The Edison Family

Edison's Family

Samuel Edison and Nancy Elliott Edison (Parents of Thomas)

Samuel Ogden Edison, Junior, was born on August 16, 1804 in Digby, Nova Scotia, Canada. His grandfather John Edeson (which they pronounced Ae-di-son) was a Loyalist during the American Revolution and left New Jersey for Nova Scotia in 1784. Throughout his life Samuel changed work several times, from splitting shingles for roofs to tailoring to keeping a tavern. Sometime after his marriage, Samuel moved the family to Vienna, Ontario, where four of his seven children were born.

Ironically, Samuel Edison was not as loyal to the British crown as his grandfather. In 1837, he joined the Mackenzie Rebellion, a revolt inspired by democratic activist William Mackenzie in the south of Ontario. When the rebellion failed Samuel escaped to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life. His wife and children later followed him to Milan, Ohio (pronounced MY-lan), where they had three more children including Thomas Alva Edison, their seventh and last child. (The other children were: Marion, William Pitt, Harriet Ann, Carlile, Samuel and Eliza. Carlile, Samuel and Eliza all died in childhood.)

American-born Nancy Mathews Elliott married Samuel on September 12, 1828. Her father had been a Revolutionary War hero. Unlike her husband, she was a devout Presbyterian with some formal education. She put that education to good use. When “Al” left school, she taught him at home. Thomas Edison later remembered, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Nancy suffered from symptoms of mental illness late in life. She died in 1871, when her son was 24. Samuel lived long enough to watch his youngest son succeed. He supervised the building of the Menlo Park laboratory. Three weeks after Nancy Edison’s death, he started a new relationship with his 16-year-old housekeeper, Mary Sharlow. During their twenty years together they had three daughters. Samuel died in 1896 at the age of 92. “I am a master of smoking, drinking and gambling, ” he claimed. “I have smoked and drank whisky moderately when I needed it, and have known to let it alone.”

Lewis and Mary Valinda Miller (Parents of Mina)

Mina Miller Edison’s family was quite different from that of her husband. Her great-grandfather had served for the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Her mother supported the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her parents were devout Methodists.

Lewis Miller was born in Stark County, Ohio in 1829 and educated at Plainfield Seminary, Illinois. He married Mary Valinda Alexander in 1852. He earned 92 patents on agricultural equipment, his most famous invention being the Buckeye Mower and Reaper. Unlike his future son-in-law, Miller believed passionately in formal education and served as president of the board of education in his adopted hometown of Akron, Ohio.

In 1872, Miller had an idea to combine the evangelical camp meeting with Christian education. Two years later, along with the Reverend John Heyl Vincent, he founded the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York. Miller wrote, “The original scheme was a Christian educational resort . . . [where] pleasure, science, and all friends of true culture should go side by side with true religion.” He served as its president from 1874 until his death in 1899 at age 70. The Chautauqua Institute inspired several traveling lecture shows at the turn of the century. It still flourishes today and is open to visitors of all faiths.

Lewis and Mary had eleven children. As a result Glenmont, the Edison family estate, often hosted Mina Edison’s many nieces and nephews, who attended schools on the east coast. Mary died in 1912 at age 82.

Mary Stilwell Edison

Mary Stilwell was born in Newark, New Jersey on September 6, 1855, the daughter of Nicholas Stilwell and Margaret Crane. At his subsidiary, the News Reporting Telegraph Company in Newark, Edison had noticed the 16-year-old punching perforations into telegraph tape. She married the 24-year-old inventor on Christmas Day 1871. Even on his wedding day, Edison returned to his laboratory after the ceremony to work on the stock ticker. One story states that Edison worked late into the night, forgetting about his waiting bride.

