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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Nantucket, Massachusetts

There once was a man from Nantucket . . . Or in this case, a woman visiting Nantucket. I’ve been too busy working in a museum to visit other museums. A family wedding brought me to the small island of Nantucket, off the coast of Cape Cod. For two and half days I crammed in as many museums and historical sites as I could.

I commenced with a self-guided walking tour up Main Street.

I found Thomas Turner Square with a dedication plaque dedicated to “Thomas Turner, son of Nantucket served on the ship Bon Homme Richard Killed in Action with H.M.S. Serapis September 23, 1779.” A reminder of Nantucket’s rich maritime history and how the locals honor their long history. The Bon Homme Richard was commanded by John Paul Jones and the battle with Serapis was when he uttered the famous line “I have not yet begun to fight.” Though the battle was won, the ship was lost and half the crew on both ships were killed. [1]

 

 

TurnerSquare
Thomas Turner memorial plaque

The plaque is on the side of the Pacific National Bank, which is a historic monument as well as a bank. The bank was incorporated in 1804 for the newly wealthy whalers. [2]

In 1830s William Mitchell served as bank cashier. The job came with living quarters on the second floor. William Mitchell moved in with his family, including his daughter Maria, a librarian at the Atheneum and astronomer. William and Maria set up a telescope on the roof, where she preferred to spend her evenings over boring dinner parties. In 1847 Maria discovered a comet and rocketed (pun intended) to fame. (More on her later).

PacificNationalBank

Pacific National Bank

Outside the entrance to the Mitchell’s apartment, William placed a stone marker to measure the angle of distance between true north and magnetic north.

TownsMeridanLine

Town’s Meridan Line plaque

TownsMeridanLine2

Meridan Line Stone

Just past the bank is a granite obelisk standing as a memorial to the Nantucket men who died in the Civil War. [3]

CivilWarMonument

Civil War Memorial

CivilWarMonument2

Civil War Memorial

The memorial was begun in 1874 using a stone from the recently demolished Round Top Mill. 73 Nantucket men died in the war, the first war Nantucket men participated in. Previously, the island was largely Quaker and the Quaker tradition of pacifism kept them out of previous wars. [4]

Slightly off the beaten path is the Fire Hose Cart House. I didn’t go in but I gather this is a museum of antique fire fighting equipment.

FireCartHouseNantucketFireCartHouse

Built 40 years after the great fire of 1846, this was an important building. You can read about it at the Nantucket Preservation Trust website.

Wandering along, I noticed this house out of place among the mid-19th century mansions.

17thchouse

The plaque on this house says it was built in 1690 for Christopher Starbuck. The Starbucks were among the founding families of Nantucket. I was impressed this simple wooden structure survived the great fire of 1846!  This house is an example of a lean-to style house.

The wild Nantucket landscape as it must have looked centuries ago.

Nantuckethillsvillage

Nantucketview Wild Nantucket Landscape

Heading back down Main Street, near the center of town is an example of what new whaling money could buy-this opulent mansion.

HawdenHouse

Hawden House 96 Main Street

William Hawden, a whale oil and spermaceti candle manufacturer and silversmith built this Greek Revival mansion for his family during the golden age of whaling. More about him later on.

Back in the center of town is the Nantucket Atheneum. It was built in 1847 after the great fire burned the original. Maria Mitchell was the first librarian.

Atheneum

Nantucket Atheneum

The Atheneum has a rich history and the previous structure was the site of abolitionist meetings. In 1842 the Atheneum hosted the second Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention and in 1850, Frederick Douglass spoke here. [5]

This concludes my initial walking tour but I will write about the rest of my trip in future posts.

 

Continue reading