original sheathing – no plywood or pressure treated anything here and not full replacement! Removal of these two small sheathing areas also revealed what we knew already existed, sill rot. So, he carefully dug out the rot – LEAVING the existing sill – and sistered in a “new” piece of wood – nothing new or pressure treated – he used an old piece of lumber. This way the original sill stays and we have strengthened it with this piece that is now attached. That is the right way to do it. Nathan, Matt, and I also signed and dated the back of the new sister piece. Hopefully, it will last another 200 years or so.
We think based on nail holes, that this is only the third time the façade of Mitchell House has ever been re-shingled. The last time was in the 1950s or 1960s and they covered the sheathing with tar paper – something that did not exist in 1790. Tar paper may stop leaks but it also stops moisture from leaving the structure – it acts as a vapor barrier and the Mitchell House cannot breathe. Leaks get trapped and the tar paper and sheathing get wet and then you get – rot and a house full of moisture that cannot escape. So, tar paper is being removed and none is being put back in – just the sheathing and then shingles. What IS being replaced are the splines around the windows, front door, and corner boards. These pieces of cedar – one long piece – stop water from getting behind the framing of the windows and doors and getting to the sheathing. These were once on the House but for some reason when it was re-shingled, they thought tar paper was a better option and did not take into account the age of the House. It NEEDS its splines.
We have also found carpenters’ marks – roman numerals where pieces are to meet up – sawyer’s marks from when the wood was cut, and even better – shavings from the carpenters when they built the house in 1790! These were stuck between the sheathing and the interior wall in the space or pocket that exists. I recently just found these at another house of about the same vintage that is being worked on in the neighborhood – very, very exciting!
And we owe a BIG thank you to Nathan – and Matt!
Take a look at a few photographs documenting the journey of the “chemical-peel.”
Here you see the fruits of a Sunday walk along the harbor – another of my favorite things to collect. The recent storms have swept some areas clean and in others, they have helped to deposit treasures stirred up from the bottom of Nantucket Harbor – something that once served as a dumping ground among other uses in the nineteenth century and earlier.
These are pottery shards of various ages. Looking at them closely, they are mid to late nineteenth century (the blue and white pieces – in particular the lighter blue pieces) and possibly all the way up to the 1930s or so with the largest piece on the bottom right having a floral and bamboo/basket decoration that reminds me of McCoy ware. I will have to see if I can find any such pattern with them – it could very likely be another pottery maker, from the early to mid- twentieth century but maybe even the late nineteenth century!
But in any case, it tells a story of what Nantucketers used in their homes. Each time we have a hard rain, shards will appear in the yard of the Mitchell House where the family tossed out some of its trash that slowly became a part of the landscape and the earth. When a sewer pipe was re-done the plumber left the shards that he had found for me – I think he knows me too well! (The family has worked on MMA plumbing since the MMA had running water – early 1900s.)
One piece reminds me of mochaware but I think it might be a much later copy though I do hope I am just being cautious and this really is a 19th century shard of mochaware. That too I will have to investigate. Mochaware was started in the late 1700s in England and was just about the cheapest pottery one could get then and into the nineteenth century. Maybe akin to Fiestaware which while many collect it today used to be given out at the grocery store and the movies!
In any event, take a look around you. Look down and up – observe! (“We see most when we are most determined to see” according to Maria – how right she was!) You never know what your feet are treading over and you never know what you might find – it might whisper something about those who once lived in the houses and neighborhoods we now inhabit.
Overnight, Nantucket received about six inches of snow. Mitchell House sparkles this morning and there is a hush on Vestal Street that only snow brings.
It makes me wonder what is must have been like for the Mitchells. Being inside Mitchell House while the snow is falling transports me to another time and I like to think about what it must have been like for them. Cold I am sure but even quieter than a normal day. William Mitchell was what one might call a mischievous Quaker – his children got away with things that most Quaker children did not. So I wonder if there were snowmen built in the backyard. Or what about snowballs being flung about by Andrew or Henry or snow angels or eating fresh crisp snow maybe with molasses or syrup on it? I am sure just as children of today, the snow provided the opportunity for expanded play albeit quietly and discreetly for the Quaker Mitchells.
But I go back to the snug, quiet, hushed calm of the Mitchell House in winter. Snow falling and piling up quietly outside, fire in the 1825 Kitchen as Lydia cooks the noonday meal, fire in the Sitting Room where the family spends much of its time in winter, and the calm and peace over Vestal Street as Mother Nature makes a wondrous quilt of white.
