For 17 years we’ve published books to be given, books to be cherished, books to be left on tables where they are admired and lifted up to one’s lap and opened slowly, reverently. This, I’m proud to say, is another fine example, and our first by that most cherished of writers in English, Shakespeare himself. Here to tell you about its origin is Levenger Press founding editor Mim Harrison.
If Reality TV had been around at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Folger might have made the short list for “Hoarding.” His stockpile? The original works of William Shakespeare.
Okay, you might say, but who’s Henry Folger? It’s probably not a question you would ask if the name were J.P. Morgan or Henry Clay Frick, especially if you’re a New Yorker, or Henry Huntington, particularly if you’re a Californian.
Henry Clay Folger was of their time and their ilk, considered a part of the first Gilded Age by virtue of his being chairman of the board of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of New York. And like Morgan and Frick and Huntington, he was a collector of rare, expensive objects: old books that had, in some cases, moldered for centuries in the drafty manor houses of England.
Unlike his contemporaries, though, Folger had a singular focus: William Shakespeare—in particular, copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. He was inspired in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the lecture Emerson had composed for Shakespeare’s three-hundredth birthday.
Folger also diverged from his contemporaries in that he was wealthy, but not wildly so. And he started collecting well before he was a man of impressive means.
His first purchase was not of a First Folio but a lesser Fourth Folio, for $107.50, which he successfully bid on at an auction in 1889. A few years later, he tried to persuade his boss to buy a cache of Shakespeare volumes that had come up for sale in London and start a library with them. Rockefeller passed.
Henry persisted, but on his own.
By 1897, he owned the most First Folios of anyone in America. By the end of his life, in 1930, Folger owned more Shakespeare than the British Library. More Shakespeare, in fact, than could be found in all of Britain.
A public private library
But unlike Morgan, Frick and Huntington, Henry Folger possessed no mansion with a private library enshrining his treasures. Rather, he and his wife, Emily, lived most of the time in rented digs in Brooklyn. (This was well before real estate prices there eclipsed Manhattan’s.) And the books? They were lovingly held and then meticulously logged…before being sent into storage in various warehouses around Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Folger’s books never served as the booty of a successful businessman. He refrained from trumpeting his valuable haul. In fact, Folger preferred that no one knew he was buying them; it kept their prices from being inflated.
Folger spent his retirement working on, at long last, a library to hold his treasures. But not in his house. (He and Emily did eventually buy one, on Long Island.) Rather, he picked one of the most public places there is: around the corner from the Library of Congress and down the street from the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C. That’s where you’ll find the Folger Shakespeare Library. (Once again, the ever-frugal Folger bypassed Manhattan because the real estate was so much dearer.)
As Andrea Mays tells us in her book, The Millionaire and the Bard, “Folger’s ultimate goal was not the ownership of priceless books as vulgar trophies to impress his friends. To Folger, the First Folio was a magical text, ‘one from which we draw our faith and hope’.” As Andrea also tells us, Emily said of her husband, “ ‘He did not feel that he had been sent into this world merely to live and prosper to himself alone’.”
A Shakespearean gem
Happily for Levenger customers, Henry Folger collected other Shakespeare books along with those coveted First Folios. Among them was a limited edition of one, published in the 1920s, of some of Shakespeare’s songs and sonnets. What made the book so compelling was its over-the-top design, including a leather cover in which nestled four brilliant sapphires.
The artist Alberto Sangorski created it, and it is probably the only time that Shakespeare has been presented in an Art Deco-inspired illuminated manuscript.
We’re happy to report that the Folger entrusted this treasure to Levenger Press, to produce a facsimile edition that’s nearly as beautiful as the original. (We had to forgo the sapphires.)
If Henry Folger were around today, he would no doubt be pleased with the success of what had begun as, in his words, “a modest library.” He was someone who did well and did good, giving the country a magnificent library of Shakespeare, preserving for the world a treasure trove of books rare and wonderful.