W.K.L. Dickson, one of Edison’s “muckers,” wrote that Mary was “greatly beloved by the men in Edison’s employ” at Menlo Park. “They were proud of her–for she had been one of their own rank in the Newark shop and yet remained as gracious and friendly to them as ever.” Sadly, Mary’s health deteriorated and she died on August 9, 1884 at the age of 29. Although many books say that Mary died of typhoid, her death certificate states that she died of “congestion of the brain.” Mary and Thomas Edison had three children in their 13 years of marriage. However, since none of them had children of their own, there are no living direct descendants of Thomas and Mary Stilwell Edison.

Marion Estelle Edison Oeser

Mary and Thomas Edison’s first child was Marion Estelle, born on February 18, 1873. As a child, her nickname was “Dot,” a reference to the Morse code used to send messages on telegraphs. Between her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage, 12-year-old Marion spent a great deal of time with her father. He even sent her out to buy his cigars. She claims to have seen Edison propose marriage to Mina Miller using Morse code.

Marion boarded at Somerville Seminary in Somerville, New Jersey, and Bradford Academy in Bradford, Massachusetts. In 1895 she married Karl Oscar Oeser, a German army lieutenant, and lived in Germany even through the First World War. Although she described her marriage as “one long drawn out honeymoon,” it ended in divorce in 1921. She then returned to the United States, where she died on April 16, 1965.

The Edison Family

Thomas Alva Edison, Jr.

Thomas Alva, Junior, was born on January 10, 1876. Since his sister Marion was nicknamed “Dot,” he was nicknamed “Dash.” He boarded at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and the J.M.Hawkins School in Staten Island, New York. He married stage actress Marie Louise Toohey in a secret ceremony in 1899, but the marriage ended within a year. His next marriage, to Beatrice Heyzer, endured.

After selling the use of his name to advertise “quack” medicines and dubious inventions, his father asked Tom Junior to change his name. This he did, briefly going by the name of Thomas Willard. His efforts at inventing and, later, starting a mushroom farm failed. His father told a friend about his oldest son, “I never could get him to go to school or work in the Laboratory. He is therefore absolutely illiterate scientifically and otherwise.” He died on August 25, 1935

William Leslie Edison

William Leslie was born on October 26, 1878. Like his older brother, William boarded at St. Paul’s School, Concord, New Hampshire, and the J.M.HawkinsSchool on Staten Island. He later studied at the SheffieldScientificSchool at Yale. He married Blanche Travers. He served in the military during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and again in the First World War (though he wrote his father in 1918 in a failed attempt to get a discharge).

Relations between William and his father were strained. Edison once responded to a request for money from Blanche Edison by writing, “I see no reason whatever why I should support my son. He has done me no honor and has brought the blush of shame to my cheeks many times.” Like his brother he turned to farm life, breeding chickens. He died on August 10, 1937.

Mina Miller Edison

Mina Miller Edison

Mina (pronounced MI-na) was perhaps better prepared to be the wife of a famous man. By the time she met Thomas Edison, his name was already a household word. She had a more worldly education, having graduated from AkronHigh School and having attended Mrs. Johnson’s Ladies’ Seminary in Boston. Besides, her father was a millionaire inventor himself.

Mina Miller was born on July 6, 1865, the seventh of eleven children. She met Thomas Edison at the home of a mutual friend of her father and Edison, the inventor Ezra Gilliland. Her future husband claims he taught her Morse code so that they could converse in secret, even while the family watched. This is how Edison claims he proposed marriage and how she responded “yes.” The two married on February 24, 1886.

The couple moved into Glenmont, the Edisons’ new home, after their honeymoon in Florida. At age twenty, the new Mrs. Edison became a stepmother to Mary’s three children. It was not an easy task. She was less than ten years older than stepdaughter Marion. Although Mina tried to nurture her new family, Marion later described Mina as “too young to be a mother but too old to be a chum.” Her role as Mrs. Thomas Edison was also difficult: Edison frequently stayed late at the laboratory and forgot anniversaries and birthdays. Yet he seemed to love his “Billie.” A note found in one of Mina’s gardening books reads, “Mina Miller Edison is the sweetest little woman who ever bestowed love on a miserable homely good for nothing male (sic).”

