The “Folger Shakespeare Library” houses the largest collection of literary sources and other items relating to William Shakespeare. Surely such a monument would exist only in England, London, or Stratford Upon Avon – the famous Bard’s home. No. It might surprise most people that this building is located in Washington DC, a block from the U.S. Capitol.
Built by Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Folger, a wealthy couple from New York City, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses not just the world’s largest collection of the printed works of England’s most famous writer, William Shakespeare, but is a major storage facility for at least thirty other categories of rare artifacts from the sixteenth century to the first half of the eighteenth century England.
Henry Clay Folger was an American aristocrat who lived between 1857 and 1930. Folger played the role of a minor tycoon, becoming president and later chairman of Standard Oil of New York late in life. Although he was a frugal spender, most of the money he earned was spent on his Shakespeare collection. Unlike his brother James who founded “Folger Coffee,” Henry’s name almost became synonymous with William Shakespeare, because he was such a driven, avid collector of anything and everything relating to William Shakespeare. Folger spent most of the money he earned at Standard Oil collecting “Shakespeareana.” Most of the time, he simply took out loans from the company. He paid to happy booksellers who served as middlemen to bid on any item Folger chose. Usually, he won what he bid on. Of course, all of his booksellers loved doing business with this man, because he always paid cash on the barrel.
Folger married Emily Jordan Folger who also had a true intellectual passion for the famous playwright. Beginning in 1885, they started their collection, cataloguing and storing what they bought. Together they collected as many printed materials about Shakespeare and other related historical documents as they could. After adding up the entire collection, over 250,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts, and over 50,000 maps, prints, and engravings had been counted. The collection also included a vast collection of theatre items, sculptures, instruments and costumes related to Shakespeare and his time. Folger’s collection includes 82 rare “First Folios” – the first book that included all 36 of the Bard’s entire plays. As few as 220 First Folios were printed in 1623. Folger owned almost half of them. One copy sold at an auction at Sotheby’s for $5 million dollars in 2006.
In 1932, two years after Henry’s death, the library had been built and opened to the public. Everyone, from school children to the most seasoned academic professor is always invited to view the library and study the rare collections of literary material. The chances of finding any specific information about Shakespeare, no matter how small are extremely good; the library has just about anything related to the greatest English writer.
For more interesting information about Henry and Emily and their library, please read, “Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger” by Stephen H. Grant.