Maria Mitchell’s Attic
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.

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.”


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.


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 – . My column is called “The Nation of Nantucket” and there you will find several articles on island women called “Daring Daughters.” Take a look.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 14 Collingwood {1857}

My dear Father

            This is Sir John Herschel’s place.  I came last night just at dusk, and was very warmly welcomed, first by Sir John and next by Lady Herschel.  Sir John is really an old man, old of his age 66, as old as Mr. Bond, whom he resembles.  I found a fire awaiting me in my room, and a cup of tea and crackers were at once sent up … .I had expected to find Sir John a despot, like Mr. Airy and Dr. Whewell, but to my surprise he is gentle, and very simple, and tells funny little anecdotes (so do Airy and Whewell) and is one of the domestic circle, joins in all the                     chit-chat … .But I am continually mortified my anecdotes that I hear of the “pushing” Americans … .

At this point in her European journey, Maria was alone as the young woman, Prudence Swift, she had been chaperoning was called home due to her family’s financial losses in the panic of 1857.  Maria would spend time with Collinwood and become friendly with the Herschels, an astronomical family of renown.  When leaving Collinwood, Maria was give a sheet of paper from Sir John Herschel’s aunt Caroline Hershel’s notebook – some of her astronomical calculations.  Maria treasured it all of her life, finally pasting what remained of it (the paper slowly became brittle and flaked away) into her own journal which the MMA still holds.


Conservation Work Has Begun at the MMA Library!

On September 16th, the MMA began the work to the exterior of the MMA Science Library – soon to be an ecology lab and classroom space, as well as state-of-the-art storage for our natural science collections.

With Community Preservation Act funding, the roofer arrived to begin the work.  This is a special roof, made mostly of concrete tiles and completed in the 1930s when the stucco Wing was added to serve as a fireproof space for Maria Mitchell’s papers, her library, family papers and libraries, and the MMA’s Special Collections.  Long ago, some poor repairs were completed to the tiles when they broke (but that said, long ago they did not necessarily have the technology and knowledge that we do today for proper conservation of such a roof).  Additionally, the roof had, over the last thirty or so years, grown a very interesting moss and lichen coating which delighted in the northern exposure that faces Vestal Street.

With about a week’s worth of work, Jim Johannes of Asbestos-One in Ohio assessed the roof further, removed and cleaned the moss and other debris growing on the tiles and one day we had a brilliantly white looking roof.  The roof was not originally this color.  Over time, it bleached out and the coating that it had come from the manufactory with had disappeared.  Now, in the second week, Johannes is re-coating the roof so that it is back to what it was when it left the factory in the 1930s.  It is a nice, deep charcoal color – what it was when it was installed in the 1930s.

Next step will be the work of island mason, Wayne Morris, who will work on the stucco, the terracotta tiles, and the oxide jacking that is occurring.  Stay tuned – I will keep you posted as the work progresses and give you more details about what his work entails!

A special thanks to the Community Preservation Committee for its support of this important conservation project.


Winter Hush

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.



A few weeks ago as I was vacuuming the Birth Room in preparations for closing the Mitchell House for the winter (always a depressing thing to do!), I turned and looked back into the 1825 Kitchen to see the sun streaming through the windows and casting its light and shadows across the floor.  Simple.  Beautiful.  I thought about how this pattern of sun and shadow across the floor is something that has played out since the kitchen was built by William in 1825.  Lydia, William, Maria and all of her siblings saw that same light and the shadows of the sashes and mullions that I was looking at for the thousandth time as well.  That has not changed – for over 187 years.  Wow! 

I also thought about how lucky Lydia and the Mitchell’s were to have a kitchen so filled with lovely afternoon sun.  In the summer that made it a bit too warm especially with the fire going for cooking, but in the winter and during cool fall and spring days, that afternoon sun was a help for lighting and warmth.

Now not much has changed in the Mitchell House since it was built in 1790 and we also have many of the family pieces owned by the William and Peleg (William’s youngest brother who later owned 1 Vestal Street) Mitchell families, as well as Maria.  But something so simple as the sun – and it remains the same.  I think it is important to remember that we are just the caretakers of a home or building – even if it is our personal home.  Owners of a home will come and go but the building will remain for generations and it is our privilege to live or take care of that building or home and our responsibility to preserve and protect it for the future so that someday, say in a hundred years, someone else will look upon a moulding, a fireplace surround, a riser, or even the sun coming through the window and know that someone else admired that one hundred, two hundred, three hundred or more years ago and that it has not changed.  It connects you even more to the past and the people who inhabit the past.



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.