You can still see on display the ticket that got an Amherst senior named Folger into a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1879.
It cost 25 cents and was almost more than he could afford. But Folger liked the lecture so much that he began reading other works by Emerson. One of these was the aging philosopher's 1864 address on Shakespeare, who "taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper and richer than the spaces of astronomy. . . . "
Henry Clay Folger--whose Folger Library celebrates its 50th anniversary today with a series of events and the dedication of a new Reading Room--took fire from the words. He bought a 13-volume Shakespeare and stayed up to all hours immersing himself in the plays. He finished law school, went to work for an associate of Standard Oil and in 1885 married Emily Clara Jordan, a literature scholar at Vassar. She loved Shakespeare, too, and almost the first thing he bought her was a reduced facsimile of the First Folio for $1.25.
He didn't know what he was getting into. Four years later he bought an actual Fourth Folio at auction, paying the $107.50 by installments. Once again, the money was almost more than he could handle. (The Folios, early printings of Shakespeare's works, sell for six figures today, when they sell at all.)
By the time Folger was president of Standard Oil of New York, money wasn't the problem. The problem now was what to do with what had become one of the world's greatest collections of Renaissance literature and far and away the greatest accumulation of works by, about and related to Shakespeare. For 40 years he and his wife had built the cultural treasure "with a single-mindedness probably without equal in the history of collecting."
It wasn't until the secretive Folger died--just two weeks after the cornerstone for his library was laid here in 1930--that the world learned he owned 79 of the 240 First Folios known to exist.
The British Museum, the closest rival, has five.
And there were 58 Second Folios, 24 Third Folios, 36 Fourth Folios, the unique 1594 "Titus Andronicus," the Bard's first play published, probably the collection's most valuable volume. And a first edition of the Sonnets, and the first printing, in 1604, of "Hamlet" as we know it, and a rare variant of the first edition of "King Lear," and 5,000 references to Shakespeare including the first public report of him in London as an "upstart crow," and stacks and stacks of manuscripts, diaries, journals, quartos and collections of Elizabethan literature and more.
The books arrived, 93,000 of them, in 3,000 huge wooden crates. It took six months to unpack them. The Folger Library opened on Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, 1932.
"We do everything on his birthday," observed director O.B. Hardison Jr. during a recent tour of the library. That is why the new $1.8 million Reading Room, part of the $8 million renovation and expansion program, though not quite finished, will be dedicated today.
"Just two months ago we received a large bequest in real estate, something over a million, from the estate of Theodora Sedgwick Bond of Georgetown, who died last October. The room will be dedicated to the memory of her and her husband, Gen. William Ross Bond, killed in action in Vietnam."
The room, its arched ceiling giving way to skylights, is modern and yet subtly relates to the main Reading Room, to which it is connected by a central librarian's desk. But this is only the most visible part of the new changes that have come to the Folger. Two floors of offices have been remodeled. So have the rooms for seminars and other specialty rooms for conservation, photography and films (including not only the familiar Olivier and Welles Shakespearean movies but Asta Nielsen's 1911 Hamlet, done as a woman in disguise, and a 12-minute version of Lear, subplot and all), an art gallery, tearoom and plush boardroom.
And the stacks. They go three stories below the ground. The greatest collection of printed English books from Caxton to 1640 outside the British Museum, copies of some three-fifths of all the books known to have been published from 1476 to 1640--perhaps 17,000 volumes--are preserved in an elaborately safe block-long room with dim ultraviolet-free light, flood channels in the floor and a halon gas system to extinguish fire. A similar room contains English books from 1640 to 1750 and the large Folger collection of Continental material and manuscripts, including much work by Erasmus and Luther, for example.
"In some areas we are preeminent by a wide margin," said Hardison, "in some we are eminent, in some we are weak." The acquisitions department is working on that last part. The mass of 850 early editions of Reformation literature was bought in 1977, for instance. There is also much Americana, plus Folger's collection of 200 oils and 50,000 prints and watercolors.
To many Washingtonians, the Folger means the Folger Theater Group, which for 12 years has been putting on Shakespeare and modern drama in the crypto-Elizabethan theater. But that is just the beginning. First and last, the Folger is a research resource used by scholars from all over the world (the busy season begins in May after school lets out). There is a full-scale academic program, with fellowships, seminars and lectures plus a scholarly journal, Shakespeare Quarterly. Some visitors are put up in the Guest House across the street.
And then there's the Folger Institute of Renaissance and 18th-Century Studies, the Folger Consort, which specializes in Renaissance music, the Playaround Shakespeare children's program and the supporting Friends of the Folger. The original $5 million bequest would be lost today in the library's $4.5 million annual budget, funded more or less equally by the endowment, public grants and private contributions.
As for the anniversary, Shakespeare's 418th birthday, the library will hold open house today and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., complete with music, drama, Elizabethan food, costumes and a birthday cake. The Consort will play, and actors will present scenes and sword fights from the plays. Student groups will act, the Sonnets will be read and all sorts of Renaissance fun is planned, from jugglers to mandolin players, from an Elizabethan fashion show to a Punch and Judy show.
The new Reading Room will be dedicated privately this evening after a trustees' dinner.
Meanwhile, a display celebrating the building and opening of the library is on exhibit in the Great Hall and is open to all. Here one can browse through designs, construction photos and some charming shots of President Hoover in top hat and striped pants coming down the library's steps toward his Pierce-Arrow limo. It makes one reflect how much has happened, not only to the Folger, but to all of us, since that hopeful day in 1932.