Maria Mitchell’s Attic

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.”


Important Women Who Shaped Our Nation

I came across this the other day – put out by Wisconsin Media Lab. Take a look and learn about another woman you might not have heard of before - Belle Case La Follette.

Island History at “Nantucket Chronicle”

In a little bit of self-promotion but also some cross-pollination, I would like to make you aware of “Nantucket Chronicle,” an online island magazine for islanders (and visitors) that is now in its second year. I have been writing for the “Chronicle” for about a year now. My column, “The Nation of Nantucket” features the people, places, and events that have shaped the island we know and love. I mention this here because I cover all sorts of island history for the “Chronicle” that does not typically show up in “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” including short biographies of island women of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. So, if you have been enjoying this blog and want to learn more about our island’s unique history, take a look at “The Nation of Nantucket.”


Somewhat Forgotten By Time

My husband grew up in a rural, mainly farming community outside Buffalo, NY. We recently returned for a family wedding and stopped at some of the spots that were must visits: Duffs for Buffalo Wings, Beef on Weck, his mother’s favorite chocolate and ice cream shop (yes, we gained some weight in just 4 days), his family’s old farmhouse (that is unfortunately no longer in the family), and the large tracks of farmland that are still in the family and where we picked wildflowers for the cemetery.

It’s interesting to compare the architecture of this little town – which is unfortunately now being overbuilt – to that of Nantucket. There are a lot of brick Greek revival farmhouses like you see in one of the images. This house has thankfully been largely forgotten by time. It’s certainly inhabited as you can see by the air conditioning unit in the window, but the old pump still stands outside with a newer coat of white paint. I am sure if primed, that pump would still work.

My husband’s family’s old farmhouse is mid- to late nineteenth century. It’s the white clapboard house with the transom over the front door that you see here and it still has a few out buildings of the same vintage. It sits along what is now a wide, busy road – though in rural areas that is often all there is – set back in the landscape with nothing immediately around it but grass. The driveway is simple, just two tire ruts. It makes you realize that this is how it always looked thought I am sure the trees are much taller. I can imagine his great grandparents or those before them planting some of those trees.

Solitary and still among the fields of the farm, the house has not changed. It’s quiet. It was where my husbands’s great-grandparents raised their two children – his great aunt and his grandfather. While the family sadly no longer owns the house, the farmland still sees some farming – his cousins rent it out to local farmers at times so corn and other crops are grown on the old farmland still. His cousin hunts just as his family before him and in the past, the family was still felling some trees and clearing out fallen ones to use as firewood. My husband remembers doing this when he was young. While my son is too young to remember this visit, we hope he will visit again and again and learn a bit more about this side of his family as well as their history and that he will learn to appreciate the past, particularly those buildings forgotten by time but thankfully largely unchanged because of it.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Lynn July 8, 1868

My Dear President {Raymond},

My habit of grumbling has become so chronic, that I feel disposed, as I put your note down, to fret, that three such tasteful persons as yourself, Miss L{yman} and Miss A{very} had not settled all my domestic questions for me, and acted as upholsterers.

If you had done it, I haven’t a doubt I should have fretted at that. And the weather is quite too warm for such active exercise as a fit of extra fretting! I want – in the room in which the clock is {this was a room immediately off the dome via a small staircase and used by Maria as a sitting room and bedroom – not its original intention and very drafty}, four or five respectable chairs, and a lounge or sofa. If you ask what I mean by respectable, I reply “I do not know.”

I am as ignorant of furniture as of music. I want such a state of things in that room, which is the one into which the families of Trustees come, that those families shall not reproach me in regard to my “style” – which has happened in two cases.

From her home in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she and her father would return in the summer for several years, Maria sent this letter to the president of Vassar College where she had been professor and head of the observatory since 1865. This was not the first nor the last letter in complaint not just about salary, but in how the Observatory was equipped, and how much it was lacking in serving as a suitable dwelling place – what an observatory is not meant to be. The lounge served as her bed for many years and the drafts from the dome were likely incredible. And I can only imagine what was said to her by the families of Trustees, Trustees themselves, and the parents of her students – it reflected poorly on her and yet it was the college’s fault, not her own, that she was left to try and make something out of nothing. And when one is also trying to fundraise for one’s department as Maria was, appearance does count. This was a constant battle for her during her tenure at Vassar and one that was never fully resolved, no matter how beloved she was.


