The Magazine

Shakespeare’s Other Home

The making of a Washington monument

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By CHARLES TRUEHEART
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Henry and Emily Folger had a magnificent obsession. They spent a life of virtually indiscriminate acquisitiveness compiling the largest collection of Shakespeare manuscripts and associated arcana in the world—and then gave all that they had acquired to the American nation, wrapped in the handsome library, museum, and theater that bear their name on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Reading Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1940

Reading Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1940

When one looks at the ways in which latter-day tycoons direct their disposable income and extracurricular hours, the lives of Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) and Emily Jordan Folger (1858-1936) offer a sweetly bizarre contrast. Though Henry rose to become president and then chairman of Socony, a division of Standard Oil, and was a self-taught expert in the booming oil business of his time, not a day passed that he and Emily weren’t buying Shakespeareana.

For four decades, the Folgers worked from office and home, without secretarial help, corresponding (by hand, for many years) with hundreds of booksellers, agents, brokers, and fellow collectors; scouring newspaper articles from clipping services; reading catalogs; and marking titles for further inspection. Henry carried an umbrella with a pencil in the handle to jot down acquisition ideas. To him, an auction catalog was “as fascinating as a novel.”  

Though they could have afforded much more, the childless Folgers lived in unpretentious rented quarters for most of their lives, and then built a relatively modest house in Glen Cove, Long Island. (Neither was born to wealth, but Henry made a connection in college that made all the difference.) Apart from shopping sprees in Great Britain and regular retreats to Hot Springs, Virginia, the Folgers didn’t pamper themselves much. But they were monomaniacal about Shakespeare and anything he may have written, read, or touched, as well as anything that might have been written about him or his work, even plagiarism. I was imagining this as a kind of secular idolatry when, thanks to Stephen H. Grant, I learned there is a word for it: bardolatry.

“Collectors have difficulty observing limits,” writes Grant, with characteristic understatement. The original collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, when it opened its doors to the public in 1932, was 

a dazzling array of objects: books, manuscripts, essays, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, playbills, prompt books, autograph letters, autographs, letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, commonplace books, scrapbooks, sheet music, phonograph records, maps, charts, public documents, prints, drawings, engravings, woodcuts, oil paintings, watercolors, mezzotints; furniture, building models, coins, weapons, armor, heraldic documents, tapestries, musical instruments, globes, costumes, scenic designs, stage properties, statues, busts, carvings, miniatures, medallions, figurines, relics, curios, works in stained glass, bronze, ivory, wood, china, ceramic, and marble.

The literary works were, of course, at the heart of the Folger enterprise. “Folger’s achievement is unique in the history of book collecting, in terms of both the rate and quantity of acquisition,” writes Grant. They amassed—really a better word than collected—nearly 10,000 volumes of the Bard’s works, including the largest collection of Shakespeare quartos and First Folios in the world. Before they started collecting, 18 First Folios were in American hands. “A half-century later, Folger had singlehandedly quadrupled that number,” Grant tells us.

Why such rapaciousness? At a point when he was admitting to owning only 47 First Folios, Henry Folger said that every copy “seems to have an excuse for its presence.” As Grant explains, “Seeing each of his copies as having a unique history and story, Folger did not consider them simply duplicates.”   

What Henry and Emily bought they may have admired; but the joy must have been in the buying itself, for everything went straightaway into storage in New York, in used wooden airtight 10-gallon oil cases adapted for the purpose by Henry’s staff. “The inaccessibility of the collection in storage enraged scholars,” Grant admits, as the Folgers routinely rebuffed academic inquiries for most of their collecting lives. “All this fed the mostly inaccurate perception of Folger as a cantankerous hoarder.” By way of exculpation, we learn that Henry was always most courteous in his refusals. Grant observes, faute de mieux, that “by keeping the treasured items together in storage, catalogued but not curated, Folger protected the growing value of his collection. He also saved money that would have been required for security and scholarly access, spending it on more acquisitions and, eventually, on a safe building.”