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.
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?
Mrs. M. Dove and One of Her Young
Over the years in the spring, birds occasionally attempt to nest somewhere near the Mitchell House, usually in a less than choice spot. Typically, after a day or two of attempting a nest, a bird will give up and realize that the grape arbor is not the perfect spot because it is right over the entry to the Curator’s Cottage where my office is located. The arbor holds the original Concord Grape vine that belonged to Peleg Mitchell Jr, Maria Mitchell’s uncle and the owner of 1 Vestal Street after the William Mitchell family moved to the Pacific Bank.
Last summer, the Mourning Dove who attempted a nest in the arbor quickly gave up. This year, the couple – maybe the same one – gave up after a day or so but quickly returned to build their nest over Saturday evening and all day Sunday while it was quiet. I came to work on Monday morning to find the Mrs. ensconced. And there she has sat for about four weeks.
Earlier in the week, she finally revealed what I suspected. I had not heard a “peep” from above, but I started to notice tiny little bird droppings – of the baby variety – that she has been tossing out of the nest onto the light fixture and flagstone below. She has successfully hatched two tiny babes – I have never seen a Mourning Dove chick – and they are quite adorable. The Mr. hangs about on the roofwalk keeping a sharp eye out and the Mrs. has been feeding their young.
I was able to take some images of them last week which I share with you here. Who says a historic house museum has nothing new and no life in it? Not only do we have these doves, we have a recently fledged brood of baby Robins who chase their parents around the yard screaming to be fed – they were born in the hedge – but we have all kinds of great activities for families and children here at the Mitchell House and there is always something new to learn – and to share – even if it is a brood of baby doves in the arbor. Wouldn’t the Mitchells be proud?!
P.S. I also attach a later image – the babies fledged and this is soon after while they awaited the return of their parents with take-away.
Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words
July 16, 1887
I went to the Unitarian Church at Nantucket. Some 20 years ago I went to the church late and went far forward to my seat. I was one of 600 persons and I felt the embarrassment of being late. When I went into church now I made the 66th person. I sat far back and I think no one turned his head. Seen from behind I knew only Mrs. Catharine Starbuck and Maria Owen. When they came to me, after church, I found that I knew nearly all, but in 20 years the young men had become middle aged, and the old men had gone. I never saw 65 better dressed and better deported people but it was lonesome.
Maria Mitchell would make several trips back to Nantucket after leaving the island with her father in 1861. Throughout the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Nantucket’s economy crumbled as whaling came to an end, the Great Fire decimated downtown, and the Gold Rush enchanted Americans to move West – including Nantucketers. Nantucket’s population dwindled from approximately 10,000 people to only about 2,000 people. Maria Mitchell’s journal entry of 1887 reflects this change.
Ah, To Be In the Third Grade!
Ah, to be in the third grade again! And, I have. In November and again this spring, I have been spending some time with the four Nantucket Elementary School (NES) third grade classes working in the fall on Wampanoag legends and again this spring helping the children to learn about Maria Mitchell and what life was like in her time. We have read stories and discussed them, looked at artifacts from the Mitchell House trying to figure out what some of them might be – oh, the ideas of a third grader! – and created some fun crafts that reinforce what we learn as a group. After a discussion of Maria Mitchell’s and her father’s role in whaling, we talk about how far the whalers travelled from Nantucket, how they navigated (William and Maria rated their chronometers), and their stops during the voyages that allowed them to bring back some really interesting souvenirs – including sailors’ valentines. Children then make their own valentines for a loved one.
When we delve deeper into life in the nineteenth century, we compare our time to that of Maria’s and sometimes it takes a bit of a discussion to get to the lack of electricity! Our craft: we create tin lanterns with candles – something that Maria’s Uncle Peleg Mitchell Junior once did – he was a tinsmith. We have a lot of fun punching the “tin” and sometimes I get my fingers whacked a bit as I hold the punch for them to hammer in the holes. You should see their expressions and hear their apologies when this happens – they are so very sweet (and a bit mortified and worried!). But it brings us together, and for the few for who English is their second language, we find some unique ways to talk about what we are doing – and for me to warn them to watch my fingers!
This is our second year of the program. It is a way for me to bring the Mitchell House to them because we cannot fit twenty-five third graders in the Mitchell House at once – let alone the 100 who comprise this year’s third grade. And this year, we were funded by the Community Foundation for Nantucket – and we owe them yet another big thank you! I hope to continue this program with the NES for many years. It is a great way for them to learn about Maria Mitchell and life in the nineteenth century, as well as the place of women in America and Nantucket for that matter, but also for them to get to know someone else in their community.
Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words
May 20, 1882. Vassar is getting pretty. I gathered lilies of the valley this morning. The young robins are out in a tree close by us, and the phoebe has built, as usual, under the front steps. I am rushing dome poetry, but so far showing no alarming symptoms of brilliancy.
Maria, like her father and the rest of her family, was a keen observer of nature, taking daily walks wherever she might find herself. Her father, William Mitchell, led almost daily nature walks for his students when he was teaching on Nantucket. This journal entry is written about seventeen years after Maria began at Vassar College and the “dome poetry” she refers to is for her students. At the end of each school year, Maria hosted “dome parties” at the observatory for her students where “celestial refreshments” were served along with wonderful poems Maria wrote about her students, and they about her.