Over the holidays, the Mitchell House and its curator lost a dear friend, supporter, and mentor. Clarissa P. Porter was a champion of the Mitchell House and historic preservation and an enthusiastic fan of Maria Mitchell. I do not remember just when I first met Clarissa, but I must have been a teenager. Since that time, she has always been there with support, friendship, and advice. She was tireless in her support of the Mitchell House’s conservation and one of the founding members of the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award Committee. Numerous non-profits here on Nantucket (and elsewhere) have benefitted from her enthusiasm and enduring support and some would not exist if not for her unflagging energy and volunteerism. She continued to keep in touch and wanted to know everything that was going on, even when her illness made it more difficult. She cared and she continued to care even to the end. But there really is no end, for her spirit lives on in all those she touched. I know that there is a piece of her that makes me who I am.
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
A few years ago, a scientist contacted me regarding William Mitchell’s meteorological journals. As an astronomer and as someone who worked for the US Coast Survey, William kept detailed data regarding the weather throughout the day, tides, storms, and of course astronomical observations. All of this was used by the Coast Survey for creating nautical charts among other things. This scientist travelled to the island just to go through William’s data and then I made further transcriptions once he left the island and returned to his university down south. You see, William’s data is still relevant in assisting in making determinations about storms and other weather events- now how exciting is that?!
I write this quickly this morning – not my originally planned blog for this week – as we face the increasing wind associated with Hurricane Sandy combined with a nor’easter. Sandy is due to hit along the New Jersey coastline (there were once Mitchells inhabiting Sea Girt, NJ in the early 1900s) – and we are faced with wind gusts at or over 75 miles per hour. Let us hope that the Grey Lady sees her way through safely – and the Mitchell House as well. I was here Saturday battening down the hatches inside and out but Mother Nature is not one we can control.
What Is This?
What you are looking at is a camera shot looking into a kaleidoscope in the collection of the Mitchell House. This one was made by G. C. Bush and Company of Providence, Rhode Island circa 1870. It did not belong to the Mitchells, though most pieces in the Mitchell House did. Kaleidoscopes came about in the early nineteenth century as a way of studying the polarization of light but became copied for use as a toy likely because of the brilliant colors and quiet entertainment they afforded. I think they may have been more Quaker-acceptable too – there were bright colors but they were hidden inside.
According to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, in her book, Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals (1896 Lee and Shepard), their father, William, suspended a glass ball filled with water from the center of the family’s sitting room ceiling. It was used for his studies on the polarization of light and flashed “Its dancing rainbows about the room.” I suspect that this Quaker man, a lover of bright colors not allowed by his religion, also used it as a way to introduce color into their somber Quaker world. He chose books with red covers and painted his telescope supports bright red – his favorite color. I am sure he came up with a way to explain away all of this – especially the telescope supports – maybe to see them better in the dark night as he observed? In any case, if they could have afforded one, I am sure they would have had a kaleidoscope – unless the glass bowl sufficed. But I am sure that early on, kaleidoscopes were found in many a scientific home, and later as they were developed as toys, found in even more homes. Who knows if people were aware of their original intention – and how many today realize that they were first developed for scientific use?
What Is This?
Can anyone tell me what we might be looking at here? It is a bit dark around the edges (which might help you figure it out). Let me know if you think you know what it is. Please send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where Is This?
Here is a photograph of an architectural element. Can you tell me where it is? First correct answer – and this is not for employees of the MMA – receives a free gift. Please send me an email at email@example.com with “Where Is This?” in the message line.
A Summer Internship at the Mitchell House
Mitchell House’s 2012 Summer Curatorial Intern Cleaning in Mitchell House
Each summer, one college student joins me at the Mitchell House to learn what it is like to run a historic house museum. We have a large pool of applicants for one position and it is a long and difficult process of reading through the applications, deciding on the top candidates, interviewing those candidates and speaking to their references, and then finally choosing one student.
Once offered the position and she/he has accepted, the new intern receives a large packet of information about the Mitchell House and more about the internship from me before her/his arrival here in late May or early June. The intern needs to be able to hit the ground running so to speak. Once the intern has arrived, had the grand tour, and practiced her/his own tour of the House and is ready, the Mitchell House has opened and we are receiving visitors, running workshops, and working on conservation projects. The intern also teaches the summer Junior Historian classes for children aged 7-11 and assists me in all areas of the House – except for cleaning the toilets and writing the grants I always say!
This year’s Mitchell House intern is Victoria Schmidt-Scheuber, a 2012 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who majored in Art History and minored in Politics. Victoria is from Massachusetts so she did not have to travel far to get to Nantucket. Since she arrived in late May, she has learned the finer points of cleaning a historic house museum, basic conservation of our Special Collection books, given numerous tours already to the public, and begun working on planning the Junior Historian classes she will teach. She has helped weed in the Mitchell House garden, assisted with a stone conservation workshop, and learned more about garden plants than maybe she thought she would. Additionally, she has become involved with the island community as well which allows her to get to know the island and its people better and to learn about the place she will call home for three months. She has hit the ground running and has already been very helpful in achieving our summer goals. Thank you, Victoria, and welcome!