Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1915 and raised largely in Hampton, Va., Edward H. Abbe seemed destined to be an engineer. The great nephew of Elihu Thomson, an inventor and founding partner in General Electric, and grandson of Edward Folger Peck, an early employee of a precursor of that firm, Abbe came from a family with a deep involvement in electrification and the development of street railways. After prepping at the Rectory and Kent Schools, Abbe studied electrical engineering at the Sheffield School at Yale, and after graduation in 1938, accepted a position with GE. For 36 years, he worked in the Industrial Control Division in New York and Virginia, spending summers at the family home on Martha’s Vineyard. Ed married Gladys Howard, a talented musician with a gift for working with people, in 1945 as his career began to take off. Abbe maintained a lifelong interest in transportation, particularly trains, and traveled at any opportunity from the family RV to luxury cruise ships. After retirement in 1975, he and his wife Gladys traveled frequently, cruising both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Ranging from an extensive correspondence from his high school and college days to materials relating to his family’s involvement in engineering, the Abbe collection offers an in depth perspective on an educated family with strong ties to New England. An avid traveler and inveterate keeper, Ed Abbe gathered a diverse assemblage of letters, diaries, and memorabilia relating to the history of the Abbe, Peck, Booth, Gifford, and Boardman families. The collection is particularly rich in visual materials, including albums and photographs, depicting homes, travel, and family life over nearly a century.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Edward H. Abbe
Edward H. Abbe was born in March of 1915 in Syracuse, New York. His father, Harry Allen Abbe, worked as an engineer until his premature death in 1919 at age 35. Elsie Mayhew Peck Abbe, Edward's mother, was the daughter of the businessman Edward Folger Peck and his wife Mary Booth Peck. Edward Folger Peck, Edward's grandfather, introduced the two men who would found General Electric. As an adult, his grandson Edward Abbe would make his 36-year career with this same company. One of its founders, family friend Elihu Thomson, would marry into the Peck family and be remembered by Ed Abbe as Uncle Elihu. In addition to his pivotal role in the founding of General Electric, Edward Folger Peck conducted numerous business ventures primarily in transportation industries. Perhaps it was this influence from his grandfather that drove Ed Abbe's lifelong fascination with trains. William, or Bill, Abbe was born to Harry Allen and Elsie Peck Abbe in 1916, only one year after Edward's birth. Bill would go on to become a successful artist and educator remembered primarily for becoming the first teacher of Fine Arts at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire until his death in 1983.
When Edward was young, he moved with his mother and brother from New York to Virginia, but always spent most of his summers at the family cottage on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. These vacations allowed Ed to compile a large collection of books, newspapers, photographs, and other material related to Martha's Vineyard over the years. His lifelong interest in trains grew during these years, and Edward began collecting parts for his model train set. This train set would become one of Ed's most prized possessions and was quite valuable. Edward attended the Rectory School in Pomfret, Connecticut and Kent School in Kent, Connecticut before being admitted to Yale University where he received his bachelor's degree in engineering in 1938. It had always been expected that Ed would attend Yale, since his father had graduated from Yale in 1905 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Immediately after his graduation, Edward sailed to England on board the Queen Mary with his best friend Ralph for a road trip around the British Isles using a small vehicle with essentially a lawnmower sized motor. It was on this trip where Ed first met his future wife, Gladys Howard, on board the Queen Mary to be trained in directing a boys' choir and to visit her English/Scottish relatives. Despite their initial fondness for one another, Edward and Gladys communicated very little before 1945 largely because Edward worked long weeks for General Electric as part of the war effort during World War II. Bill Abbe also contributed to the war effort, putting his skills to good use as an artist for the United States military. As the war wound down, Edward married Gladys Howard in New York in 1945 where Gladys worked as a music teacher. Together they had one daughter, Carolyn, and later adopted a son, David. Gladys, a pianist of such talent that she could simply fake chords for pieces she forgot to practice as a child, would continue to teach and perform music for the remainder of her life. When their children were still very young, Edward and Gladys moved from New York to Virginia after a relocation of Edward's General Electric department.
Edward worked in Roanoke, Virginia for the vast majority of his career with General Electric and lived there after his retirement until 1991. From 1991 to 2001, Edward and Gladys lived permanently on Martha's Vineyard, where they had continued to vacation. Edward and Gladys entertained many local residents with their musical talents during their time on Martha's Vineyard. They are perhaps most well-known for entertaining at church and community functions as the Gracious Jazz Band, a musical group whose members, according to Ed, had to be over 80 years old and never practice. Ed and Gladys decided to move to Easthampton, Massachusetts in 2001 in order to live closer to Carolyn Abbe, their daughter. In 2004, after a gradual decline in health, Gladys Abbe passed away at age 89. Edward has remained busy investigating his family history and spending time with his children and grandchildren. With the help of family history researcher and writer Lisa Lipshires, Ed authored three self-published books: Ready About Hand Alee: Sailing Through Life, Love, and Family; Riding the Wave of Electrification: The Life of Edward Folger Peck; and Making a Joyful Noise: The Life of Gladys Howard Abbe.
At the heart of the collection lies the history of the Abbe and Peck families, both quintessential American families of hard-working innovators and inventors. Edward H. Abbe's papers range from materials relating to his lifelong interests, especially his extensive collection of information about trains and the history of Martha's Vineyard, and his 35-year career with General Electric, including his patent received for the automated handling system that he helped design, to materials from Kent School and Yale University where he attended school. The broader history of the Abbe family is captured, too, in items that relate to Bill Abbe's art career, such as his World War II map of France that he drew for the military, and documents related to Gladys Abbe's social work and musical skills. Gladys was instrumental in educating local school children in music. She also worked for charitable organizations such as Toys for Tots and even established the nonprofit assistance organization Help, Inc.
The Peck family, from which Edward is descended through his mother, is featured in papers and photographs documenting the activities of various family members during the 1800s and 1900s. Among these items are materials related to Edward Folger Peck's business and personal life as well as information about his friend, brother-in-law, and one of the founders of the General Electric Company, Elihu Thomson. Finally, a large number of photograph albums created by Edward Abbe or other family members add a visual aspect to the historical record of both families.
Acquired from Edward H. Abbe, 2012.
Books that came with the Edward H. Abbe Papers were removed from the collection and will be cataloged separately. These books include:
Processed by Jaimie Kicklighter, 2013.
Cite as: Edward H. Abbe Papers (MS 736). Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.