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The Document File is primarily a collection of incoming letters addressed to Edison. There are also letters addressed to Charles Batchelor, William E. Gilmore, John F. Randolph, Alfred O. Tate, and other Edison associates. The letters frequently contain notations by Edison or his secretaries indicating the nature of the reply. Occasional drafts of outgoing letters can also be found in this file, along with unbound tissue copies (similar in character to the material in the General Letterbook Series) and a variety of other documents such as intra-office memoranda, reports, lists, circulars, and, occasionally, a laboratory sketch on the back of another document.
Most of the items in this collection were initially part of Edison's own correspondence files, which were maintained by his secretaries and stored in a series of cardboard "letter boxes." After Edison's death, the documents were transferred by archivists into folders and reorganized within each year according to subjects. Some additional items, not part of the original correspondence files, were subsequently added to the collection. All documents that received a substantive response from Edison have been selected, along with other letters that contain significant information about Edison, his laboratory and business associates, and their activities. Dockets, endorsements, and other secretarial markings appearing on the backs of letters have not been selected, except when they contain important information not appearing on the document itself.
Many of the letters for years 1887-1898 relate to the manufacture and marketing of Edison's improved phonograph and to legal and financial dealings among the various phonograph companies. Much of this material pertains to the business of the North American Phonograph Co., which controlled Edison's phonograph patents in the United States and Canada. This company served as the exclusive marketing agent for the phonograph in North America from its establishment in 1888 until Edison forced it into bankruptcy in 1894. There are also numerous items from the late 1880s and early 1890s regarding the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co., which produced and marketed Edison's talking doll. A substantial portion of the Document File for the late 1890s consists of documents relating to the activities of the Edison United Phonograph Co., which handled the phonograph business in Great Britain and Continental Europe.
During most of the period 1887-1898, Edison continued to maintain an interest in electric lighting and power, and there are many letters relating to the technical and commercial development of that technology. Among these are documents pertaining to the business of the Edison Machine Works, the Edison Lamp Co., and the Edison Electric Light Co., and to the affairs of various local illuminating companies, particularly the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of New York and the Edison Electric Light Co. of Philadelphia. There is also material regarding the organization and operations of the Edison General Electric Co., established in 1889, and its successor, the General Electric Co.
Other letters deal with mining and ore milling, the phonoplex system of telegraphy, electric traction systems, and the mimeograph. There is also correspondence pertaining to the technical and commercial development of motion pictures. Among the documents for 1896 are a sizeable number of letters concerning Edison's x-ray experiments. In addition to the business correspondence, there are documents relating to Edison's personal finances and to his family affairs. The "Edison, T.A. - Family" folders for 1897 and 1898 contain numerous letters by and about Edison's oldest son, Thomas A. Edison, Jr.
The items in the Document File are arranged by year and are subdivided into broad subject categories within each year. Many of the entries relate to technologies such as the phonograph, the electric light, and motion pictures. These technology folders are frequently subdivided (for example, "Electric Light - General," Mining - Surveys," and "Phonograph - North American Phonograph Co."). Documents that deal with more than one technology or that do not fall under any of the main technology categories are filed in the "Edison, T.A. - General" folder. Readers interested in a particular topic should consult the various "General" folders in addition to more specific subcategories relating to their interests.
Documents pertaining to various Edison technologies can also be found in other folders throughout the Document File. For example, the "Patents" folders contain correspondence to and from Edison's patent attorneys and agents. Thus, a letter concerning the status of a particular phonograph patent would be found in the "Patents" folder (rather than a "Phonograph" folder), along with other letters whose focus was on the patent rather than the technology. Other folders that frequently contain technology-related material include "Edison, T.A. - Articles," "Edison, T.A. - Outgoing Correspondence," "Exhibitions," and "West Orange Laboratory." Unsolicited (and, generally, unselected) letters relating to various technologies, as well as to a variety of other matters, are usually filed in one of the "Edison, T.A. - Unsolicited Correspondence" folders.
Although most Edison companies are categorized as subentries within a particular technology, a few companies appear as main entries because their activities embraced several technologies. For example, the Edison Manufacturing Co., which was involved in the manufacture or marketing of phonograph cylinders, motion picture equipment, the Edison-Lalande battery, and several other Edison products, is treated as a main entry rather than as a subdivision within the "Phonograph," "Motion Pictures," and "Battery" folders. Related material regarding the business of Edison's various companies can be found in the Company Records Series.
Undated documents pose an especially difficult organizational problem, since the filing system for the Document File requires the attribution of a year to each document prior to its placement in a subject folder. Undated documents that were likely generated within the year of attribution, along with others that present no compelling evidence of being misfiled, remain within the main run of dated folders. Thus, for each year of the Document File, there are numerous folders that contain one or more undated items following the chronological sequence of dated documents. On the other hand, undated documents for which no specific year can reasonably be conjectured are filed in an "Undated Documents" folder at the end of the run of dated folders for 1887-1898.
Incoming correspondence and other unbound documents can also be found in other series. See, particularly, the Company Records Series, Legal Series, Special Collections Series, and Vouchers and Attached Correspondence Series. Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.