Mr Harry Elkins Widener, 27, was born on January 3, 1885 the son of George and Eleanor Widener he lived in Elkins Park, PA. Harry studied at Hill School, a private establishment in Pottstown, PA; graduating in 1903 he left to study at Harvard (graduated 1907).
Harry was a noted collector of rare books, included in his collection was a Shakespeare Folio and a Gutenberg Bible. Harry developed his bibliophilic interests while in college, when he did research among early books with coloured plates illustrating costumes for a Hasty Pudding Theatrical. In the spring of 1912, he went to England to buy books (including the second edition of Bacon's Essais, 1598) and it was while returning from this visit that he lost his life along with many of the books purchased.
Harry boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg with his father and mother, George Widener's valet Edwin Keeping and Mrs Widener's maid Emily Geiger. The Widener's occupied cabins C-80-82.
On the night of April 14th Harry and his parents threw a party in honour of Captain Smith which was attended by some of the most wealthy passengers on board the Titanic.
Later that night Harry helped his mother into boat 4 and then stood back to await his fate, at one point he was joined by William Ernest Carter who advised him to try for a boat but Harry "I'll think I'll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance."
A story, never confirmed by Mrs Widener, romanticizes the death of her son. He was about to step into a lifeboat that would have saved his life when he remembered a newly acquired and unique copy of Bacon's Essais and ran back to get it.
After his death the librarians turned to Mrs Widener for a donation in memory of her bibliophile son. His mother gave $2,000,000 for the construction of the building that would also house her son's collection and in 1915 the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library was dedicated.
Horace Trumbauer (hon. A.M. 1915) of Philadelphia designed the library building. Begun in 1912 in the New Yard, opposite Memorial Church, on the site of Gore Hall (the previous college library, which was far too small), the library was completed in 1914. Over the center door are carver the printer's marks of Caxton, Rembolt, Fust and Schoeffer, and Aldus, all famous early printers. Mrs Widener refused additions to the outside face of Widener. Because she stipulated that the new library could not be remodeled ('not a brick, stone, or piece of mortar shall be changed'), in order to build a breezeway between Widener and Houghton Library the architects had to run it out the window to do it legally.
Today the Widener Library has a collection of 3.2 million volumes housed in ten floors of stacks and well over five miles of bookshelves. It acquires about 60,000 volumes each year. As the central library of the larger entity known as the Harvard College Library, which is the library of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, it houses the collections of literature and history, folklore, linguistics, economics, sociology, philosophy, and psychology. Special departments, including Judaica, Middle Eastern, and Slavic, have responsibility for materials in non-Western languages.
Some rare books have been moved to the Houghton Library from the Widener stacks but many continue to be found, sometimes by chance. In 1925, for instance, a Burmese dignitary asked to see the collection of books from Burma and found in the stacks the first book ever printed in the Burmese language.
In the center of the building, on the mezzanine between the first and second floors, is the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room. Finished in English oak, carved in England and brought over in panels, the room contains Mr Widener's personal collection of 3,500 rare books. His collection demonstrates his already considerable achievements as a collecter at the time of his death. Particularly well represented are nineteenth-century English authors and nineteenth-century illustrated books.
On permanent display are copies of the first folio of Shakespeare and the Gutenberg Bible. The latter, a gift of the Widener family in 1944, was printed in Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1455. This beautiful book demonstrates the success of the new technology of printing from movable type.
Legend had it that the conditions of Mrs Widnener's donation made it mandatory for all Harvard men to be able to swim before graduating (thinking this might have saved her son). For years it was a requirement to pass the freshman swim test but this actually dated from the time when the Navy had men at Harvard.
Harvard still pays for fresh flowers to be placed under a portrait of Widener in the chapel.
A plaque at Hill School which Widener attended reads:
The Hill 1903 - Harvard 1907
Born January 3, 1885 Died April 15, 1912
Generous Patron of the Fine Arts Distinguished Collector of Rare Books. Lover of Beauty, Culture, and Good-workmanship. When death met him on the Titanic he faced it gallantly and unafraid.
This Tablet is erected by his Classmates