Henry and Emily Folger never had children. They lead very quiet, almost reclusive lives when Henry was away from his work. However, twice a year – on Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day – they opened their spacious home to their relatives. The children were free to go anywhere in the house, but to their displeasure every room they entered was filled with books. They probably never knew it, but what they saw was only a fraction of the books the Folger’s owned. Their most valuable books were stored in fireproof warehouses and in bank vaults.
Henry Folger (1857 – 1930) did not come from a wealthy family (though an uncle started the Folger Coffee Company), but his mathematical gift for statistics helped him to move up quickly in the oil business, and to eventually become the president of Standard Oil of New York as well as a close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. That gift with numbers also helped him to become a very wealthy man.
Henry and his wife Emily Jordan Folger (1858 – 1936) both loved the works of Shakespeare and chose to spend their money collecting his works. Emily would search catalogues of available Shakespeare-related items during the day and each night she and Henry would decide which items they would attempt to purchase. They enlisted the aid of about 600 traders, so they seldom missed the opportunity to at least bid on items that were worth having. Along the way the collected an astounding 82 First Folios as well as thousands of other items – some in good conditions, others in poor condition.
Unlike some collectors, the Folgers realized that researchers would be interested in every scrap of Shakespeareana that exists – and research seems to have been their final goal. However, researchers would not have access to the priceless collection until the Folger Shakespeare Library was completed in Washington D.C. in 1932 because Henry and Emily staunchly refused the pleas of everyone who asked for access to their treasure trove. The Library opened in 1932, but by then Henry had been dead for two years, and Emily died in 1936.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is a national treasure. Its collections are open to serious researchers while the public is able to take guided tours of the facility, and to attend events that are presented there. And in this age of information more and more of the Library’s holdings are becoming available to researchers and the public via the internet.
Should you take a trip to Washington, don’t miss the Folger Shakespeare Library. And if you would like to learn about the remarkable couple who gave it to America, you can read a new book, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger by Stephen Grant. Believe it or not, Grant’s book is the first ever written about this subject. Michael Dirda reviews the book here, and you can see a short video about it here.
Over the years I have used many different formats of books for discussions of Shakespeare’s plays, and the best I have found is the Folger Shakespeare series. There are informative essays before and after each play, and the text of each play is on the odd-numbered pages while extensive explanatory notes and illustrations are on the even-numbered pages opposite the text. The paper quality is not the best, but is quite sufficient for underlining text and writing in the margins. And the price is very reasonable.