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These documents consist primarily of letters, telegrams, and postcards from Mina Miller Edison to her youngest son, Theodore. Also included is one letter from Mina to Anna Maria (Ann) Osterhout, whom Theodore met in January 1924 and to whom he became engaged in July, along with a few letters and telegrams by Theodore. The first thirty-four items were written while Theodore was living in Boston, completing his graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The next eleven items, dating from late June through late July, are addressed to Theodore at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he was vacationing with Ann and her family. One letter encloses a clipping from the Newark Evening News announcing the engagement. Mina's last ten communications to Theodore, addressed to him in West Orange, were written from upstate New York and from various locations in New England, where the Edisons were vacationing in August with the Ford and Firestone families. The notations "Save" or "Scrap" in Theodore's handwriting appear on most of the envelopes.
The five letters from January discuss plans for the Edisons to join the Fords in a celebration at Longfellow's Wayside Innan historic tavern and lodge in Sudbury, Massachusetts, that Henry Ford had purchased a year earlier. Mina's resentment at Ford for planning such events without taking her own schedule into consideration is evident in the correspondence. "I don't think that I can stand any more of the Fords without exploding," she complains in one letter. "I feel like saying to Father dear, take either me or the Fords. This thing of our just moving as they say is getting on my nerves." (The event was subsequently postponed until August because of Mrs. Edsel Ford's appendix operation.)
A letter from February 29, written two days after Mina and Thomas arrived at Seminole Lodge, their winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, contains the first mention of Ann Osterhout. There is also a reference to Julia McGregor McGuire, a young lady whom Theodore had previously been dating and whose mother had grown up with the Miller children in Akron. The same letter includes remarks, both positive and negative, about Mina's house guests at Seminole LodgeHal and Grace Miller Hitchcock, Will and Mary Miller Nichols, Edith Edison Potter, and Elizabeth Miller. There are also references to Harvey Firestone, who arrived at Fort Myers in mid-March with company vice president Amos C. Miller and two rubber experts, and to Henry Ford, who could not come down to Florida because of a lawsuit in which he was involved.
The last letter from Fort Myers, as well as the two letters written while Mina was in Washington, D.C., in mid-April, discuss her intention to resign as chaplain-general of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Mina had been elected to a three-year term in 1923 with the understanding that it would be largely an honorary position. However, she grew frustrated by the amount of time her duties were taking, with the annual Congress in April forcing the Edisons to cut short their vacation in Florida. As Mina explained to Theodore, "it cuts right into our time down here and father dear does not like it. His years are too short to have separations of this unnecessary kind. When he plays I like to play with him." In a letter written the day after their return to West Orange, Mina notes how happy Thomas looks now that she has given up the DAR, adding "I guess he thinks that I have neglected him." Despite her claim that she was now a "retired lady" and that "home is to be my field from now on," the letters indicate that Mina remained active in several organizations after her return to West Orange, including the local chapter of the DAR, the Women's Guild of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Playground and Recreation Association of America.
Beginning with a letter from May 23, the correspondence contains extensive remarks about Ann Osterhout, whom Mina initially seems to have regarded as a rival for Theodore's affections. "I am afraid dearie that I am no longer your best girl," she laments in a letter from late May, adding that she knows "it is natural and I must understand." The letters contain derogatory comments about the spouses of Thomas Edison's other children, with Carolyn Edison mentioned several times specifically by name. Mina also writes about her husband's alleged disappointment in his children's choice of partners, quoting him as saying "I do hope that we will get one good one in the family." Mina warmed up to Ann after meeting her and her family at Cambridge in June, but she faulted her future daughter-in-law for smoking and for not being a churchgoer. (She also criticized her own children for not being more religious.) Mina disapproved of Ann's desire to postpone marriage in order to attend medical school at Johns Hopkins University and advised Theodore on strategies to persuade her to change her plans. Mina's traditional ("old fashioned") ideas about gender roles and her suspicion of career women ("the modern girl") and modernity in general are evident in the letters from this period. "Is the modern method bringing happiness into the home," she asks in one letter, ". . . Or is it undermining the home? . . . Are we living true American ideals or are we following the French, the English, the foreign thought?"
