Maria Mitchell’s Attic
Among Good Company

The other day, a new biography about Maria Mitchell appeared at my door. Now this one is not for everyone … well, I guess it could be for everyone but it is really aimed at the pre-kindergarten to first grade set. If you are an adult, it will take you about two minutes tops to read! Since the publisher used several of our historic images, they are required to send us one free copy for the Archives. As you can see, Maria is in good company – a broad mix of women – and I am hoping that list grows!
We have had quite a few requests for image use this year – both for children’s books – although this one is the only one that is just about Maria and no one else – and for articles and adult history and science books.

We have also had a few researchers using Maria Mitchell’s papers. They include a woman researching Henry David Thoreau’s time on Nantucket – he and Maria crossed paths a few times – and a man researching the eclipse of 1878. Maria travelled to Denver to observe the eclipse, taking along a few of her students and her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who recorded the event with sketches and watercolors. The Archives receives fees when photographs are used and if I complete transcriptions of the papers. This helps to support their conservation. So, I am expecting the Mitchell House mail to be a bit full over the next months as more publications arrive!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

{1854} Oct. 27. Last night I heard Josiah Quincy Jr. {president of Harvard College} lecture on the Mormons. It was the first lecture of the Atheneum course. I went to the first last winter and listened with contempt to Matthew Hale Smith {Unitarian minister}. I expected of a Quincy something very much above a Smith, but the distance between the two men, is not, after all, so very great.
Both lectures were anecdotal, if Quincy’s was more witty it was also more inelegant. It would have made a pleasant drawing room lecture but had not the dignity desirable in a Lyceum discourse, where it is presumable something will be taught. But the fault is not with Matthew Hale Smith nor with Jos. Quincy Jr. While the community is the same and the taste for lectures the same, and the lecture going people are no more enlightened, great men will come down to the level and small ones will struggle up to it … .

This is most certainly Maria at her pointed and “no mincing of words” best. I think her words speak for themselves. She was disappointed, feeling she was to learn something but the speakers felt that they needed to reach their audience – these off-islanders, or “coofs,” did not know the audience they were dealing with on Nantucket obviously! Life-long and eager learners, who continued to educate themselves, the speakers did not realize just how savvy and well-educated these Nantucketers were. I would love to know if others in the audience felt the same as Maria.



We seem to always have one baby bunny in the Mitchell House yard. 2014’s baby has been a bit more respectful of the garden then his predecessors. He did not mow down all the morning glories like one of the baby bunnies before him, nor did he munch his way through the nasturtiums. What he did do was create a burrow under one of the rosemary plants that we have had growing for several years out front. This rosemary has made it through quite a few winters, including the ten inches of snow we got this past March – that late blizzard that did in some of my own plants at home, including my Japanese anemones. So we shall see if his burrow harms the rosemary but so far, no harm done. He, like his friends before him, scoots between front and backyards one of two ways. He either nips under a portion of the House that is open underneath or he runs around to the front and goes under the front porch. The bunnies before him never really did that last route so I give him – or her! – credit for some intelligence on that. This bunny has an escape route! However, where he is lacking is in his danger instinct. He has become so used to us that he has now taken, especially with the last few really hot and humid days – the first of the summer but in September! – to sitting next to the hydrangea in the backyard of the House. He is just far enough away from the crawlspace to be where the air is better but close enough to run under. But, he just sits there. I move in and out of the Cottage, sometimes accidentally allowing the screen door to slip and slam and he just sits there. In this photograph, though it’s hard to see, he actually has his back legs crossed. He has an enormous grown up tail – he has not met it yet with the rest of his body size – and a beautiful white belly. I actually thought due to his calm and lazy demeanor that he was not feeling well yesterday as he did not leave the spot for several hours! But he was back at it again today so I took the opportunity to take this photograph of him. (I did not ask him to sign a release form.) He was there when I got in this morning and two hours later, he is still there just now facing a different direction. So, I think he is just too trusting of us. Not that we would harm him.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

September 3. We have been three weeks in London “out of season” but with plenty of letters; at present we have as many acquaintances as we desire. Last night we were at the opera; tonight we go out to dine and tomorrow evening to a dance, the next day to Admiral Smyth’s. The opera fatigued me, as music always does. I tired my eyes and ears in the vain effort to appreciate it. Mario was the greatest star of the evening but I knew no difference.

At this date, Maria Mitchell was still very much at the beginning of her European tour as a young woman’s chaperone. For many Americans, Maria included, a European tour served as a college education of sorts. Visits to the opera, grand palaces and museums, ruins and historic buildings and sites served as a source of education and inspiration. While she tried the opera – we have her opera glasses to prove it – Maria was supposedly tone deaf so I am sure it was not easy for her to make her way through an entire opera. Dancing was a whole other thing – Quakers forbid it – but at this point Maria had left Quaker meeting. So she was certainly taking it all in and trying everything – even things she did not enjoy – in order to learn and expose herself to new things. Now that is a good tourist!

The Grapes of Wrath?

At moments, I have a small choice word or two as I drag yet another squished grape into the cottage on the bottom of my foot. And then I think to myself, “It’s September at the Mitchell House!”

