Thomas Edison National Historical Park preserves Thomas Edison’s laboratory and residence, Glenmont, in Llewellyn Park in West Orange in Essex County, New Jersey, United States. For more than 40 years, the laboratory had a major impact on the lives of people worldwide. Out of the West Orange laboratories came the motion picture camera, improved phonographs, sound recordings, silent and sound movies and the nickel-iron alkaline electric storage battery.
Thomas Alva Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey research laboratory and Glenmont, the Victorian mansion where he lived, are preserved today as part of Thomas Edison National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park Service.
Thomas Edison’s home and laboratory are a step back in time, when machines were run by belts and pulleys and music was played on phonographs. Where to the passerby, the buildings betray little evidence of the industries they once started. Discover where America’s greatest inventor changed our world forever.
The museum collections at Thomas Edison National Historical Park are by far the largest single body of Edison-related material extant. They are the product of Thomas Alva Edison’s sixty-year career as an inventor, manufacturer, businessman, and private citizen. The collections are divided into three broad categories: History artifacts, archives, and natural history and comprise holdings at both the Laboratory complex and the Glenmont Estate. The sheer size of the holdings is daunting: the history collection is currently estimated to number over 300,000 items, while the archives contain approximately five million documents. The Natural History Collection consists of plant specimens collected from the Glenmont Estate as part of a 1995 plant inventory. In total, it is the third largest museum collection in the National Park Service.
At the corner of Main Street and Lakeside Avenue in West Orange, New Jersey stands a group of red brick buildings. To the passing motorist the buildings betray little evidence of their glory days and of the people who worked inside. A short distance away is Glenmont, Thomas Edison’s estate. Together, the laboratory and residence preserve the work and character of America’s foremost inventor, Thomas Edison and the family, friends and business associates who played a key role in his success.
In 1886 Edison purchased Glenmont and the next year began construction of his West Orange research and development complex. For the next forty-four years Edison used his laboratory for research in electricity, chemistry, and metallurgy. Here inventions were developed and, once perfected, placed into mass production at the factory buildings that surrounded the research laboratories.
Among the products developed at West Orange were: the Edison disc phonograph; improved cylinder phonographs; the Ediphone (a dictating machine); the nickel¬iron-alkaline storage battery; the motion picture system, the kinetophone; improved electrical generators and meters; and the Edicraft line of household appliances. The world’s first building constructed as a motion picture studio, the Black Maria, was part of the laboratory complex from 1893 until 1903.
Laboratory employment reached its high point about 1912 when staff of more than two hundred worked with Edison in the laboratory buildings. The extensive factory complex surrounding the laboratories employed many more, reaching a peak of about ten thousand in 1919-1920. Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and later McGraw-Edison, manufactured Edison products for almost forty years after the inventor’s death in 1931.
Today the National Park Service preserves the Edison laboratory including the chemistry lab, machine shop, and library where Edison conducted his research. There is also a replica of the Black Maria, where motion pictures were born. The Edison home, Glenmont, is located on a fifteen-acre estate in Llewellyn Park, the country’s first private residential community. Built in 1880, the twenty-nine room mansion contains the original furnishings and family items used by Thomas and Mina Edison. The estate grounds include gardens, greenhouse, barn, and the poured concrete garage containing the family’s automobiles. Thomas and Mina Edison are buried on the grounds of the estate.
The Glenmont Estate is located in Llewellyn Park, a planned community begun in 1853 (platted in 1857) by Llewellyn Haskell. With assistance from Alexander Jackson Davis, landscape architects Eugene Baumann and Howard Daniels, and others, Haskell created a picturesque residential suburb that included curvilinear roads, native and exotic trees, and rustic architecture. Llewellyn Park Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is considered the country’s first planned residential community and is significant for its landscape architecture, community planning and development, and architecture. Even though trees on the edges of the Glenmont property dated 1845 predate development of Llewellyn Park, they were purposely incorporated into its plan of keeping native trees which contribute toward the naturalistic and picturesque styles of landscape design.
The Glenmont grounds remained undeveloped until Henry Pedder purchased the property in 1879. New York architect Henry Hudson Holly designed Glenmont for Henry C. Pedder who spared no expense to furnish it in opulent Victorian style and hired the noted New York firm of Pottier and Stymus to decorate it. During construction of Glenmont, the first owner Henry Pedder made significant improvements to the surrounding landscape. From 1880 to 1882, Pedder commissioned Nathan Franklin Barrett to lay out the Glenmont grounds. With the exception of the mature vegetation along the periphery of the property, the Glenmont grounds were largely open in character in the 1880s.
Shortly after completion of the house, trees and shrubs were planted to enhance the beauty of the grounds, frame views, and screen service areas. Deciduous and evergreen trees (mostly maples, beeches, ash, oaks, Norway spruce, and white pine) were thoughtfully laid out along the paths and drives, while others were arranged in groups. Various evergreen and deciduous trees were planted around the service areas, intended to screen the less desirable views. Single specimen trees, primarily located in the south and west lawns, were placed near the house and admired for their beauty. Specimen trees found on the property included a Nordmann’s fir, copper beech, weeping beech, weeping cherry, weeping spruce, paulownia, and Sargent weeping hemlock.
