Meet Watertown’s First Librarian

“His best thought and life has gone into this little village library; it has been his dream by night, his work in vacations and spare moments…”  – Whitney. The Descendants of John Whitney, who came from London, England, to Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1635, by Frederick Clifton, Pierce

Meet Watertown’s First Librarian

In our Local History Room, you’ll find a portrait of a somber-looking Solon Whitney.   I rather enjoy occasionally catching sight of him looking down on us as we go about the daily business of running the library.  I suppose it would be nice if he was smiling, but that was not the portrait style of the day, so I’ve come to accept his glowering visage instead.

As the WFPL celebrates our 150th anniversary this year, you will no doubt hear the name Solon Whitney quite often.   But who was he?   I thought it might be fun to share some information about our founding librarian.

Solon Franklin Whitney was born in Harvard, Massachusetts on August 22, 1831, and lived there for the first five years of his life.  His parents, Benjamin Franklin and Louise Lawrence Whitney, relocated the family to Seneca Falls, NY for close to ten years, where Solon attended school and assisted in his father’s shop.   He also helped take care of the district school library, where his father served as Librarian.

Best Pic of Solon Whitney
Oil painting of Solon Whitney by James Rattigan, 1912

Late in 1845, he returned to Massachusetts – first briefly to Harvard, and then he undertook an apprenticeship in the Village Stores at Acton and Littleton.   During this period, he also learned the woodcarver’s trade, and managed to earn and put away a bit of money, which he decided to spend on education.   He spent 2 years at a normal school (a school for training teachers), and worked for a year as a teaching assistant in Fall River High School.  Finally in 1855, he headed to Brown University.  He graduated in 1859 with a Master of Arts degree and was a member of Brown’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

In 1859, Solon Whitney married Charlotte C. Wilder (known as Lottie), and they began their life together.   Their first daughter, Lottie Louise Whitney, was born in July of 1861, in Harvard.

He worked briefly in the Brookline High School and the Bridgewater Normal School before taking charge of the Watertown High School in 1866.   Over the next couple of years, he developed a keen interest in finding a way to start a Free Public Library in the town, and began working toward that goal.

Also in 1866, Joseph Bird established a high school subscription Teachers’ Library (whose collection was later added to the public library collection).   He had great success at fundraising for this library, and it proved very popular.  This, in turn, led the school committee to appoint a group to study the feasibility of a public library for the town.   In 1868, the town held a special vote to elect the first Board of Trustees of the Watertown Free Public Library, and approved a plan to allow solicitation of pledges from citizens to raise the first $6,000 to fund the start-up of the library.  (You can see the original warrant calling for this vote in the glass display case on the 2nd floor of the library.)

Original warrant calling for a vote to establish a Free Public Library in Watertown,  January 22, 1868.

On March 31, 1869, the Watertown Free Public Library opened in Joel Barnard’s former dry goods store, on the ground floor of Town Hall, at the corner of Church and Main Streets.  Mr. Whitney had spent the previous 7 months acquiring and processing the 2250 volume opening collection.

While Solon Whitney was committed to the establishment and success of our library, he did not remain employed in the Watertown High School.   From 1872-1885 he was one of the sub-masters of the Cambridge High School, and in 1872 he entered Harvard College as a special student in Chemistry, studying under Louis Agassiz.  That was a busy year: his second daughter Margaret Blanchard Whitney was also born in 1872.

Through all of this, much of his focus remained on the library, and he remained in charge of it.  The library was an immediate success.  As noted by a genealogist in 1895, “His best thought and life has gone into this little village library; it has been his dream by night, his work in vacations and spare moments until now it has absorbed for the last ten years much of his time and strength.   It is large and successful for so small a town – the books on the shelves show an average use of each twice in the year for every man, woman, and child in the town.” [1]

The library proved so popular that it quickly became cramped and overcrowded.   By 1882, there were 3,500 library cardholders 16 years or older among the 5000 residents in town.   There were close to 13,000 books and 12,000 pamphlets crowding the shelves. [2]  Once again, Solon agitated on behalf of the library.  His 1882 report to the Town opined, “We have looked forward with longing eyes for several years to the possession of a proper building for this library.” [3]

In 1881, the town appropriated $20,000 for a library building, provided an equal amount could be raised privately.   Thanks to both small gifts and large donations from Horatio Hunnewell and Samuel Walker, the funds were raised and the new building opened in 1884.   (Fun fact:  The library did not have electric lights installed until 1900.)

Solon Whitney saw this library from a single room full of donated books and pamphlets, through the construction of our beautiful 1884 structure (parts of which are still in use today), and through the addition of Sunday hours, a fiction collection, and a Children’s department.  He established an institution to which this community has remained committed for 150 years.  For that, he deserves our gratitude and recognition.

As if his dedication to the WFPL were not inspiring enough, he was also one of the originators of the Historical Society of Watertown, and served as its first secretary and treasurer.  He served as that body’s librarian and the custodian of its materials until his death, as well.  In 1893, he published a book Historical Sketches of Watertown, Mass., which you can still find in our collectionIn his spare time, he was a member of the Boston Society of Natural History, the Appalachian Club, and the American Library Association.

So if you see Solon Whitney around (and you may) – even if he’s looking stern – please don’t be alarmed. He’s a kindly soul who was imbued with a deep love of learning and libraries. We all work every day to sustain that legacy. Thanks, Solon.

“Serious Solon” can still be found roaming the stacks of WFPL…


Solon Franklin Whitney died on November 29, 1917, after a long illness, and his assistant Lydia Masters took up the mantle of Librarian for the Watertown Free Public Library.

Solon Obit Nov 30 1917 (2)
Obituary from the Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, November 30, 1917

Solon and Lotte are buried together in the Harvard Center Cemetery in Harvard, MA [4]

His daughters, Lottie Louise Tarlton (d. 1943) and Margaret Blanchard Horne (d. 1965) are both buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

Solon Grave (2)
Solon Whitney gravestone, Harvard Center Cemetery, Harvard, MA.

– by Jill, WFPL Adult Services Supervisor


[1]  Whitney. The Descendants of John Whitney, Who Came from London, England, to Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1635, by Frederick Clifton Pierce. Published by the author, 1895.

[2] Watertown Free Public Library, Library Dedication, August 6, 2006, written by Beverly Shank.  Published by the WFPL, 2006.  p.5

[3] Ibid

[4], retrieved March 14, 2019

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