Peleg Mitchell Junior, Maria Mitchell’s uncle and the owner of 1 Vestal Street from 1836 until 1882 (his wife, Mary, continued to own the House until 1902 when she passed away) planted a grape arbor at the rear of Mitchell House. The grape plant continues to thrive to this day; in fact it is protected in the preservation easement on the Mitchell House. The original supports are long gone, but Peleg’s grapes continue on a new arbor. This year we have a bumper crop with no mold or any issues with the fruit it seems. Concord grapes, they start off sweet and then turn sour – an acquired taste. Some people like to eat the little tendrils that allow the grapes to climb, claiming they have a lemony flavor though I don’t taste that. The birds, in particular the catbirds, are made happy, especially with this year’s crop. When Peleg lived here they also had Isabella grapes climbing over the woodshed but unfortunately that structure and Neighbor North (the outhouse) are long gone.

In Two Steps Down, Alice Albertson Shurrocks’s book about the Mitchell House, her grandfather was Peleg, she writes that the Concord grape arbor, “stood opposite to the cookroom at the edge of the sunny slope, leading from the upper grass plot to the lower … and I could look down on the vine from my bedroom.” She would spend her summers at 1 Vestal. The slope is long gone, replaced by a small retaining wall in the 1930s when the Curator’s Cottage was added at the rear of the House but it is still sunny.

Mrs. Shurrocks was married to Alfred Shurrocks, a well-respected architect who designed the Wing of the MMA Science Library. Mrs. Shurrocks was one of the curators of the MMA. They lived at 16 Vestal Street. In the next few weeks, I will give you an update on the conservation work there. The mason is just beginning!


Work Has Begun at the Mitchell Lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery!

It will take quite a bit of time but happily, on August 26th, the stone work was begun at the Prospect Hill Cemetery to restore the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell family lot where William and Lydia Mitchell, along with Maria, her oldest brother Andrew, her oldest sister Sally, and her aunt and namesake Maria Coleman are all buried. Neil Patterson and his crew will be re-setting the granite stones so that DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston can restore the wrought iron fence that once ringed the lot. It likely fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century and went for scrap metal, perhaps for the war effort. Many of the lots, if not all of them, were surrounded by fences at Prospect Hill.

Using a historic photo that was found in a Maria Mitchell scrapbook, we are restoring the fence to the best of our ability – the image is a little grainy and blurry so some details have been lost. This work is all funded by a Community Preservation Act grant that Jascin Leonardo Finger, Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections wrote for Fiscal Year 2013. The grant included restoration of the fence at the Hadwen lot at Prospect Hill, as well as the conservation of the wrought iron fence at the Coffin School on Winter Street. Since the same ironwork and stone masons would be used, a collaborative ask was created. For approximately a decade, the Mitchell House curator has been collaborating with Prospect Hill and its historian, Paula Lundy Levy, offering stone cleaning workshops for the public that illustrate hands-on how to properly clean historic gravestones. The restoration of the fences and the collaborative grant were a natural progression of their work together and long overdue – the family’s deserve to have their resting place restored to what it once was. Stay tuned as we bring you more information and images as the work progresses! And thank you, to the Community Preservation Committee, Neil Patterson and Crew, and DeAngelis Ironwork!


Answer to What Is This?

This is a small area of inlay that is found towards the bottom portion of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Made in Boston in 1789, the clock was built by John Deverell and was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William’s parents in December 1812 (or the twelfth month 1812 as they were Quakers). It was then given by them to one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who then left it to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. It came to the Mitchell House in the late 1940s from his estate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote a bit about Kendall – he was a senior architect with McKim, Mead and White.

Do You Know Where or What This Is?

Do you know what this is and where it is located?


A longer and more intimate Mitchell House Junior Historian class is the Mitchell House Sampler which we offer once or twice a summer. Relatively new to the repertoire of offerings at Mitchell House, this class lasts four hours and the students have a chance to spend more time at the Mitchell House with the intern and curator, learning about the time in which Maria Mitchell lived and eating their lunch in the backyard. They work on different crafts that children and adults created in the nineteenth century, learn about Maria’s and her family’s role in astronomy and science, and learn a bit more about what a historic house museum is and what makes the Mitchell House so special. Crafts and activities include nineteenth century games, fiber arts, cooking, and creating their own scientific-related items from kaleidoscopes to telescopes. The images seen here are of the recent class on July 28th, ably led by this year’s Mitchell House intern, Claire Payne. Since we had a group of young girls, Claire started the class off in yarn doll making which they took to with deft hands and keen eyes!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

August 15, 1835

MARIA MITCHELL proposes to open a school
For Girls, on the 1st of next month, at the Franklin school house.
Instruction will be given in Reading, Writing, Spelling,
Geography, Grammar, History, Natural Philosophy,
Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra.
Terms, $3 per quarter. None admitted under six years of age.

The above advertisement appeared in the local paper on August 15, 1835. At the age of seventeen, Maria Mitchell, already known for her abilities, was opening a school and she likely attracted a large group of girls. Given what she proposed to teach and the many levels of girls who might attend, this illustrates her ambition and her early desires to promote women’s’ education. Supposedly, this school was located on Traders Lane, just off of Main Street and just a short walk from 1 Vestal Street where the family was still living before moving to the Pacific National Bank for William Mitchell’s position as cashier. Maria would only run this school for about a year. She closed it because she was offered a position as the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum for which she received sixty dollars “per annum.”