The Edison Connection

In the summer of 1885 inventor Thomas Alva Edison was a rock star in American culture.

An 1899 advertising poster for Edison's Concert Phonograph.
An 1899 advertising poster for Edison’s Concert Phonograph.

Americans admired his intelligence and strong work ethic. They revered him for inventing products that made the average American’s life easier and more enjoyable.

Advertising trade card for the Edison phonograph ca. 1910
Advertising trade card for the Edison phonograph ca. 1910

He was affectionately called “The Wizard;” reporters and photographers followed him wherever he went; and authors wrote imaginative stories endowing Edison with cartoon-like super-hero powers (at the bottom of this post you can read an example).

Advertising card for Edison's Vitascope motion picture process, 1897.
Advertising card for Edison’s Vitascope motion picture process, 1897.

In the summer of 1885 Edison was 38 years old. He was touring Mount Washington, New Hampshire with a party of friends, when a reporter asked him for a quote for his newspaper.

Thomas Edison, ca. 1880.
Thomas Edison, ca. 1880.

This was not an unusual occurrence; reporters were used to Edison spontaneously offering up heady scientific thoughts or pithy quotes for them to print.

Edison Quote Abstinence

But on this particular day, Edison took the newspaper reporter’s pencil and pad and wrote on it:

Miss Mina Miller of Akron, the most beautiful woman in Ohio, is today a guest of Mount Washington.

It was a stunning revelation: The Wizard of Menlo Park—known for being so focused on his work that he usually slept in his laboratory rather than going home to his family—had a romantic streak! But who was Mina Miller?

Mina Miller about the time of her marriage to Thomas Edison in 1886 when she was 20 years old.
Mina Miller about the time of her marriage to Thomas Edison in 1886 when she was 20 years old.

Mina Miller was the 19 year old daughter of Lewis Miller, co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution and an inventor himself. He had made a fortune designing and manufacturing farm equipment.

Lewis Miller, inventor and co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution.
Lewis Miller, inventor and co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution.

That summer Mina was one of Edison’s party touring Mount Washington. She had just graduated from a ladies’ boarding school in Boston and was pursuing her music studies when she met Edison through an introduction in a mutual friend’s drawing room. Edison fell instantly in love.

Mina Miller Edison, about 1906
Mina Miller Edison, about 1906

A widower, Edison had been married before to Mary Stillwell, a young woman who worked in his laboratory. An 1896 article in a Louisiana newspaper described his courtship of Mary:

Opelousas Courier 1896

While Edison’s first marriage may have had a very practical beginning, his second marriage was undoubtedly a love match.

Edison himself joked that he was so distracted by thoughts of Mina, he was almost run over by a street car. When Mina and the rest of the Miller family removed to Chautauqua Institution for the summer, Edison followed, determined to win Mina’s heart and the good opinion of her parents.

He taught her Morse Code so they could converse privately when other people were around. It was while they were riding in a motor car with friends that Edison tapped out his marriage proposal on the palm of Mina’s hand. She tapped out her acceptance.

Mina and Thomas Edison in their locomobile
Mina and Thomas Edison in their locomobile

Six months later they were married in Mina’s home in Akron, Ohio. Newspapers of the time described every detail, from the cost of the floral decorations, to a description of the extravagant wedding gifts they received.

Headline wedding

America embraced the new Mrs. Edison with the same spirit in which they admired Thomas Edison. Newspapers described her as “young and fine looking,” “vivacious,” “brilliant,” and “sweet.”

Edison proved to be a thoughtful and attentive husband, even though he still worked long hours on his inventions and many business endeavors. He built Mina a new home, which they named Glenmont. Mina decorated the home with exquisite taste and filled the rooms with music and friends.

Glenmont, the Edison's home in West Orange, New Jersey.
Glenmont, the Edison’s home in West Orange, New Jersey.

Because her father was a noted inventor, Mina knew the peculiarities of living with someone who worked when inspiration struck. When her husband spent whole days and nights at a time in his laboratory, Mina didn’t complain; instead, she slept on a cot near his workbench so she could be with him.

Thomas Alva Edison in his laboratory.
Thomas Alva Edison in his laboratory.

She was active in the Temperance Movement, and served on committees, councils, and boards for charities and civic causes.

Eleanor Roosevelt (third from left) and Mina Miller (far right) in 1934. They worked together on charitable endeavors.
Eleanor Roosevelt (third from left) and Mina Miller Edison (far right) in 1934. They worked together on charitable endeavors.

