Collecting Shakespeare: the Story of Henry and Emily Folger

Stephen H. Grant, Historian and Senior Fellow, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Arlington, Virginia, USA


23 October



Folgers in the New World trace their ancestry back to Peter Foulger, born in 1617 in the village of Diss near the city of Norwich in East Anglia. Peter and Mary Folger had nine children, the last of whom was named Abiah. Abiah married a soap maker from Boston named Josiah Franklin. They had a son, Benjamin Franklin. Henry Folger wrote, “Had I not collected Shakespeariana, I would have collected Frankliniana.”


Henry Folger and Emily Jordan were born in the 1850s, at a time in America when many household libraries consisted of only two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. They grew up learning passages from each and pondering their significance. They showed interest in Shakespeare during their college years, Henry at Amherst College in Massachusetts and Emily at Vassar College in New York. They wed in 1885, and soon after the couple began collecting everything they could about Shakespeare. The childless couple would acquire 92,000 books, including 200 Shakespeare folios (a collection of 36 plays), and 178 quartos, individual plays in a smaller format.



Henry and Emily Folger


Starting to work for John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil Company as a statistical clerk, Henry eventually was elected CEO of Standard Oil Company of New York, that later became Mobil Oil Corp. Without his 49 years at Standard Oil, the Folgers would not have been able to buy Shakespeare treasures. When Henry came home from his day job, he put together auction bid lists. He corresponded with 600 booksellers, 150 in London alone. He insisted on taking 10% discount because he paid in ready cash. He inspected each item he won before paying. He hated publicity, afraid the cost of his purchases would skyrocket. Avoiding his own name in communications, he signed his cables “Golfer.”


In large part, Emily was the one who defined the nature of the Folger collection. She read through 250 linear feet of auction catalogs (4/5 of a football field), turning down the top corner of the page, writing a wavy line and a “?” next to the item she thought the couple needed. When the books were acquired, Emily described each item in a detailed card catalog, another 75 linear feet. Unsurprisingly she developed writer’s cramp. In 1896, 250 American women obtained masters degrees; Emily was one of them. The title page of her Vassar thesis was, “The True Text of Shakespeare.” Emily and Henry believed that the authentic text of the Bard’s plays was the First Folio.



When the first compilation of 36 Shakespeare plays was printed in London in 1623, it came out in folio. For Emily Folger, the First Folio was the cornerstone of the SHX library. Henry called the First Folio the greatest contribution ever made to the world’s secular literature. A 2nd Folio came out in 1632, a 3rd folio in 1664, and a 4th Folio in 1685. The Folgers acquired 82 copies of the First Folio, or approximately one-third of the surviving copies. They are all different in some respect: size, condition, binding, provenance, typesetting variations by several compositors, spelling variants, pagination, marginalia, number of genuine leaves, of facsimile leaves, and of missing pages. Folger’s aim was not only to collect, but to build a research library where scholars could study and analyze the fruits of his collecting mania.


Stephen H. Grant, the speaker on October 23rd, in an inner doorway of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington.  Portraits of the Folgers on either side of the doorway and bust of Shakespeare above.


Frank Salisbury was known as Britain’s Painter Laureate. He maintained studios in London and New York, painting 25 members of the Royal House of Windsor and six American presidents. Having apprenticed in a stained glass factory, the painter loved his subjects to display vibrant colors. He turned sullen when John D. Rockefeller Jr. entered his studio in a gray suit, but gleefully welcomed the Folgers who donned their academic robes. The twin portraits are on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library reading room.


Folger instructed his French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret to build a small generic Elizabethan theatre on the east side of the Folger Library in Washington DC. It is the first Elizabethan-styled theatre in North America. An oak-paneled gallery shows three exhibits a year and is open to the public for free. The Library is much more than books and manuscripts. For example, Henry bought 204 paintings, most of them about Shakespeare. The Library’s reading room is open to registered scholars and researchers. One has to show need to consult the collection that contains rare and irreplaceable volumes.


The Folger Shakespeare Library two blocks from the U.S. Capitol was dedicated on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1932. Emily Folger handed over the symbolic key to the chairman of the board of trustees of Amherst College, which Henry had indicated in his will should administer the Folger. Henry was not present. He had died in 1930 from a pulmonary embolism. He never saw one stone of his marble memorial to Shakespeare, or all his books assembled in one place. Emily survived her husband by six years. The value of Henry’s fortune was cut in half due to the Great Depression. From her own petroleum stock, Emily completed the Library’s endowment. In coordination with the Amherst trustees, Emily became the central decision maker regarding the fledgling library. She fulfilled the couple’s dream.



My publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press - asked for an author head shot for the book jacket. Instead, I sent them a wall shot. I’m standing between my two subjects. A few feet behind me are two urns with the Folgers’ ashes. Above me is Will with his quill in hand. Henry and Emily loved each other; they both loved Will. It’s the greatest ménage-à-trois in literary history!



Grant, Stephen H., Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 264pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-1187-3.


Grant, Stephen H., Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal. Washington, DC: New Academia, 2007, 236 pp. An Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training “Diplomats and Diplomacy Book.” ISBN 978-0-9787713-3-1.


Image 1: Book Cover

Image 2: Author photo

Image 3: Henry and Emily Folger

All these images are reproduced with the permission of Stephen H. Grant and the Folger Shakespeare Library