59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum

A Finding Aid to the Nancy Luce Collection, 1840-1989, undated

Descriptive Summary

RepositoryMartha's Vineyard Museum
Gale Huntington Research Library
59 School Street
P.O. Box 1310
Edgartown, MA 02539
(508) 627-4441
Call NumberRU 410
TitleNancy Luce collection
Date [inclusive]1840-1989, undated
Extent1 box and 1 oversize folder (0.504 cubic feet)
LanguageThe materials are in English.
AbstractThis collection contains original letters, pictures, and manuscripts by Nancy Luce as well as newspaper articles written about her during her life and post-mortem. In addition to original Nancy Luce materials, this collection contains research and correspondence between Arthur Railton and Walter Teller about Nancy Luce during the writing and subsequent publishing of Teller’s book.

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

There are no restrictions to access.

Use and Reproduction Restrictions

Requests to reproduce this collection should be directed to museum staff. Reproduction fees may apply.

Preferred Citation

Martha's Vineyard Museum, RU 410, Nancy Luce Collection.

Acquisition Information

Some of the materials were acquired by the museum through the publication of Consider Poor I. The immediate source of acquisition and date of accession for the material is unknown.


Teller, Walter. Consider Poor I. Dukes County Historical Society: Boston, Mass. 1984.

Publication Information

Martha's Vineyard Museum

Gale Huntington Research Library
59 School Street
P.O. Box 1310
Edgartown, MA 02539
(508) 627-4441

Revision Description

 Addition to the Collection; Addition of Box 1, Folder 31: Poor Little Hearts [CJ] August 2015

Processing Information

Original processing was done by Jesse Landy, June-August 2012. Completion of processing and preparation and machine-encoding of finding aid was done by Nathaniel Janick, September 2014.

 Completion of this finding aid and machine-encoding was sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Related Materials

Related Material

See also:

  • Nancy Luce papers, Ms.Luce, Brown University Library.

Separated materials

Additional photographic materials can be found in the Martha's Vineyard Museum Photographic Archives, Envelope 745, Nancy Luce.

The museum also holds in its collection two gravestones for her chickens.

Biography/Historical Note

The following biographical note was taken from the biographical note of the finding aid to the Nancy Luce papers at Brown University:

Nancy Luce, daughter of Philip Luce, was born on Martha's Vineyard in the early 19th century, although the exact date of her birth is disputed. Her family was of modest means and fought to make ends meet in the face of chronic illness. Philip Luce, it seems, was soon forced to sell off portions of the family farm to pay his debts. By the time she was a teenager, Nancy herself was embedded in this cycle of decline, struggling desperately to keep the farm going while caring for her ailing parents. Her life soon spiraled into an ordeal of loneliness and suffering after her parents died, as her own chronic health problems emerged. Thus deterred from pursuing opportunities to advance herself, she instead became a noted local eccentric. Through her "hen-elegies," the free verse she wrote about the female chickens she kept as household pets, Luce achieved a certain notoriety. As Martha's Vineyard became a summer resort in the late 19th century, her reputation spread off-island. She herself became an attraction for curious visitors, to whom she sold eggs, along with pictures of herself and copies of her poems. She published her first book of verse, entitled Poor Little Hearts between 1860 and 1866. Complete editions of her poems were published in 1871, 1875 and 1888. Luce died on April 9, 1890, and remains a unique symbol of life on the Vineyard. Her grave site (ornamented with plastic chickens) is a local tourist attraction.

Scope and Content Note

The following scope and content note was taken from the original draft of the finding aid, before completion of processing:

This collection is a combination of primary and secondary sources accrued from various contributors relating to Nancy Luce (1814-1890) of West Tisbury, Massachusetts. The collection includes multiple letters to Edward Munro, the owner of a local general store, who Nancy bartered with for some goods to sell. This collection also contains some selections from her account books, illuminating more of her business dealings. Nancy wrote to Judge Jeremiah Pease to ensure that local youth would cease harassing her, but also making sure that this in no way dissuades visitors, who she relied upon for her lively hood.

This collection features many of Nancy’s manuscripts, which contain her poetry, hen-care advice, and prose. Initially, Nancy handwrote all of her manuscripts; though, as demand grew, she began having them typed and printed in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Besides the love she had for her hens, Nancy’s writing most often discussed her illness and constant harassment from neighbors. Her poor health, which is never mentioned by name, is most often discussed at length in the multitude of letters sent to Dr. W.H. Luce, no relation, featured in this collection.

