A Brief History of Thomas Edison’s First Visit to Chautauqua

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The Miller Cottage played an important role in the courtship between Thomas Edison and Mina Miller that eventually resulted in Mina accepting Edison’s marriage proposal.

In January 1885, while Mina was attending school in Boston, she met Edison for the first time when she first visited the apartment of her friend Lillian Gilliland, whose husband was a business associate of Edison. The editors of The Thomas A. Edison Papers have not found any correspondence mentioning that Mina had actually met Edison in January while visiting Lillian.  That is not surprising given that, at that time, Mina was secretly engaged to George Vincent, the son of the co-founder of Chautauqua. But, in an interview many years later with a reporter, Mina stated she was first introduced to Edison at a friend’s house in Boston but recalled only that he was a nice man and, at that time, she thought she would never see him again.

In May 1885, Mina received a letter from her friend Louise Igoe, who was also friends with Lillian and who later married Mina’s older brother. In her letter, Louise passed along an invitation from Lillian to come to visit her at her beach house in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Mina later recalled in an interview about her summer trip to Winthrop that Lillian had invited her go there for a week, she had written to her father asking him for permission to go, and while she was there, Edison had come to visit.

While traveling to Winthrop, Edison had purchased several journals for a diary to record his thoughts during his visit, which he believed were going to be read aloud to the other guests at Winthrop who were in a position to repeat what they heard to Mina. Throughout those journals, Edison indicated how highly he thought of Mina and her physical beauty. Edison’s daughter Marion later recalled in her memoirs that, while traveling with the Gillilands in early 1885, Edison had concluded that “he wanted a home, a wife and a mother for his three children and asked Mrs. Gilliland, who lived in Boston, to introduce him to some suitable girls.”  The Gillilands seem to have arranged Edison’s stay at Winthrop to introduce him to them, including Mina. Thus, parts of the diary could read as a courtship document directed at Mina.

The diary entries make clear that Edison courted Mina with the same doggedness and persistence that he employed in finding the perfect filament for the light bulb. Indeed, he was so overt that there was no doubt about his intentions. For instance, after writing that Louise was reading a love letter from Mina’s brother Robert, he observed that he too might have to start a post office romance as well.

After Mina left Winthrop, Edison made clear that he needed to see once again the woman he called the “Maid of Chautauqua” when he wrote his secretary on Aug. 11 that he was going to Chautauqua with Marion and the Gillilands. That was Edison’s first time visiting the Miller Cottage. Well aware of the impression he needed to make on Mina’s parents, Edison spent his time there speaking with her family. One fruitful discussion topic may have been that both Mina’s father and Edison had been included in a recently published book on famous inventors called How Success is Won. At the conclusion of his visit, Edison invited Mina to join him and his party to the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  By agreeing to the trip, Mina’s parents must have been impressed with Edison.

While they were in New Hampshire, Edison famously proposed to Mina in Morse code. As Mina later recalled in a newspaper interview, “One evening, after spending the day on top of Mount Washington, we were sitting around the hotel in the foothills. Mr. Edison wrote down for me the Morse code characters and by the next morning I had memorized them.” A little while later, Edison tapped out a “sacred” message, said Mina, which was “one of the steps that led to our marriage.” Edison’s daughter Marion later claimed to have witnessed Edison tapping the code in Mina’s hand, after which Mina blushed and nodded “Yes.” Thus, Edison’s visiting with Mina and her family at the Miller Cottage was likely the catalyst to his New Hampshire marriage proposal to Mina.

Alexandra Rimer is an assistant editor on the Thomas Edison Papers staff at Rutgers University. 

Alexandra Rimer

The author Alexandra Rimer