Answer to What Is This?

What you are looking at is the inside of a kaleidoscope found in the Mitchell Hose collection. Kaleidoscopes were very popular nineteenth century toys – and not just for the amusement of children. They were also good Quaker toys – quiet but also plain and simple on the outside, hiding the beauty within. This has I would say at least a forty pieces of colored glass and some of them are filled with liquid!


What Is This?

I apologize for the blurriness. It’s not something that is easy to photograph. Do you know what this is and where it is located?


Ah, We Are Open!!

And the breezes are moving through the Mitchell House. We have flung open the doors and fresh air is better circulating through the House as it moves from the front and 1825 Kitchen doors and breezes up through to the third floor and out the roofwalk hatch as it did in the Mitchells day. We are dusted, and cleaned, and scrubbed. The tall case clock is again ticking, as is the chronometer. Both these artifacts really make the Mitchell House feel as though it is alive and that you might spy one of the Mitchells – William or Maria in particular – bent over the chronometer getting ready to rate the chronometer of a sea captain.

Our summer intern, Claire Payne, who will be a senior at Oberlin College, is already hard at work learning the finer points of cleaning a historic house museum and its artifacts, planning for some exciting Junior Historian classes for the summer, and she has just completed the development of a fun “Seek and Find” scavenger hunt for the younger set when they visit the House with their families.

The garden is blooming – you should see the foxglove – they are enormous! – and William would be overjoyed at the colors. Many of the plants were once found in his own garden here at 1 Vestal Street. I have planted Morning Glories and Nasturtiums again, as well as Sweet Peas. We also have a Tunbergia vine which William could have had at some point. Such a plant was also found in Thomas Jefferson’s garden, so it’s been “kicking” around in gardens for centuries. Many of us also know it by the name Black-eyed Susan Vine. Lupines are out and I am hoping that the Hollyhocks flower this year – they are biennials so not sure if they will flower this year.

So, come take a look and join us for a tour – make it an annual pilgrimage to learn what is new, say hello, meet this year’s summer intern, and hear what we were up to all winter.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

June 1851

My Dear Sister … . Mrs. Dassel has painted me kneeling at my telescope. It looks like Adeline Coffin and is of course not handsome. If thee was here thee would have Mitchell’s {William Mitchell Barney, son of Sally and Matthew Barney} painted at once. She has a head of a child N. P. Willis that is very lovely. She has taken a room at the Atheneum and put up about a dozen pictures – very beautiful – Isabel is lovely. She has not tried to make a portrait, but a very pretty picture … . She is now engaged on Abra’m Quary – he is much flattered by it and it will be a fine portrait. I think we shall buy it or a copy for the Atheneum … . She will paint father also for herself – having made a pencil sketch … .We like her very much … .

The above is from a letter sent by Maria Mitchell to her eldest sister, Sally Mitchell Barney. In it, Maria details what everyone in the Mitchell family is up to. She includes some details about Herminia B. Dassel, an artist who came to Nantucket to paint the last Native Americans and also took an interest in the famous Mitchell family. This was of course four years after Maria’s discovery of the comet. At the time of this letter, Maria was still the librarian for the Atheneum and the portrait of Quary that she mentions possibly buying for the Atheneum, she did buy as it hangs in the Atheneum by the front door today. Opposite it, on the other side of the entry, is a portrait of Maria herself. Another Dassel portrait of Quary is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. And the portrait Maria states she posed for is in the collection of the MMA. It was given to us in the early 1990s by Sally’s great granddaughter – the granddaughter of Mitchell whom she mentions above as well. Maria and Dasssel would become good friends – Maria was named the godmother of Dassel’s daughter. And the sketch of William made by Dassel that Maria states would become a portrait? It likely did come to fruition. It made its way down a side of the family but was unfortunately lost, likely sold as part of a family estate though we do have a photograph of it and one can tell it is the brush work of Dassel.