Maria Mitchell Association

MitchellHouse

Maria Mitchell Birthplace

While in Nantucket I visited the Maria Mitchell Association, a complex of four museums. There’s the natural science museum in the main building. This features animals (mostly dead) found on or near the local beaches. They have dolphin skeletons, butterflies, moths, taxidermy animals, live snakes and turtles and a discovery center.

The main focus of my visit was the Maria Mitchell birthplace. A typical Quaker house built in 1790, this house is the birthplace of America’s first female astronomer.

MariaMitchellHouse

Maria Mitchell Birthplace sign

The Mitchells acquired the home shortly before Maria’s birth in 1818. It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. On the roof is a roof walk, which was actually for putting out chimney fires and fires on the roof. Could they have used it for other purposes? Yes, but that isn’t what it was built for.

William Mitchell had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood. The front room features the most exciting and unique artifact in the house-Maria’s telescope through which she discovered a comet. The front entryway has an amazing mural of “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” (Fake news is obviously not an Internet age problem).

Maria Mitchell was educated at a young ladies seminary and also taught by her father, an astronomer who rated chronometers for use by the Nantucket whaling fleet in celestial navigation. His Quaker belief in equality led him to educate his daughter in subjects normally taught to boys. At the age of 12, Maria assisted her father in calculating the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she trusted to calculate navigational computations for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.

Maria’s interest in science extended to teaching as well. After she finished her own formal education, she opened a school for girls to train them in science and mathematics- like an early STEM school.

At the age of 18 she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, reading everything she could after hours. She worked there from 1836-1858.

HawdenHouse

Nantucket Atheneum

Her greatest accomplishment was yet to come. Avoiding a party at her family’s apartment above the bank one night in 1847, Maria went up to the roof to observe the sky through her father’s two-inch telescope. She lucked out that night, October 1, and discovered a comet! She was not only the first woman to discover a comet, she was the first in America to record her sighting.

PacificNationalBank

Pacific National Bank

Unfortunately, the next day there was a storm and ships couldn’t leave the island so the observations she sent off to Europe were delayed, allowing an Italian man to gain credit for the discovery. However, Maria prevailed and her careful notes revealed she sighted the comet earlier than the Italian. The King of Denmark awarded Maria Mitchell of Nantucket an International gold medal.

Maria then skyrocketed (pun intended) to fame.  “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy.

recentprogressofastronomy

Recent Progress in Astronomy

Maria became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the only woman recognized for almost 100 years thereafter. She was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society and earned an annual salary from The U.S. Coastal Survey ($300/year) as a celestial observer. [1] She was also able to meet other women involved in the sciences on a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s.

Though Maria ultimately broke with the Quaker meeting, she retained some Quaker philosophies, such as equality and abolitionist principles. She always dressed in black silk, refusing to wear cotton as it was grown by slaves.

After her mother’s death, Maria was invited by Matthew Vassar to be the first female professor at his new women’s college, where she rebelled against the strict rule prohibiting women from going out at night. Her students adored her and even persuaded her to pose for a portrait. (Maria believed her plain looks would not appear to advantage on canvas or in photos). She did insist on appearing as she normally did, in her Quakerish black silk dress and plain hairstyle.

Maria Mitchell became involved in the emerging women’s rights movement, with fellow Nantucket Quaker Lucretia Mott, meeting the luminaries of the day and holding meetings in her observatory. Her famous friends later donated money to save her Vassar observatory. [2]

Though Maria Mitchell died in 1889, a year after her retirement from teaching, her legacy lives on. The Maria Mitchell Association also operates an observatory. Their website states “since 1908, the Observatory has been the site of research, lectures, and other programs . . .” [3]  That is smaller than the house!

MariaMitchellobservatory2

Normally they start outside but since it was rainy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything in the sky. We did look at a scale model to see how far the planets are in the solar system. That was very helpful. I don’t really understand or care for astronomy so much of it was lost on me. Inside there is a little museum where visitors can see Maria Mitchell’s influence on culture and science. She has asteroid and a crater named after her, among other things. I really liked it when they mentioned there is an archive. That would be fun to look at.

More on the history of Nantucket in my next post.

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Concord Museum

Concord Museum signOn Saturday last, I had the pleasure of visiting the Concord Museum. The museum collections date to the mid-nineteenth century when America was celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Concord had a long history of celebrating the past and also of rebelling against the status quo beginning with the Puritans of the seventeenth century. This museum tells the story of this rebellious town.

Puritans arrive in Concord

Puritans arrive in Concord

The Puritans arrived in this swampy wilderness seeing freedom from religious tyranny but found a community of Algonkian Indians who called the place “Musketaquid” (“grassy plain).

Algonkian Concord

Algonkian Concord

The Puritans saw the Indians as Satan’s instruments and sought to Christianize them and make them “civilized.”

Algonkian rituals

Algonkian rituals

Concord Indians

Map of “praying Indian” town and pamphlet exclaiming the success of the missionaries

A special gallery specifically on the Battle of Lexington and Concord brings together artifacts from many different locations in one spot. The exhibition concludes on 21 September. It’s a must-see if you can. It’s very awe-inspiring to see objects that old as so important to the history of the United States. Artifacts include numerous artifacts from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, including Paul Revere’s lantern made famous by Longfellow; flints; muskets; powder horns, engravings and more

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving 1903, after Dootlittle

These engravings are particularly interesting, having a copyright date in the early 20th century.

copyright on the photoengraving

copyright on the photoengraving

publisher's mark

publisher’s mark

These photoengravings were sold by Charles E. Goodspeed, a Boston bookseller. This is one of a series of four done after Amos Doolittle (Connecticut, 1754-1832). Read more about them at the Concord Library‘s website.

Another special exhibition features photos of the Revolutionary generation, people who survived into their 80s and beyond and sat for a photograph, a brand new invention at the time. It’s amazing to see the faces of the men and women who lived through that period in history. I felt very connected to the past seeing those photos.

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Not only is the museum decorated with interior decorations salvaged or reproduced from area homes, they also have a series of period room scenes.

leaded glass window

Seventeenth-century leaded glass window saved from an area home

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

I especially enjoyed the  period rooms.  I love seeing how people lived in different times in history. Currently the museums has set up an early eighteenth century room; a mid-eighteenth century room; a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century lying-in chamber and an early nineteenth-century dining parlor. I learned quite a bit about how wealthy merchants in Concord lived at those times.

early 18th century room

An early eighteenth-century parlor/bedroom with original period furniture.

 mid-18th century room

Mid-eighteenth century bedroom/parlor with original period furnishings

 lying-in chamber

A late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century lying-in chamber for mother, baby and visitors

I really loved the attention to detail in each and every room. They copied the wallpaper and textiles from actual period furnishings.

Concord was also home to a number of furniture designers and manufacturers in the eighteenth century. The museum retains original period pieces made by local craftsmen.

Concord-made furniture

Concord-made furniture

 inlay clock

An inlay clock made by a local firm in the eighteenth century

There’s so much more to experience in this museum. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. I’ve been to Concord more times than I can count but had never been inside the museum until Saturday.