Stephen H Grant on the Folgers as great American Shakespeareans

It has taken eighty-two years for a biography to be written about the founders of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Library was dedicated on the Bard’s 368th birthday, April 23, 1932. COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE received rave reviews from the Washington Post and Washington Times when it was released on the Bard’s 450th birthday; after two months it went into a second printing.

Henry and Emily Folger were the first in their families to attend college, which each needed financial assistance to complete. They graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1879, he from Amherst College in Massachusetts and she from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He obtained a law degree at Columbia and she a masters in Shakespeare Studies at Vassar in 1896, when only 250 women in the United States obtained a degree at that level. Both would receive honorary doctorates in letters from Amherst.

Henry spent his entire career working for Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY), rising through ranks to become CEO from 1911 to 1928. SOCONY later became Mobil Oil Corporation. Lacking a college education, his boss, John D. Rockefeller Sr., found invaluable Folger’s skill in computing cost-benefit analyses of the firm’s oil refineries. Henry circulated over 4,500 memos to company brass. He was a beloved mentor to the firm’s younger executives.

A childless couple, Henry and Emily were devoted to each other, in love with Shakespeare, and smitten by the collecting bug. Henry corresponded with 600 booksellers, 150 in London alone. Emily read through 258 linear feet of book auction catalogues, turning over the corner of a page and writing in pencil a question mark in front of an item she thought they needed to have a complete Shakespeare collection, so Henry, at the end of his work day, could develop a bid list he dispatched the next day to his commission agents, chief among whom was Dr. Abraham Rosenbach, renown bookseller in Philadelphia and New York. When the books, manuscripts, engravings, playbills, and paintings arrived, Emily wrote thorough descriptions of the items in her card catalog and had them sent to storage warehouses and bank vaults under her name.

The Folgers devoted themselves single-mindedly and unashamedly to the Bard during the Gilded Age. They received family visitors only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and on New Years. They participated in no business luncheons or social events. Eschewing the executive dining room at the Standard Oil Company headquarters, Folger walked around the park munching on an apple and feeding the pigeons. The 92,000 volumes they acquired relating to Shakespeare and his age amount to six books a day. Chief among their treasures are eighty-two First Folios, printed in London in 1623, all different in some way.

With a successful combination of intelligence, devotion, and nerdiness, Folger went to the very top of two endeavors, the oil industry and antiquarian book collecting. It’s a great American story.

Stephen H Grant’s COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger was published by Johns Hopkins Press in 2014.

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