Mina also succeeded in one area where many others failed: She got Thomas Edison to take time off from his work and relax. They were frequent visitors to Chautauqua, and often stayed at the Miller cottage. They invited friends to stay with them, and entertained Henry Ford and his wife on a number of occasions.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the garden behind Miller Cottage, 1929.
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the garden behind Miller Cottage, 1929.

Edison, who never went to college, joined the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, and was a member of the “Edison Class” of 1930. No mention was made in the press about whether Mr. Edison walked with his class on Recognition Day.

C.L.S.C. banner for the Edison Class of 1930.
C.L.S.C. banner for the Edison Class of 1930.

The Edison’s happy marriage lasted 45 years until Thomas Edison’s death in 1931. Mina died in 1947.

Thomas Edison in 1913.
Thomas Edison in 1913.


Mina Miller Edison in her later years.
Mina Miller Edison in her later years.

They are buried side-by-side at Glenmont (now a property of the National Park Service), where thousands of people visit to pay their respects to the Wizard of Menlo Park and his brilliant wife.

Mina Miller Edison and Thomas Edison
Mina Miller Edison and Thomas Edison

Would you like to read more about Mina Miller Edison? Click here to visit Be sure to scroll to the end of the post where you can see some of the Edison family recipes. You can also download a very nice biography of Mina Miller Edison by John D. Venable that contains several seldom-seen photographs.

You can also learn more about Glenmont, the Edison’s home in New Jersey by following these links:

Here’s an example of some of the popular fiction written around the turn of the century featuring Thomas Edison in the story. Follow these links to read the 1898 serial, “Edison’s Conquest of Mars.”

Chapters 1 and 2

Chapters 3 through 5

Chapters 6 through 8

Chapters 9 and 10

Chapters 11 through 13

Chapters 14 through 16

Chapters 17 and 18

Chapters 19 and 21

Chapters 22 and 23

Chapters 24 and 25

A Tour of Chautauqua: The Teacher’s Retreat

Before there was a Chautauqua, there was a Teachers’ Retreat. The first meeting was formally named “The National Sunday School Assembly,” and it was held at Fair Point, New York on Lake Chautauqua in August, 1874. In years to come, people would refer to it as the first Chautauqua Assembly; but at the time, no one who attended the modest gathering of Sunday school workers could envision what it would eventually become.

John Vincent and Lewis Miller
John Vincent and Lewis Miller

That first assembly was a meeting to talk shop about Sunday schools. Attendees studied a “definitive” course of instruction, heard lectures on “subjects illustrative of the Bible,” and learned teaching skills. At the end of the three-week-long assembly, attendees took a written examination on Bible knowledge and Sunday school work.

In charge of it all was the Honorable Lewis Miller, a Sunday school superintendent from Akron, Ohio and Dr. John Vincent of the Methodist Church.

Dr. Vincent had long held the belief that Sunday school teachers must have appropriate training to be effective in leading their classes. As far back as 1864 he wrote a regular column in the Sunday School Journal, a monthly publication of the Methodist Church, advocating that ideal.

Banner for Sunday School Journal 1883


Together Dr. Vincent and Mr. Miller developed a plan to bring together a large group of Sunday school workers to study a proscribed course that included Bible lectures, ancient geography, and educational theory; and issue diplomas to those who passed a written exam based on the course work.

But it was Mr. Miller who is credited with the idea of holding the retreat in the woods, rather than in a city. He chose to convene the gathering in the Fair Point area on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in New York.

Old black-and-white photo of small boats on Lake Chautauqua off the shore of Fair Point with Point Chautauqua in the distance
Fair Point with Point Chautauqua in the background.


The main meeting place was out of doors where a platform had been set up in an open area that would eventually become Miller Park. Someone—maybe Mr. Miller himself—ironically called the gathering area the “auditorium” and the name stuck.

Blacdk and white photograph of several rows of flat plank wooden benches spaced outdoors among the trunks of tall trees.
The original Chautauqua meeting area


The Assembly opened on Tuesday evening, August 4, 1874, with a brief responsive service of Scripture and song, offered by Dr. Vincent. He later wrote about that memorable first meeting:

“The stars were out and looked down through trembling leaves upon a goodly well-wrapped company, who sat in the grove, filled with wonder and hope. No electric light brought platform and people face to face that night. The old-fashioned pine fires on rude four-legged stands covered with earth, burned with unsteady, flickering flame, now and then breaking into brilliancy by the contact of a resinous stick of the rustic fireman, who knew how to snuff candles and how to turn light on the crowd of campers-out. The white tents around the enclosure were very beautiful in that evening light.”

