Cloudy skies were spitting rain that day in 1918, so Henry and Emily Folger popped up their umbrellas as they set off on a walk from Union Station. The New Yorkers were hunting down a suitable home for their “boys,” which is what Mr. Folger called the books in their beloved — and unrivaled — Shakespeare collection.
Visitors taking a stroll around Capitol Hill today can find it inside the Greco-Deco building at 201 E. Capitol St. But few people know the story of how the Folger Shakespeare Library wound up in Washington, or even who the Folgers were. (No coffee fortunes were involved.)
Author Stephen H. Grant hopes to change that with the release this month of “Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger” ($30, Johns Hopkins University Press).
Grant chronicles how Henry Folger’s smarts landed him a job at Standard Oil, where he earned big bucks. But he and his wife didn’t live like other Industrial Revolution tycoons. The childless couple rented a house, never entertained and socked away nearly every penny to put toward their Shakespeare collection.
Their purchasing power overseas was magnified thanks to lucky timing. Think of “Downton Abbey,” says Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger’s head of reference. In the early 20th century, Brits on the verge of losing large estates were willing to cut deals for cash. And it may have been a good thing that the Folgers swooped in when they did. “Because of the wars, many precious British manuscripts were destroyed,” Zeigler says.
For decades, the Folgers went on a shopping spree, and stashed their acquisitions in warehouses. They were secretive about their dealings because they were worried about skewing prices in the rare-book market. Even selecting an address for their library was a hush-hush affair.
“There were 10 possible places written on a small piece of paper in alphabetical order. Amherst [Mass.] was first, and Washington was last,” Grant says. Brooklyn, N.Y., and Princeton, N.J., were also on the list, as was Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace.
After weighing the costs, accessibility to scholars and cultural clout of each location, the Folgers settled on the nation’s capital. As Grant quotes Henry Folger in his book, “I finally concluded I would give it to Washington; for I am an American.”
But he didn’t tell anybody. After the couple settled on a location, they spent nine years covertly acquiring deeds for all 14 houses on the block, Grant says.
Eventually, the Folgers revealed their secret. Architects were hired, plans drawn and the cornerstone laid.
And then Mr. Folger dropped dead.
There are parallels between the collector and his idol, Grant notes: “Shakespeare died and never saw a compilation of his works, and Folger never saw his library.”
But the legacies of both men live on in the same building.