As Thomas Edison supervised his “muckers” down the hill, Mina hired and supervised a staff of maids, a cook, a nanny and a gardening staff. She even called herself the “home executive.” After 1891 she, not her husband, owned the house. (This protected the house from being seized to pay Edison’s debts if he went bankrupt.) Here is a partial list of the organizations she belonged to: The Chautauqua Association (where she served as president of the Bird and Tree Club), the National Audubon Society, the local Methodist church, the John Burroughs Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution (she served for a year as its national chaplain), the School Garden Association of America.

Four years after Edison died, Mina married Edward Everett Hughes, whom she had met during the 1870s when their families both had summer homes in Chautauqua, New York. The two lived in Glenmont until Hughes died in 1940, when she once again adopted the name of Mrs. Edison. She lived at Glenmont until her death on August 24, 1947.

Madeleine Edison Sloane

Affectionately nicknamed “Toots” by her relatives, Madeleine Edison was born May 31, 1888, the first Edison child to be born at Glenmont. With her intelligence and sharp wit, she might well have been brought into the family business had she not been a female. She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania for two years.

Demonstrating typical Edison independence, Madeleine married John Eyre Sloane in the Drawing Room at Glenmont on June 17, 1914. Her parents were not pleased. They would have preferred their daughter to marry the son of an industrialist, not an aviator. Mina Edison was especially upset that her new son-in-law was a Catholic. Madeleine and John had four sons, who happened to be Thomas Edison’s only grandchildren from either marriage.

A lifelong Republican, she briefly ran for Congress in 1938 as a reformer. During World War II she gave much of her time to blood drives for the New Jersey Red Cross. She also administered the Edison Birthplace in Milan, Ohio after her mother’s death. In the 1950s she served on the Board of Directors for Western Union. She died on February 14, 1979, leaving an endowment to the Edison Birthplace.

Son Charles driving Edison around the Glenmont property

Charles Edison

Charles Edison was born at Glenmont on August 3, 1890. Charles graduated from the HotchkissSchool in Lakeville, Connecticut. He married, Carolyn Hawkins, whom he had et in 1912, at his parents’ winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, on March 27, 1918. He became president of his father’s company, Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated, in 1927. He ran the company until it was sold in 1959.

Charles is the best known of the Edison children because of his second career, in public service. In the mid-1930s he served in the cabinet of President Franklin Roosevelt–first as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, then as Acting Secretary. New Jersey voters elected him as their governor in 1940, but Charles broke a family tradition in the process — he ran as a Democrat. He proposed an updated state constitution for the state, but voters rejected it in a statewide referendum. However, his work inspired later New Jersey legislators to pass a modern constitution after Edison’s governorship. He also founded a charitable foundation that now bears his name, the Charles Edison Fund. He died on July 31, 1969.

Theodore Miller Edison

As a child, Theodore Miller Edison was called “the little laboratory assistant” by the family. He showed an early interest in science and performed many experiments at Glenmont. His father said, “Theodore is a good boy, but his forte is mathematics. I am a little afraid. . . he may go flying off into the clouds with that fellow Einstein. And if he does . . . I’m afraid he won’t work with me.”

Theodore Miller Edison was born at Glenmont on July 10, 1898. Edison was 51 when his son was born. He was named after a beloved brother of Mina who had just died in the Spanish-American War. He first attended the Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and then Montclair Academy in Montclair, New Jersey. Finally he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he earned his physics degree in 1923. He was the only member of the Edison family to graduate from college.

Despite Edison’s worries, Theodore did work for his father’s company after graduation. After starting as an ordinary lab assistant, he worked his way up to technical directory of research and engineering for Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Much later, he founded his own company, Calibron Industries, Inc., and built his own smaller laboratory in West Orange. He earned over 80 patents in his career. In 1925 he married Anna Maria Osterhout, a graduate of Vassar. In later years he became an ardent environmentalist, opponent of the Vietnam War and advocate of Zero Population Growth. He lived in West Orange with his wife Anna until his death on November 24, 1992.