Thomas Edison purchased Glenmont in 1886. Mina Miller Edison, wife of Thomas Edison, assumed the lead role in the management and operation of the Glenmont grounds.
Thomas Edison resided at Glenmont, his 29 room Victorian mansion, for over half of his lifetime. Its architect, Henry Hudson Holly, is considered to be the father of the Queen-Anne style architectural movement in the United States. Holly’s crowning achievement, Glenmont, was part of a working estate which presently contains six outbuildings, including a barn and a greenhouse. Examples of Thomas Edison’s poured concrete structures, the auto garage and the potting shed, are also still in existence.
The interior of the fully furnished Victorian home is a rare example of Pottier & Stymus interiors, a New York decorating firm that lost the majority of its records in a catastrophic warehouse fire in the year 1888. Glenmont’s interiors display rare examples of the firm’s modern Gothic style furniture suites and also include decorative arts objects chosen by the company to outfit this home in in Victorian style. The Edison family appreciated the original interiors, consequently making only minimal changes to the home’s decoration during their residency.
Glenmont’s period rooms reflect examples of the era’s Eastlake style and Aesthetic Movement style interiors. The first floor library boasts hand stenciled walls in flat, stylized floral patterns with a ceiling of distemperment. Tall case cabinets store leather bound volumes.
The decorative arts collection at Glenmont ranges from major works of art and sculpture to everyday objects. The collection, consisting of 40,000 items, includes remarkable examples of Hudson River School artists, Tiffany & Co. clocks, French porcelains, and Persian rugs.
Examples of more utilitarian collection items include the Edison china collection, still housed in the historic Butler’s Pantry, the household linen collection, family toiletry items, books, and household receipts that detail purchases made by the Edison family. These vouchers reveal to us the Edisons’ choice of household products and also their spending habits.
The Glenmont collection also includes rare examples of Edison family memorabilia such as photographs, awards, and family mementos. Examples of Edison inventions are also represented. These artifacts offer us valuable information about Edison’s private life, his status as an icon, and they also reveal how he intertwined his products and inventions with his personal life at Glenmont.
The History Collection consists of:
I. Laboratory furnishings and equipment – including technical and scientific equipment, shop machinery, office and library furnishings, stock, raw materials and chemicals, used at the West Orange laboratory by Edison, his colleagues and workers, 1887-1931. Also, similar material associated with: pre-West Orange Edison laboratory facilities; Thomas A. Edison Inc. and McGraw-Edison site operations from 1931-1972; and Edison company manufacturing operations in West Orange and elsewhere.
II. Manufactured goods, and materials associated with the research and development of manufactured goods, produced by Edison, his colleagues and enterprises:
i. Phonographs, including Edison tinfoil phonographs from 1877–1880, Edison cylinder phonographs from 1887–1929, Edison disc phonographs from 1912–1930, Edison dictation machines from 1905–1970, and competitor (non-Edison) phonographs from 1890s–1920s; phonograph parts, manufacturing tools and equipment; and sound recording equipment.
ii. Electrical lighting, distribution and power equipment – including incandescent lamps, dynamos, fuses, insulators, meters, motors, switches, and rheostats. An extensive collection of the earliest light bulbs.
iii. Motion picture cameras, projectors and associated equipment, including prototypes and experimental equipment.
iv. Other products and innovations include Edicraft electrical appliances, batteries, cement manufacture, ore milling, rubber extraction, telephone and telegraph apparatus, and radios.
III. Manufactured goods made by competing manufacturers and contemporary inventors that relate to goods produced by Edison, his colleagues and enterprises.
IV. Edisonia objects that reflect Edison’s role as a cultural icon, including commemorative plaques, busts, and related commercial art; commemorative reproduction inventions and products; non-Edison consumer goods that evoke the Edison name and/or image; souvenirs, and ephemeral mementos.
V. Historic fabric – including original fabric removed from a historic structure during a preservation or repair project.
VI. Historic plant specimens – These include plant specimens collected and tested by Thomas A. Edison for domestic rubber research in the 1920’s.
VII. The Archeology collection consists of architectural and industrial artifacts, hardware, fuel, fauna, and domestic and commercial glass recovered from the Laboratory Complex and Glenmont Estate excavation units.
VIII. Rare Books – The Park’s rare books collection consists of books owned by Thomas A. Edison for both work-related research and personal use.
The Thomas Edison National Historical Park Archives preserves approximately five million pages of original material documenting the life and work of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), including Edison’s personal and business correspondence, laboratory notebooks, legal files, patent records, engineering drawings, manufacturing and financial records, advertising and sales material, payroll records, historical photographs, trade catalogs, sheet music and the papers of Edison associates and family members.