A Simple Coat Peg Tells a Story of Nantucket’s Tinsmith
It’s small, oddly shaped, has a screw-like quality at one end and a rounded nub at the other, and has a red and white gummed label adhered to it. People often ask, “What is that?” as they peer into the case to see some of the smaller items in the Mitchell House collection.
“That, is Peleg Mitchell’s coat peg,” we answer. Who is Peleg Mitchell and why do we have his coat peg? Peleg Mitchell Jr, like Maria Mitchell herself, was the youngest of ten children born to Peleg Mitchell Sr and his wife, Lydia Cartwright Mitchell in 1802. Peleg Mitchell Jr (Peleg) lived at 1 Vestal Street after Maria Mitchell’s family moved to the Pacific National Bank when she was 18. Her father, as bank cashier, was in charge of the entire bank and housing above the bank came with the position. Thus, when they moved out, William sold the home at 1 Vestal to his youngest sibling, Peleg; the MMA has the original bill of sale.
Peleg was a tinsmith. In fact, he and his partner James Austin were the only tinsmiths practicing at the time so they had a very busy shop. Think of tinware, in part, as the Tupperware of the time – tin was used for all sorts of things – lanterns, candleholders, food containers, colanders, graters, lanterns, boxes . . . it was fairly cheap, easy to fabricate quickly, and just plain ubiquitous. Peleg was a leader within the Friends (Quaker) meeting and with the schisms that occurred in the faith, he would become a Wilburite while his older brother William would become a Gurneyite. As a leader within the meeting, Peleg also hosted some smaller meetings at the house at 1 Vestal Street in the front sitting room. One of his (probably) many tinsmithing apprentices was one of his nephews, William Forster Mitchell, Maria’s younger brother. This tinsmithing background would help – in part – Forster (as he was referred to) assist in the founding of the Industrial Arts Department at Howard College – Howard University today – in Washington, DC. He and his Uncle Peleg must have been close after this apprenticeship as they also corresponded quite a bit when Forester was the superintendent of Haverford College. Their letters can be found in the Haverford archives – it was founded as a Quaker school.
Back to the coat peg. It is small object – but one of many that the MMA has in its collection at the Mitchell House that belonged to the family. Made of whalebone, it likely screwed into a panel somewhere in the house that was strapped to the plaster – serving as a special coat hook just for Peleg. The large gummed label was unfortunately but likely done in the early part of the twentieth century so that it wasn’t misplaced or someone in the family did not forget what it was and to whom it belonged. In any case, it was cataloged as part of the collection in the 1950s. The donor is unknown which may mean that it drifted about the 1 Vestal Street house a bit; the house became a museum in 1903 coming to the MMA directly from the family so anything that was in the house from Peleg’s and his wife’s time in it simply remained. I have a feeling this might have been still in its place in the wall into the 1950s before someone chose to remove it for safekeeping maybe while some conservation work was being done or so that someone didn’t paint over it or forget what it was and to whom it belonged.
If you have not been to the Mitchell at 1 Vestal Street – or not in some time – please stop by for a tour to see this artifact and hundreds of others! Mitchell House is open Monday – Saturday from 10-4 for guided tours in season. You’ll learn all about Maria, the Mitchells – including Peleg – and all about island history, Quaker history, and Nantucket women! We are open limited hours for September so please call ahead – 508.228.2896.
The MMA was founded in 1902 to preserve the legacy of Maria Mitchell and to promote her belief in learning-by-doing. An astronomer and natural scientist, as well as an educator, Maria Mitchell shot to worldwide fame when she discovered a comet in 1847. For her discovery, she was awarded a gold medal from the King of Denmark – the first American and first woman to receive the honor. She served as the Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Vassar College from 1865 until 1888. Today, the MMA operates two observatories, a natural science museum, an aquarium, and the birthplace of Maria Mitchell. The MMA conducts scientific research, leads classes and workshops for people of all ages year-round, and welcomes thousands of visitors to its museums and observatories. For details, visit www.mariamitchell.org.
The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847. It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820. Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea. I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels. I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world. My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well. Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic.” And to read more about Nantucket's daring daughters, check out my book The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women available at island bookstores and on Nantucket Chronicle's Marketplace.
Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999. She holds a Master’s in History. Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture. The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents. She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.