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The Millionaire and the Bard

by on February 23rd, 2016
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I always wondered why the Folger Shakespeare Library is in Washington DC, and not in England; now I know. The Millionaire and the Bard is a fascinating read about Henry and Emily Folger, a husband-and-wife team who spent their married life researching and acquiring Shakespeare’s works, and then built a library to house them.

There’s something for everyone: the history of the publication of Shakespeare’s works; the cut-throat competition in the acquisitions race for the limited number of copies of the plays; the philosophical question of where Shakespeare’s works should reside—in their home country or abroad; how the Folgers decided what the building that housed their collection should look like.

Henry Clay Folger worked his way up in the Standard Oil companies, and eventually became chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York. He and his wife lived humbly, though, and funneled all of their financial resources into collecting printed editions of Shakespeare’s works. They were largely self-taught book collectors, and nurtured alliances with antiquarian booksellers and collectors. Emily Folger kept detailed records of their acquisitions, and when the collection outgrew their home, they began storing the documents in warehouses.

The Folgers were especially interested in the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays which was published seven years after his death. Today it is believed that 233 copies exist of the approximately 700 copies that were printed in early 1600s. The Folgers acquired 82 First Folios, along with thousands of other manuscripts, books and art about Shakespeare and ephemera such as playbills and prompt books.

The Millionaire and the Bard is great background reading in advance of our opportunity to see a First Folio edition for ourselves. The University of Iowa Libraries will be the Iowa stop this fall on a nationwide tour of a First Folio from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

 

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