Harry Elkins Widener Collection

Highlights from the Collection

Literary Favorites

Widener was particularly fascinated by popular classic 19th-century literature.  Among his great favorites were Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose collections here range from manuscripts and signed first editions to original illustrations and contracts with publishers.  Many other English literary luminaries are represented including William Makepeace Thackeray, Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Brontë.

Charles Dickens

The first edition, with presentation inscription: “Dr. Elliotson from his friend Charles Dickens Sixth December 1850.” Elliotson (1791-1868) was a professor of Medicine and leading English theorist of Mesmerism.

This book was gift to Widener from his mother.  She gave him many of the most expensive items in his collection, including the first four folios of Shakespeare, and, for his nineteenth birthday in 1906, more than $18,000 worth of color-plate books.

George Cruikshank, 1792-1878. “Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys”. Original Drawings for Oliver Twist. HEW 2.9.4.

This item brings together two of Widener’s favorites: Cruikshank and Dickens.  The volume includes nine original pencil drawings signed by Cruikshank interleaved with the corresponding etched plates from the first edition (London: Richard Bentley 1838).


Kyd (1856 or 7 – 1937). “Fagin” [1899?]. HEW 2.9.3.


Widener also collected numerous illustrations of characters in Dickens drawn, watercolored, and signed by “Kyd,” artist Joseph Clayton Clarke (1856?-1937).  Above is his drawing of Fagin, one of 21 original Kyd drawings in an album of characters in Oliver Twist

Contract with Chapman and Hall for the publication of the Pickwick Papers, 18th November 1837. HEW 2.10.3.

Signed and sealed by the London booksellers and publishers, Edward Chapman and William Hall, this velum contract designated the articles of agreement for the “printing, publishing, and selling” of Dickens’ work “The Posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club.”  Widener also collected the contract for Nicholas Nickleby HEW 2.12.5.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Memoirs of himself, manuscript, 1880. HEW 10.13.18.

One of Widener’s prize possessions was this unpublished Stevenson manuscript.  The above inscription reads: “Book I – Childhood.  Given to Isobel Steward Strong the amanuensis, For future use when the under-writer is Dead.  With love, Robert Louis Stevenson.”  The text is Stevenson’s memoir of his childhood. 

In 1912 Widener took it upon himself to publish the piece in a finely printed limited edition of 45 copies.  Copy one of this effort is also in the collection HEW 10.13.8 F.


Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Kidnapped : being memoirs of the adventures of David Balfour in the year 1751.
[London]: Cassell, 1886. HEW 10.8.22.


The inscription on the half-title page of this first edition is to his childhood nurse: “Alison Cunningham from her boy The Author, Skerryvore, July 16th 1886.”

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Widener collected numerous literary manuscripts, often letters tipped into first editions or gathered in extra-illustrated volumes.  A few of his more important purchases in this area are displayed below.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863). “The History of Pendennis”. HEW 12.6.16 (entire manuscript available through HOLLIS catalog record).

Original manuscript of a portion of this novel, which was first published in parts from 1840-1850.  The manuscript consists of 36 pages, entirely in the autograph of the author, with one page (shown here) containing three original sketches by Thackeray.

Widener bought this in January, 1910.  Having graduated from Harvard in 1907, he was by this time working in the family business in Philadelphia, and adding to his collection at a great rate.  In collaboration with his favorite bookseller, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, he produced a printed catalogue of the collection (then numbering close to 2,000 items) in December 1910.

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855). “The Adventures of Captain Hastings.” Autograph manuscript, 1839. HEW 1.4.14.

This 64-page manuscript of a short story, in Charlotte Brontë’s distinctive small script, is certainly a highlight of Widener’s collection.  It also contains a draft of her poem “Life.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). “Extracts, mostly from Natural History”. HEW 12.7.10.

Manuscript “Fact-Book,” entirely in Thoreau’s hand, compiled between 1853-1858.

Thoreau’s biographer William Ellery Channing noted that it was Thoreau’s custom to do his reading “with pen in his hand: he made what he called Fact-Books—Citations which concern his studies.”  This “Fact-Book” runs to 358  pages.  Displayed here are pages containing information about such diverse topics as “The Facial Angle” and “Hornets.”