Insights into the health, personality, and business activities of Thomas Edison can also be found in the correspondence from 1924. By January the seventy-seven-year-old inventor had recovered from the illness that had marred his stay at Seminole Lodge the previous year, and Mina pronounced him in February to be "in fine health and spirits. . . . Quite himself again." A letter from March 14 notes that "he seems fine but tires easily." The same letter contains a lengthy discussion of various personality types, with Mina characterizing her husband as having "a slow temper but an unforgiving one, not vindictive but just thorough." Another letter comments about Edison's legendary story-telling abilities. "With father dear, one can just start him off and everybody is fascinated in listening to him." There are also remarks about Edison's flirtatious relationship with Nellie Smith, the widow of druggist and dry goods merchant Albert Dodge Smitha topic first broached in the 1923 correspondence. "[She] probably thinks that father is bewitched by her," Mina says in one letter, "which perhaps he is. He certainly falls for the ladies." Edison's deafness is mentioned in one letter in which Mina laments how her husband's disability prevents her from going to as many society events as she would like. "Papa and I are like two old sticks," she writes. Among the business-related topics discussed in the correspondence are the resignation of Stephen B . Mambert as president of the Edison Portland Cement Co. in February (Mina regretted that he "did not part in a friendly way"); Edison's work on a starter battery for Henry Ford and Mina's assistance in his research; the absorption of the Edison Phonograph Works by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in July; and Mina's belief, expressed in several letters, that her husband should enter the radio business in order to save his declining phonograph business.
The letters written by Mina during her summer vacation in New England contrast the comfort and charm of the rustic Wayside Inn, with the noise and bustle of the automobiles and crowds outside. "The peace of this country is destroyed as every where by the tooting of horns and auto-trucks," she laments in one letter. "One can go nowhere now and find peace. Autos everywhere." Another letter complains about how the vacation arrangements are all "run by Mr. & Mrs. Ford and father says nothingjust lets everything slide." Mina's dislike for Henry Ford (whom she calls "absolutely a nut") and his wife Clara is evident in her characterization of the couple as "the most self-centered pair that I ever met." She had an even less favorable opinion of Harvey Firestone, who she believed was crassly capitalizing on her husband's popularity to engage in shameless self-promotion. "He is the greatest man for trying to get into the public eye of anyone, outside of Hutch, I ever knew," she writes, comparing him with Edison's former chief engineer Miller Reese Hutchison. "He is a Hutch." Also included in the vacation letters are references to the Edisons' trip through the Berkshire Mountains, "going over the same route that we did 39 years ago"; Mina's visit to the Harvard University Observatory, where she met director Harlow Shapley, who struck her as "a little egotistical and important"; her recollection of another visit forty years earlier when the late director Edward Charles Pickering had "showed us the heavens"; a trip, arranged by Firestone, to Pres. Calvin Coolidge's summer home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (to which Mina and the other women in the group were not invited); and a meeting between Mina and Alice Mary Longfellow, oldest daughter of poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Other topics mentioned in the correspondence include a ceremony in May at New York University's Hall of Fame during which Edison unveiled a bust of scientist Joseph Henry; a biography of Lewis Miller that Grace Miller Hitchcock was writing in cooperation with Dr. Ellwood Hendrick (published in 1925 as Lewis Miller: A Biographical Essay); a two-week visit to Glenmont in June by Mina's sister-in-law Cora Miller and her niece Margaret; a problem with Mina's toe that she felt would necessitate an operation; Mina's interest in the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention (June 24-July 9), which she listened to on the radio; a Fourth of July accident in which Thomas and Mina both burned their hands playing with fireworks; and Mina's desire to hire Canadian gardener and horticulturalist W. Ormiston Roy do some landscaping projects for her. In addition, there are references to a romance between friend Lucy Bogue and a man whom Mina calls "that crazy Schmidt"; the sudden death of nephew Charles Edison Poyer's baby in January; the wedding of Charles Edison's friend, former classmate, and business associate Charles Sumner Williams in May; the breakup of the marriage of Llewellyn Park neighbors George W. Merck and Josephine Wall; and the legal problems of Llewellyn Park neighbor Robert Franks, Jr., who pleaded guilty to handling stolen bonds in March and was given a suspended sentence in May.
As with all the letters written by Mina during this period, there are numerous indications of her insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. In her first letter, written shortly after Theodore's return to MIT from the Christmas holidays, Mina notes that all her life she has had love, attention, and admiration without effort on her part. "But now my attractions are diminishing, which were mostly looks, and I find myself floundering. Re-adjusting! It comes hard." Another letter, written after Mina and Theodore had a falling-out during a visit to MIT, laments that "my life is such a failure and I am such a mill stone to everybody. . . . If I could only be contented to be a non entity but I am always kicking against it, struggling to make others think I am important."
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.