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Collecting Shakespeare

The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

Stephen H. Grant

Publication Year: 2014

In Collecting Shakespeare, Stephen H. Grant recounts the American success story of Henry and Emily Folger of Brooklyn, a couple who were devoted to each other, in love with Shakespeare, and bitten by the collecting bug. Shortly after marrying in 1885, the Folgers started buying, cataloging, and storing all manner of items about Shakespeare and his era. Emily earned a master's degree in Shakespeare studies. The frugal couple worked passionately as a tight-knit team during the Gilded Age, financing their hobby with the fortune Henry earned as president of Standard Oil Company of New York, where he was a trusted associate of John D. Rockefeller Sr. While a number of American universities offered to house the collection, the Folgers wanted to give it to the American people. Afraid the price of antiquarian books would soar if their names were revealed, they secretly acquired prime real estate on Capitol Hill near the Library of Congress. They commissioned the design and construction of an elegant building with a reading room, public exhibition hall, and the Elizabethan Theatre. The Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated on the Bard's birthday, April 23, 1932. The library houses 82 First Folios, 275,000 books, and 60,000 manuscripts. It welcomes more than 100,000 visitors a year and provides professors, scholars, graduate students, and researchers from around the world with access to the collections. It is also a vibrant center in Washington, D.C., for cultural programs, including theater, concerts, lectures, and poetry readings. The library provided Grant with unprecedented access to the primary sources within the Folger vault. He draws on interviews with surviving Folger relatives and visits to 35 related archives in the United States and in Britain to create a portrait of the remarkable couple who ensured that Shakespeare would have a beautiful home in America.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

The Folger Library was unlike other private libraries assembled during the Gilded Age by peers in the Folgers’ social class. It was not a gentleman’s library, which includes a wide range of recognized literary masterpieces rather than esoteric volumes or a specialized collection. It was not a cabinet library, a small collection of highly...

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pp. xv-xviii

The Folger Shakespeare Library generously offered me, an independent scholar, a fellowship in 2007 to delve into its Folger Collection and begin writing the first biography of the institution’s founders. I systematically went through what staff refer to as “Folger Coll,” dozens and dozens of gray or black archival boxes of correspondence...

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Chapter One: Well Read in Poetry, Fair in Knowledge: Henry and Emily Form a Team

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pp. 1-26

After the Civil War, a newly muscular American economy became seriously competitive with Europe in international affairs. Culturally, too, the affluent middle and upper classes began, at about the time of the centennial, to resent the long-nosed disapproval of foreign commentators. For every Alexis de Tocqueville...

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Chapter Two: Thou Lovest Me, My Name Is Will: Smitten by Shakespeare

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pp. 27-42

British boots, not books, made imprints in North America only a few years before Shakespeare died in 1616. Virginia was settled in 1607, Bermuda in 1609, Newfoundland in 1610. More than a century passed before an amateur acting company put on the first Shakespeare play in America, a performance of Romeo and...

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Chapter Three: Wise, Circumspect, and Trusted: Five Decades at Standard Oil

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pp. 43-64

The first stories that the young child Henry Folger, in 1860, heard from his father about oil were about whales, not wells. For more than a century, the Folger family had plied the whaling trade on Nantucket Island, twenty-four miles off the Massachusetts coast. Henry’s grandfather, Samuel Brown Folger, was a...

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Chapter Four: Leading on to Fortune: Henry Invests to Buy the Bard

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pp. 65-74

Henry Folger created the wealth to buy Shakespeare in four major ways: a five-decade salary from Standard Oil; investments in the company and its affiliates that generated substantial dividends; careful money management; and a major investment in Magnolia Petroleum Company, which generated very large...

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Chapter Five: The Hunt Is Up, the Fields Are Fragrant: Building a Collection

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pp. 75-94

According to the endowment created in their wills, the Folgers established their library “for the promotion and diffusion of knowledge in regard to the history and writings of Shakespeare.”1 The Folger Shakespeare Library has expanded considerably beyond the collection on the shelves (and still in storage cases) when...

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Chapter Six: Whole Volumes in Folio: The Ultimate Prize for Collectors

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pp. 95-107

Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) is a large book with dense double-column pages printed in London seven years after Shakespeare’s death. One scholar has described its printing as not “consistent,” another as “careless.”1 The manuscripts for this volume have gone missing. Yet its pedigree is matchless. It became, early on,...

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Chapter Seven: What News on the Rialto: Maneuvers in the Rare Book Market

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pp. 108-124

The scene: Sotheby’s, London, December 1919. Tension was palpable in the hushed auction room. At stake was ownership of the only known 1599 copy of Shakespeare’s first printed work, Venus and Adonis. Key collectors vying for this treasure, however, were absent. They were home in America. While many collectors frequented local shops for antiquarian and rare books...

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Chapter Eight: Hotspur and Hal: Two Henrys Compete

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pp. 125-138

Although far more cordial than the military rivalry of Shakespeare’s Hot- spur and Hal, the bibliographic duels Henry Folger and Henry Huntington intensely fought were not on the battlefield but in auction bids, and not for a crown but for the plays of the very man who created the “Harry vs. Harry” of I Henry IV...

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Chapter Nine: A Monument to Gentle Verse: Designing a Treasure House

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pp. 139-162

Henry Folger acquired the property for his Shakespeare Library through patience, secrecy, and subterfuge. One secret was that he considered other sites than the nation’s capital. Among miscellaneous notes in Folger’s hand is an undated alphabetical list of possible sites, surprisingly diverse in character and geography...

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Chapter Ten: Dear, Blessed Plot of Land: The Folgers’ Gift to America

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pp. 163-186

After the cornerstone of his library had been laid in May 1930, Henry Folger entered St. John’s Hospital in Brooklyn for a routine operation under local anesthetic for an enlarged prostate. During convalescence, into the first week of June, Folger worked from his hospital bed. He dictated instructions about library...

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Epilogue Praise in the Eyes of Posterity: The Folger after the Folgers

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pp. 187-206

Folger library doors officially opened for readers on January 2, 1933. Prior to that date, the library allowed a few individuals to consult specific works. The first recorded early bird, in September 1932, did not travel far. Herbert Putnam sent young Oliver Strunk of the Music Division at the Library of Congress across...

Appendix: Directors of the Folger Shakespeare Library

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pp. 207-208


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pp. 209-224


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pp. 225-234


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pp. 235-244

About the Author

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p. 245

E-ISBN-13: 9781421411880
E-ISBN-10: 1421411881
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421411873
Print-ISBN-10: 1421411873

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 32 halftones
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870994427
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Collecting Shakespeare

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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Bibliography.
  • Private libraries -- New York (State) -- History.
  • Folger, Emily C. J. (Emily Clara Jordan), 1858-1936 -- Library.
  • Folger, Henry Clay, 1857-1930 -- Library.
  • Book collectors -- New York (State) -- Biography.
  • Folger, Emily C. J. (Emily Clara Jordan), 1858-1936.
  • Folger, Henry Clay, 1857-1930.
  • Folger Shakespeare Library -- History.
  • Research libraries -- Washington (D.C.) -- History.
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