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COLLECTION Identifier: Mss:783 1870-1919 H637

Henry Lee Higginson business records Digital

Scope and Contents

The papers date from the period of Higginson's association with Lee, Higginson & Company: that is to say, most of his adult life. Much of the correspondence has to do with business ventures of various kinds, but a large number of letters describe the foundation and development of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the building of Symphony Hall, the planning and construction of the "playground" at Soldiers' Field (which Higginson gave to Harvard in memory of comrades who died in the War), the building of the Harvard Union, Higginson's involvement with the Carnegie Institute, his tenure as Fellow of Harvard College and Treasurer of Radcliffe College, and his views on the political, economic, and cultural issues of his day. His correspondents included: Charles Francis Adams II; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Woodrow Wilson; Theodore Roosevelt; Eleanora Duse; Isabella Stewart Gardner; James J. Hill; Henry Cabot Lodge; Alexander Agassiz; Quincy A. Shaw; James J. Storrow, Jr.; Charles W. Eliot; Charles A. Ellis; Andrew Carnegie; J. P. Morgan; A. Lawrence Lowell; George Foster Peabody; Charles E. Perkins; Karl Muck; Wilhelm Gericke; Max Fiedler; Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and many of the grand theatrical, political, and musical figures of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The collection also throws considerable light on Higginson family matters and on Higginson's unpublicized charitable activities.


  • 1799-1919
  • Majority of material found within 1870-1919


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials stored onsite. Please contact for more information regarding access procedures.


55 linear feet (116 boxes, 28 volumes)

Biographical / Historical

Henry Lee Higginson was a financier and philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts. Born on November 18, 1834, he was the second child of George and Mary (Cabot Lee) Higginson. After losing a great deal of money in the Panic of 1837, George Higginson moved his family to Boston. In spite of their financial struggles, the Higginson family was able to send Henry to the Boston Latin School, which at the time only admitted the sons of Boston Brahmin’s elite. He graduated from the school in 1851. Higginson entered Harvard College in 1851, but took a leave of absence the following year due to failing eyesight. He was sent to Europe – a common prescription for this type of condition at the time - and embarked on a walking tour of Germany and Switzerland from 1852 to 1853. During this time he became fascinated by music, its composition, interpretation, and performance. In a letter to his father, written from Berlin, Higginson explains:

“There is one thing, as before I said, that makes me very, very sorry to leave Europe: the loss of the music. I do think it makes and has made a real and a great change in me, since I first began with it; and if I continue to hear and cultivate it, so will the change go on and the advantage increase. I do not believe there is any-thing more refining than music, no greater or stronger preservative against evil, and at least for me it has done much... I am afraid to trust to my feelings within, to my own ideas, or I should study music as a profession. I know not how one finds that he has a talent for any one thing without trying: but everyone has a particular faculty for something, everyone has a decided turn and talent for a particular branch and it is his duty to try to find this out, and to turn to it. If one may trust what he hears within himself, in his own heart, and be sure that it is right, I should say that my talent was for music, and that, if I studied it properly and persevered, I could bring out something worth having, worthy of a life thus spent, worthy of my mother and of you.” [Perry, pages. 66-67]*

Higginson never returned to Harvard as a student, although he participated in many collegiate activities during the years 1853-1856. Despite not graduating he would remain connected to Harvard for the rest of his life. From 1855 to1856 he worked for the firm of Samuel and Edward Austin. After eighteen months of this apprenticeship he became restless and his father agreed to send him back to Europe - to Vienna, Paris, Italy - where he could study music. He sailed for Liverpool in November of 1856, in the company of Stephen Perkins and Powell Mason, but soon discovered that he had neither the aptitude nor physical stamina for musicianship; he was not suited to be singer or pianist, composer or conductor. In a letter to his father (December, 1857) he wrote: "Charley [Lowell?] prophesied that I should be at home in a year, and that I should become a merchant and a rich man. Heaven knows; but I do believe that the spirit of trade is in my veins, tho' other things may be more agreeable to me" (Perry, pages. 120-121).

*Bliss Perry, The Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson (2 vols., Boston, 1921). Returning to Boston, Higginson searched for a practical occupation but the outlook grew increasingly dim. This changed when the Civil War broke out. Higginson was one of the first young men in Boston to volunteer: by July 8th, 1861 he was a first lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Regiment and on 31 October he was commissioned as an officer in the First Massachusetts Cavalry, of which he was made Captain in December of that year. His military career ended abruptly on the battlefield at Aldie, Virginia, where he was severely wounded. By that time, Higginson was brevetted Lieutenant-Colonel of the First Massachusetts, a distinction which he scarcely acknowledged and - partly because it confused him with his first cousin and contemporary, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for whom he had a great respect. While convalescent in Boston, he courted Ida Agassiz, daughter of Professor Louis Agassiz. They were married on December 5, 1863.

During the final years of the Civil War, Higginson at last found opportunity for employment. From 1864 to 1865 Higginson worked as an agent for the Buckeye Oil Company, trying to develop a suitable field on land near Caldwell, Ohio. When this venture failed he decided to act on another business venture: raising cotton on a plantation in Georgia. After the end of the Civil War, investors, many who were Northern elite merchants, wanted to ensure the continuation of the profitable production of cotton, rice, and sugar. As such, they bought and leased plantations, with the idea to work the farm as a cooperative, with both work and profits shared by the newly emancipated enslaved people of the region. While practically all of the Northern merchants had the capital to take advantage of the depressed land values, few had experience operating a plantation. As such, many of these ventures, including Higginson’s, failed.

The unsuccessful business venture left Henry and his wife with significant debt. Facing the realities of his several failed attempts in a variety of business ventures, in 1868 Henry Higginson, along with his brother Francis, entered the firm of Lee, Higginson & Company. He remained with the firm - later serving as its President - until his death on 14 November, 1919.

Higginson continued to work on many projects and social and cultural interests throughout his life, including the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Higginson also remained an active patron of Harvard University.


There are 16 series in the collection. Two of the series have been combined which are noted below. The box and volume numbers correspond directly to the series number (e.g., Volume I-1 is in Series I, Box IV-8 is in Series IV). There are primarily two parts to the collection: administrative records and correspondence.

The administrative records of the various companies and business ventures with which Higginson was concerned, outside the scope of his normal activities as President of the investment banking house Lee, Higginson and Company; and a collection of correspondence, clippings, memorabilia, and miscellany which covers the period circa 1869-1919. The bulk of the investment papers date from after 1900 and many represent the interests of Henry Lee Higginson's son, Alexander Henry Higginson.

The main focus of the collection is correspondence, which contains materials toward a history of the financial, philanthropic, and personal dealings of Henry Higginson, his family, and his contemporaries.

Physical Location


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Seth T. Gano, 1946, and Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1963.

Existence and Location of Originals

Materials in Box XVI-8, Folder 6 were digitized as part of the Colonial North American Project at Harvard University. Access to the images to the entire folder are provided in the inventory below.

Existence and Location of Copies

Documents pertaining to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Section XII, C1-C22; Vols. XLV-6, XV-1, XV-2, XV-3) are available on microfilm,(4reels, 35 mm.) from Historical Collections, Baker Library. Order no. 95-1552.

Processing Information

Processed: August 2020 By: Baker Library Special Collections Staff

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Repository Details

Part of the Baker Library Special Collections and Archives, Harvard Business School Repository

Baker Library Special Collections and Archives holds unique resources that focus on the evolution of business and industry, as well as the records of the Harvard Business School, documenting the institution's development over the last century. These rich and varied collections support research in a diverse range of fields such as business, economic, social and cultural history as well as the history of science and technology.

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