Nancy’s love for her hens was featured heavily in her writing. Her poetry is most often focused on her hens and their death. Her love of her hens factored heavily into her celebrity. This collection features photographs of Nancy and her favorite hens that she would sell to visitors. Nancy’s love of her hens is emphasized in this collection by way of her letters to William J. Rotch Esq. William J. Rotch was the manager of Nancy’s estate, and he received strict instruction to make sure to bury her with her favorite hens by their gravestones in her yard. She was talked out of being buried on her land because of the possibility of foreigners buying it and was instead buried in her families plot. The hen’s gravestones were in turn passed around, on being used as a stepping-stone for many years, before being acquired by the museum.

Nancy’s poetry saw national publishing by the Duke’s County Historical Society with the writing of Walter Teller’s Consider Poor I: The Life and Works of Nancy Luce in 1984. This collection features the research and correspondences between Arthur Railton, then editor of the Duke’s County Historical Society’s scholarly publication,  The Dukes County Intelligencer. This research is especially important in illuminating Nancy’s true birth year of 1814. In his letter to Walter Teller on March 2, 1984, Arthur Railton discusses his findings that despite common belief and documentation that Nancy was born in 1820, 1850 census data indicates that she was in fact born in 1814. Walter Teller’s research also contains a series of hand written notes describing articles by and about Nancy Luce, which can be found in the bound copies of the Cottage City Star and the Vineyard Gazette in the archives. This collection also features a series of newspaper and scholarly articles discussing Nancy and her work.

This collection contains manuscripts, photographs, newspaper articles, artifacts, and research all relating to Nancy Luce.


The collection is arranged by form of materials, and therein, loosely chronologically with August 2015 additions following.

Collection Inventory


Nancy Luce correspondence to Dr. W. H. Luce, 1855-1866, undated 


Photocopied and transcribed Nancy Luce correspondence to Dr. W. H. Luce, undated 


Nancy Luce correspondence to Edward Munro, 1840-1842 


Photocopied and transcribed 1840-1842 Nancy Luce correspondence to Edward Munro, undated 


Nancy Luce correspondence to William J. Rotch, 1883-1887, undated 


General corresondence from or related to Nancy Luce, 1865-1887, undated 


Photocopied and transcribed 1865-1893 general corresondence from or related to Nancy Luce, undated 


Nancy Luce poetry manuscripts, 1859-1874, undated 


Photocopies of Nancy Luce poetry manuscripts, undated 


A Complete Edition of the Works of Nancy Luce of West Tisbury, 1871, 1875, 1888 


Poor Little Hearts, 1866, 1969 


Photocopy of 1870 Nancy Luce letter to the Editor of the Vineyard Gazette, undated 


Miscellaneous Nancy Luce accounts, 1864, undated 


Reproductions of materials held at Brown University Library, undated 


Carte-de-visites and postcards of Nancy Luce, 1868-circa 1900 


Stereoviews of Nancy Luce, circa 1870-circa 1900 


Arthur Railton research materials on Nancy Luce, circa 1984 


Walter Teller research materials regarding Martha's Vineyard Museum collection of published Nancy Luce works, circa 1984 


Walter Teller Consider Poor I research materials, circa 1984 


Walter Teller correspondence to Arthur Railton, 1983-1985, 1989 


Arthur Railton correspondence to Walter Teller, 1984 


General correspondence related to Consider Poor I, 1983-1984, 1989 


Photocopied clippings from Nancy Luce's lifetime, undated 


Photocopied clippings from after Nancy Luce's death, undated 


Poor Nancy Luce by Ben C. Clough, 1949 


Manuscript and published Dukes County Intelligencer article, "Nancy Luce," by Gale Huntington, 1969 


Walter Teller articles and extracts regarding Nancy Luce, 1966, 1972 


Atlantic Monthly article and Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine article, 1892, 1925 


Nancy Luce who lived on the island of Martha's Vineyard…, undated 


Consider Poor I book reviews, 1984-1985 


Nancy Luce poem about deceased hen Ada Queta, 1858 August 

OS GEN 106

Poor Little Hearts, 1969 
Author/Creator:  Luce, Nancy


Reprint by Dukes County Historical Society, originally written in 1860.