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Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ

Edison in 1878

Paul Israel is the Managing Editor of the multivolume documentary edition of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University and the coauthor of Edison's Electric Light. The following quotes are from his book, Edison - A Life of Invention, Copyright 1998, published by John Wiley & Sons.

Page 121: The laboratory building was a rather unassuming white, two story frame structure, surrounded by a white picket fence and located on the crest of a hill about 200 yards from the railroad station. Reporters described it as "looking, for all the world, like a country-meeting house, minus the steeple, and with the addition of a porch" and as "a country school house pulled out three times its length".

Page 121-122: As unpretentious as the laboratory's exterior appeared on first encounter, the village of Menlo Park itself seemed even less auspicious to visitors. One journalist characterized it as "the merest hamlet - half a dozen houses in shades of ochre and chocolate, and of the usual suburban type"... Although it was a failed development, Menlo Park exhibited some of the features of a more finished suburb with its position on the railroad line twelve miles from Newark, its broad, laid-out streets, and its community park.

Page 122: Menlo Park's advantages over the city were nicely captured by a reporter for the Newark Daily Advertiser:
Mr. Edison has probably made a very wise selection for his field of operations. He
is not hampered by the noise and confusion of a large city, while near enough to
reach one in a short time. It is singular that Menlo Park has attracted so little attention:

as a building site it has not equal between Newark and Philadelphia. It is
so high as to command a view of New York and Brooklyn, with a rolling surface,
good soil and water, and an atmosphere pure and invigorating. Perhaps its falling
into the hands of land speculators a few years ago may have injured its prospects, as
it has at present but nine dwelling houses.

Page 122-123: The Edison house in Menlo Park, described by one reporter as "one of the best,--comfortable, but without a trace of ostentation," appears in photographs as a substantial three-story house, with a spacious front porch, sitting on a large plot surrounded by a white picket fence... Living in the house with Thomas and Mary were their children, four-year-old daughter Marion and three-month-old son Thomas Alva Jr. (nicknamed Dot and Dash by their father), Mary's sister Alice, and three black servants; in October 1878 the Edisons had their third child, William Leslie. Edison's father Samuel returned to Port Huron, but at some point Mary's fifteen-year-old brother Charles moved to Menlo Park to work in the laboratory and probably lived with the family. When Edison's nephew Charley joined his uncle in the laboratory he probably lived with the family as well. Edison's closest associate, Charles Batchelor, bought a home in Menlo Park for his wife Rosanna and his two daughters, two-year-old Emma and two-month-old Rosa; they apparently shared this house with John Kruesi and his wife. Nothing is known of the living quarters for the rest of the laboratory staff, which included James Adams and Charles Wurth.

Page 123: Edison seems to have been quite happy in his new home, inviting a friend to come strawberrying in "the prettiest spot in New Jersey." Charles Batchelor, too, considered Menlo Park to be "a beautiful country place where... we all feel considerable benefit from the change." Nevertheless, to calm his wife, he kept "one big Newfoundland dog and two smaller ones and a seven shooter under my pillow nights.'' Mary Edison also found the isolation of Menlo Park menacing, especially as her husband continued to work nights, and daughter Marion remembered that her mother also "slept with a revolver under her pillow" because her father frequently did not come home "until early morning or not at all."

Page 123: Initially the small laboratory staff was supplemented by a larger group of men who worked in Ezra Gilliland's electric pen factory, which Edison had moved from Newark into a building located near the Menlo Park railroad station in late April. To accommodate the growing number of single men working at the laboratory by October 1878, and perhaps to provide more female companionship for his wife, Edison invited the recently widowed Sarah Jordan and her thirteen-year-old daughter Ida to Menlo Park. "Aunt Sally" (Mary's father's stepdaughter from his first marriage) set up a boardinghouse for the single men who worked at the laboratory. The domestic space of the boardinghouse, along with the nicely furnished homes of Edison and Batchelor, provided a distinct contrast to the laboratory and factory. The laboratory, as a place of work, was sparsely furnished except for chairs and workbenches; instead of domestic bric-a-brac on the walls there were bottles of chemicals, and the tables held laboratory instruments rather than candlesticks and fine china. The distinction between female and male environments was preserved within the boardinghouse, where Sarah and Ida's more elaborately furnished parlor and living quarters were off limits to the workmen who lived in spare bedrooms.

Page 124: Although the laboratory was only a short block from his home, Edison usually did not go home for meals; when she was old enough his daughter would bring him something, or he would order in late-night snacks and beer from the local tavern. On days off he might go fishing (his favorite recreation) with the laboratory staff rather than spend time at home.

Page 200-201: Although Edison continued to operate his laboratory at Menlo Park after 1880, he spent relatively little time there. He usually relied on Ott and Thomas Logan, who oversaw the machine shop, to conduct experiments at the laboratory. Charles Hughes, who was in charge of the electric railway work at Menlo Park, conducted the experiments on preserving fruit in a vacuum that were being funded by George Gouraud. The laboratory also served as a lamp testing facility, and the lamp factory was located in the old electric pen factory at Menlo Park. When the factory moved to larger quarters in East Newark (later Harrison), New Jersey, in the spring of 1882, the testing department went with it. The last hurrah for the Menlo Park laboratory was during the spring and summer of 1882, when Edison briefly made it his headquarters again. By the end of September, however, Edison decided to close the laboratory permanently and establish a new one on the third floor of the building recently purchased for Bergmann & Company at Avenue B and 17th Street in New York City.

Page 232: During the summer, however, Edison began to spend much of his time in the city, attending to the completion of the Pearl Street central station, and after the station opened he moved his family and office back to New York City. Life at Menlo Park had not been the same. The work of the laboratory had largely been transferred to the shops and the lamp factory had been moved to East Newark. The rural New Jersey village must have seemed even more lonely and isolated to Mary and probably held few attractions for her husband either. In September Edison took a two-year lease on a house at 25 Gramercy Lane, where he moved his family as well as the library from his Menlo Park office. He also decided to move his personal laboratory from Menlo Park to the top (fifth) floor of Bergmann & Company's new building at the comer of Seventeenth Street and Avenue B, leading Insull to write Batchelor, "Do you not think this looks very much as if he will never go back to Menlo Park again?" Although Edison told lnsull that the move "was in consequence of the necessity of his being close to the central station. In the next breath he said he would never come near the city if it was not for the women constantly bothering him to do so. Johnson and myself are of the opinion that he wants to come in just as much as the women do."

Page 233: For a variety of reasons, the Edisons remained in Menlo Park only a short time after Mary's death [8/9/84] before moving back to New York City, where they lived in a large flat at 39 East 18th Street with the very affordable rent of $1,300 per year. The Menlo Park house had been very much Mary's home and Edison's decision to leave Menlo Park was due in large measure to her death. There were, however, very practical reasons for moving as well. Edison's laboratory as well as his business operations were all in New York City. Most important, perhaps, the Menlo Park property was entangled in legal complications.
The note that Edison had given Harrington in December 1874 had subsequently ended up in the hands of William Seyfert's wife, who sued Edison for payment. Edison refused to settle because he believed that the investors in Automatic Telegraph had not intended to hold him personally responsible for the note. To avoid having his Menlo Park property sold to the sheriff, he had placed it in Mary's name, but her death had upset those plans. He tried to claim that the laboratory was actually the property of the Edison Electric Light Company. He may also have tried to escape the clutches of New Jersey justice by moving to New York City. However, all of his efforts proved unsuccessful and the property was sold at a sheriffs auction, where it was bought by Charles Batchelor.

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Last updated by Jim Halpin on 6/14/99.

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