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Notable Association Copies

Widener appreciated not only the contents of a book but the history of its ownership.  What makes a text valuable is often the marks of its travel through time as a beloved object dedicated to one friend from another.  Each book carries the potential to honor, influence, and perhaps inspire the life and work of its recipient. 


William Morris (1834-1896). The life and death of Jason. London: Bell and Daldy, 1867. HEW 8.1.5.

First edition.
Morris’ presentation copy to his friend the painter D.G. Rossetti.


Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The Happy Prince and other tales
London: David Nutt, 1888. HEW 12.10.11.

First edition.
Inscribed by Wilde to John Ruskin: “John Ruskin in all love and loyalty from Oscar Wilde.  June ‘88”


Eikon Basilike.  The pourtraicture of his sacred Majestie in his solitudes and sufferings… [London?] 1649. HEW 7.10.10.

Authorship attributed to the martyred King Charles I of England, beheaded at the order of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.  This first edition was bound for Charles I’s son, Charles II, whose arms are stamped in gilt on the covers.  It was purchased by Widener in 1910, shortly after he turned 25.

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). The Hunting of the Snark…
London: Macmillan, 1876. HEW 5.2.4.

First edition.
A presentation copy to Florence Louis Beaton.  Two verses, in the author’s hand, are inscribed on the verso of the dedication leaf.

From the air do they come?
Little voices that tell
Of “boo” and of “jum,”
Ringing clear like a bell—

”Even here,” they repeat,
Now and then, when it’s dark,
Chance will aid you to meet,
Even here, with a Snark!

Lewis Carroll
Sep. 2, 1876

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The Art of Illustration

Widener’s fascination with the book arts, not to mention his anglophilia, are no more than evident in his large collection of English illustrators and caricaturists. His favorites included satirists Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, and the children’s book artist Kate Greenaway. His Cruikshank Collection is extensive enough to require its own separate catalogue in HOLLIS.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) is best known for his raucous depictions of London’s underclass, the denizens of its streets and public houses. His career began as a popular political caricaturist. Later illustrations shifted from fierce political depictions to more domestic and sentimental scenes and subject matter.

“It holds good through the whole scale of creation that the great and the little have need one of another.”

Untitled domestic scene.

Both from A collection of seventy-five original drawings and studies, all of which are drawn in water-colors  by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1820. HEW 9.13.15F.

George Cruikshank

Renowned for his depictions of English society, George Cruikshank’s (1792-1878) brash political caricatures appeared in myriad popular periodicals as well as such noted books as Charles Dickens’ Sketches by “Boz” (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838).

“Accidents in High Life or, Royal Holidays broke down!”

“His Most Gracious Majesty George The Fourth Returning from Westminster Abbey to Westminster Hall on the day of his Coronation, July 19th, 1821”

Both from Caricatures and other separate prints by George Cruikshank engraved between the years 1803-1871: the unique collection formed by Captain R.J.H. Douglas HEW 4.12.6 PF v. II

Kate Greenaway

Widener was captivated by the charming drawings of children’s book illustrator and writer Kate Greenaway (1846-1901). He collected first editions, early printings, and original drawings.

“Contents” page from A Day in a Child’s Life, [ca. 1881] Mock-up for published edition includes original drawings. HEW 6.1.5

“Sing A Song Of Sixpence.”The April Baby’s Book of Tunes. London; New York: MacMillan, 1900. HEW 6.1.1

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Costume Books

Another area of concentration in Widener’s collecting is costume books. His collection contains thousands of richly-colored engravings in elaborately bound multi-volume sets. They cover a wide range of topics from the military costumes of Turkey, to costumes designed for the Queen of England’s state ball. The tribal, ceremonial, and daily costumes of nearly every country in the world are represented in charming vignettes within these lavish volumes.


“Mexique.”Quadrilles Parées Costumeés. A Munic; Lithographie et imprime chez l’edition J.M. Hermann [1835?]. HEW 14.7.9 F


“Fancy Ball Dress no. 6: Highland Chieftain”. Finely colored prints of Fancy Ball Dress (1832?). [London] Published by W. Spooner [1832?]. HEW 14.7.10 F

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