The reading room of the new Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 1931. It will in time house the 75,000-volume collection--the world’s greatest of Shakespeariana--given by the late Henry C. Folger of New York. (AP/AP)

Yesterday was April 23, the generally accepted birthday of William Shakespeare, who is again in the news. Just a few days ago, two rare-book dealers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, announced that they had found a copy of John Baret’s “Alvearie” — a 1580 dictionary — actually used and scribbled in by English literature’s greatest writer. If true, and there is obviously considerable skepticism at this point, this is just the sort of treasure that Henry and Emily Folger would have moved earth and heaven to acquire.

For, unlikely as it seems, Washington is home to the most important repository of Shakespeare material in the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library, located on Capitol Hill, possesses more than 275,000 books related to the playwright and his time. It also owns Bard-related memorabilia, playbills, costumes, furniture and paintings. Most notably, its treasures include 82 First Folios, the first edition of the “complete works” of Shakespeare, compiled in 1623 by two actor friends from his old theater troupe, the King’s Men.

In “Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger,” Stephen H. Grant provides not just a biography of the “onlie begetters” of this astonishing library, but also an account of the worlds in which the Folgers lived. The result is a superlative book, one that ranges from Amherst College in the 19th century to the gilded age of Standard Oil to the glory days of high-end book collecting. Crisply written and packed with facts and anecdotes, “Collecting Shakespeare” would be better only if its type size were just a bit larger.

Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) could trace his descent back to Benjamin Franklin’s mother and might well have sipped coffee that came from the company founded by an uncle (“The best part of waking up / Is Folger’s in your cup”). Still, Henry’s early life was not truly privileged. With a failed businessman for a father, he was able to attend Amherst only by borrowing money. He borrowed it, however, from Charles Pratt, “the oil refiner and philanthropist” — and founder of the Pratt Institute — whose son happened to be Henry’s best friend. This association led, after graduation, to a job offer: a clerkship at Pratt’s Queens County oil works. This wasn’t quite the employment one would have expected for a Phi Beta Kappa scholar who studied Latin, Greek, French and German, as well as English literature.

Emily Folger (1858-1936), nee Jordan, spent her first years in Washington, where her father was solicitor of the Treasury. As a child, she met Abraham Lincoln. At Vassar, two of her classmates were the daughters of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Emily, who majored in English and was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, later earned a master’s degree with a thesis entitled “The True Text of Shakespeare.”

"Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger" by Stephen H. Grant (Johns Hopkins Univ/Johns Hopkins Univ)

The couple, who never had any children, were soon devoting their deepest energies to gathering Shakespeareana. But how could they afford so many fabulous books? Henry, it turned out, possessed a flair for statistics and for organizing data. When John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Ohio acquired the Pratt holdings, Folger’s mathematical talents were soon recognized and rewarded. He went to work for Henry H. Rogers, chairman of Standard Oil’s manufacturing division (and the man who financed Helen Keller’s education and saved Mark Twain from bankruptcy). By 1890, Grant tells us, Folger knew the petroleum business so thoroughly that he could write the article about it for Chambers’s Encyclopedia.

Folger rose higher and higher in his new company, eventually becoming Rockefeller’s right-hand man. As such, he seems to have been involved in the sometimes shady business deals that followed the breakup of the Standard Oil trust. At one point, he controlled stock, valued at $371 million in 2011 dollars, as the front man for the somewhat dubious Magnolia Petroleum Company. When Folger retired, he was president of Standard Oil of New York.

Despite their wealth, the Folgers were notably frugal and private: They rented their house in Brooklyn and almost never entertained. During the day, while her husband was at work, Emily marked up the catalogues of auction houses and rare-book dealers; in the evening, Henry would decide, in conversation with her, what they would buy or bid on. The couple, notes Grant, “maintained correspondence with a prodigious army of booksellers: six hundred in all, one hundred and fifty in London alone.”

While some collectors flaunt their treasures, the Folgers avoided calling attention to theirs. Henry wouldn’t tell anyone how many First Folios he owned; he refused interviews; and while his purchases were nearly always examined by himself personally and catalogued by Emily, they were then boxed up and stored in fireproof warehouses or bank vaults. He never lent any books, even when scholars and institutions begged to borrow them. Folger merely assured these suppliants that one day everything would be available in the great library he was planning to build.

During the first half of the 20th century, the trade in rare books was dominated by the legendary A.S.W. Rosenbach, who acquired treasures for both Folger and his sometimes rival, the railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington (whose books and art formed the basis of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.). Grant provides a fascinating chapter comparing and contrasting the book-buying habits and acquisitions of these two competitors. Huntington preferred quality over quantity — he wanted the best copies of any title and avoided duplicates; Folger recognized the scholarly value of multiple copies, no matter what their condition or completeness. Besides early forms of the plays (the various quartos), he eventually acquired 1,400 different editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, as well as volumes of the plays owned by all the major English and American writers, from John Dryden to Walt Whitman.

Before settling on Washington as the site of his future library, Folger considered such locations as Amherst and Princeton, but also Nantucket Island, Bernardsville, N.J., and University Heights, Ohio. Alas, he never saw his architectural dreams realized or his books properly organized and shelved. In 1930, he died unexpectedly from arterial blockage after prostate surgery.

Nonetheless, the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library, under the aegis of Amherst College’s trustees, was finally inaugurated on April 23, 1932. At the ceremony, President Herbert Hoover and his wife sat next to Emily Folger. The guest list included the poets Robert Frost and Paul Claudel, who was then the French ambassador to the United States. The library officially opened to readers on Jan. 2, 1933.

In his epilogue, Grant quickly chronicles “the Folger after the Folgers,” briefly describing the tenure of its early directors Joseph Quincy Adams, Louis B. Wright and O.B. Hardison; a few of the library’s classic exhibits (such as “Shakespeare: The Globe and the World”); and the sometimes checkered history of its small Elizabethan theater. He closes by noting that current director Michael Witmore has focused considerable energy on digital outreach. While the Folger will always draw scholars needing to do hands-on research, it is also increasingly an online resource and a global library for the 21st century.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.


The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

By Stephen H. Grant

Johns Hopkins Univ. 244 pp. $29.95