These documents, which cover the period February-November 1920, consist of letters and telegrams from Mina Miller Edison to her youngest son, Theodore. They were written during the second semester of Theodore's freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the first semester of his sophomore year. Theodore also spent most of the summer of 1920 in Cambridge, and some of the letters date from that period. Many of the items contain a notation by Theodore indicating why he thought the letter worth saving.
Five of the twenty-two letters were written while Mina and Thomas were vacationing at Seminole Lodge, their winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, during March-April 1920. In one letter Mina observes that for the first time in thirty-four years she and Thomas are by themselves at Seminole Lodge without other family members or guests. There are also comments about the rapid growth of Fort Myers"Every body is so daft upon selling real estate down here they say anything to advertise"and about Mina's disdain for the "low people" who "arrive in flocks to want to ruin it all." She remarks in one letter that "Papa is rapidly becoming a 'small frog in a big pool.'" The same letter mentions a proposal to build a road in front of their house, which would cut off their view of the river. Another letter mentions Mina's attempts to "awaken interest in the civic conditions here" and her frustration at how difficult it is "to get people interested in any thing that is not personal or that does not touch them directly." There is also discussion of several recent accidents involving airplanes, including one in which three men from Fort Myers were burned to death.
The correspondence contains occasional comments about Theodore's studies at MIT and the role that Thomas Edison played in his son's education and selection of courses. In one letter, for example, Mina informs Theodore that "Father says for you to take analytical chemistry and mineralogy. . . . Those are subjects that he has found useful." In another letter, she tells him that Father feels that he should spend his extra time on physics rather than mineralogy "as he thinks you are more interested in Physics." There are also occasional remarks about the Number Six Clubthe MIT chapter of the Fraternity of Delta Psi, which Theodore joined during his freshman year.
Other topics discussed in the correspondence include a 73rd birthday luncheon for Thomas Edison sponsored by Edison Pioneers; marital problems between Mina's stepdaughter Marion Edison and her German husband Oscar Oeser, which led her to seek a divorce; the second (failed) pregnancy of daughter-in-law Beatrice Edison, which led Mina to contemplate the prospect of a Thomas A. Edison, III ("poor papa & poor us!"); the death of longtime family friend and Chautauqua co-founder John Heyl Vincent; a visit by Mrs. Elizabeth Floweree, the widow of Montana cattle baron and part-time Fort Myers resident Daniel A. G. Floweree; and efforts by Mina and Thomas to secure a summer house in the Watchung mountains for Charles and Carolyn Edison. There are also comments about Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, whom Mina did not hold in such high regard as did her husband. "I am not so much for the money side of it and big business," she remarks in one letter. "It is too much the nouveau riche." In addition, the letters contain several references to the impending presidential election, including Edison's public endorsement of Herbert Hoover for the Republican nomination in May and his support for Warren G. Harding in the November general election as the "the least of the two evils."
The seven letters written during the fall of 1920 deal mainly with the human consequences of the rapid reduction of the labor force at Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in response to a drop in phonograph sales. At the beginning of World War I, Thomas Edison had relinquished control of his industrial empire and had turned the management over to Charles. During the two years following the war, the septuagenarian inventor had continued to take a back seat, allowing his son to run the business. His decision to retake control of the company in late 1920 and the impact of that decision on Charles Edison, John V. Miller, and others at Thomas A. Edison, Inc. are the subjects of considerable commentary in Mina's correspondence. The letters are very critical of Thomas Edison for his refusal to delegate authority or allow the divisional system (initiated by Charles Edison and Stephen Mambert) to work. Mina's deep devotion to her son, which in her mind took precedence over loyalty to her husband, is also evident in the letters. "Charles is too sensitive and finely put together to stand it," she remarks in one letter, after recounting a dinner conversation during which Edison criticized his son mercilessly. In another letter that Theodore labeled as "Charles & Unc discouraged," Mina laments that "if only Papa would say nice things to him and Uncle John and all the others it would help considerably."
The letters also reveal that even before the downsizing began, Mina had been growing increasingly exasperated by her aging husband's erratic behavior and its effect on her own behavior. "He is getting harder and harder to control," she writes in May after a day of hunting for a summer house for Charles during which "Papa nearly drove me insane," taking her to "the most impossible houses" in "the most impossible neighborhoods." "I am really quite worried about myself," she adds, "for I cannot control very well my own annoyance with things." In the last letter from 1920, which Theodore labeled "in the dumps," Mina comments on the "strenuous" atmosphere at Glenmont, which she attributes to her "complaining & fault finding which has driven every one away." "Perhaps," she adds, "I can conquer myself and begin to quite down and be more companionable. I hope so."
Click here for a list, in Theodore Edison's handwriting, of all the letters sent by Mina Edison, October 1919-May 1924. Courtesy of the Chautauqua Institution Archives, Oliver Archives Center.