Old photo of of men and women in late 18th century dress, seated in Auditorium benches
An early photo of an audience gathered in the original Auditorium


The tents Dr. Vincent mentioned were erected at each of the four corners of the auditorium where the first Normal classes were held.

The Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut described how the Normal Class was conducted with precision.

“At eight o’clock the teachers of the different section-classes were called together for a conversazione concerning the subjects to be presented to the class. At ten o’clock one session of the Normal class was held for an hour. At 1:30 was a report and review of the morning lessons; and at two o’clock another session of the classes. The classes—for while all studied the same lesson there were four sections—each met in a tent. . . . Students were expected to attend the same tent regularly, but the instructors were changed daily from tent to tent. But, in spite of the rules, students would watch to see where favorite teachers entered, and would follow them.”

Black and white photograph of men and women seated in the Auditoriam amid the trees
An early gathering at the original Chautauqua Auditorium


The examination was held on the last day of the two-week program. There were fifty written questions: twenty-five on the topics of Sunday school and teaching; and twenty-five on the Bible.

Black and white photo of the open-air Auditorium from the back. The audience benches have backs on and they face a raised platform stage.
A later photograph of the Auditorium on the Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly Grounds. Still in the open air, the bench seats now have backs on them.


Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut wrote many times about the exam and how tough it was. Those “who passed the examination and received the diploma were not more than a tenth of those who attended the classes.”

The first year over 200 people sat down to take the fifty-question exam. After five hours of wrestling with the questions, 184 people completed the exam; but of those, only 142 actually passed the exam and received diplomas.

In 1875, the second year of the Assembly, 123 passed the exam; and two years later, more than 300 Sunday school workers received diplomas.

Each year the course-work expanded. By 1883 the teachers’ retreat offered lessons in languages, crayon sketching, paint, choir practice, clay modeling, sciences, as well as instruction in teaching different grades. A Ph.D. from Dickinson College delivered several lectures on psychology and taught practical ways teachers could use principles of psychology in their work. Almost every form of instruction for teaching was covered.

Black and white photograph of women standing at lab desks and shelves stocked with bottles and beakers
A Chautauqua chemistry class, 1885


The Teachers’ Retreat wasn’t just lectures and class work. Teachers attended concerts, competed in spelling bees, and compared notes while they mingled at receptions.

From year to year the subject matter expanded. By the time the Teachers Retreat celebrated its twentieth anniversary, the original premise of training Sunday school workers had become a small fraction of the Chautauqua University academic program.

In fact, the Teachers’ Retreat had evolved into a meeting of secular school teachers by 1885, as this ad in the Journal of Education shows.

1885 Advertisement from the Boston Journal of Education listing the program and benefits of attending the teachers' retreat.
Advertisement in an 1885 edition of the Boston Journal of Education


There was a practical reason for the Chautauqua Teachers’ Retreat to expand its offerings as it did. In the nineteenth century, Sunday schools were often the only education many American children received. Children who could not, for one reason or another, attend school, could regularly attend church; and it was there that many received their only instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, in addition to training in the Bible.

As its catalog of academic classes expanded, so did the student body. Enrollment in the teachers’ retreat doubled, then tripled. By 1918 more than 3,000 students were enrolled and the faculty numbered ninety instructors.

Black and white photo of a building with aa large front porch and gingerbread trim, set among tall trees.
Chautauqua Normal Hall as it appeared in 1895. The building was erected ten years earlier by the Alumni of The Sunday School Normal Classes.


Every year thousands of men and women left the Teachers’ Retreat and returned home with a new ideal of Sunday school work and an inspired plan for influencing others. Very quickly, Bishop Vincent’s office was overwhelmed with requests for information about the program and for teachers.

Newspapers helped spread the fame of Chautauqua. Click here to read an article in the New York Times published August 10, 1875, about the second Chautauqua Assembly.

Soon, “daughter” Chautauqua Assemblies were established in different parts of the country so more people could attend. By 1890 there were over 30 active Chautauqua Summer Assemblies, ranging from Southern California to Maine, from Canada to  England.

At the heart of each Assembly was the Teachers’ Retreat, where the best teachers learned their craft from Chautauqua’s visionaries and leaders, John Vincent and Lewis Miller.