Folger, Henry Clay 1857-1930

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FOLGER, Henry Clay 1857-1930

PERSONAL: Born June 18, 1857, in New York, NY; died June 11, 1930, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Henry Clay (a wholesale milliner) and Eliza Jane (Clark) Folger; married Emily C. Jordan, October 6, 1885. Education: Attended Adelphi Academy, Brooklyn, NY; Amherst College, A.B., 1879; Columbia University, LL.B. (cum laude), 1881. Religion: Congregationalist.

CAREER: Industrialist and book collector. Pratt & Co. (oil company), began as clerk c. 1879, became secretary and then chairman of the manufacturing committee; Standard Oil Co., director in New Jersey, beginning 1908, then director in New York, president, beginning 1911, became chairman of board of directors.

AWARDS, HONORS: Litt.D., Amherst College, 1914.


A Tribute to the Memory of Charles Pratt: An Address at Pratt Institute, on Founder's Day, October 2, 1903, privately printed, 1903.

A Unique First Folio, photographs by George Dupont Pratt, Outlook (New York, NY), 1907.

SIDELIGHTS: During his senior year at Amherst College, Henry Clay Folger heard a lecture that would change his life. It was one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's last public lectures, "Superlative or Mental Temperance." It inspired Folger to read Emerson's essays on Shakespeare, including "The Tercentenary of Shakespeare's Birth," and Shakespeare's works enthralled him thereafter. As soon as he could, he began collecting books by and about the poet and dramatist. The result was the Henry Clay Folger Shakespeare Library, the largest Shakespeare library in the world. John Quincy Adams, the Folger's first librarian, was quoted by William Baker in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as having once said, "Here . . . in almost unbelievable fullness and richness, we assembled books, pamphlets, documents, manuscripts, relics, curios, oil-paintings, original drawings, watercolors, prints, statues, busts, medals, coins, miscellaneous objects of art, furniture, tapestries, playbills, prompt-books, stage properties, actors' costumes, and other material designed to illustrate the poet at his times. The library is thus more than a mere library; it is also a museum of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and a memorial to the influence that Shakespeare has exerted upon the world's culture."

Folger, raised Congregationalist, attended Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn before enrolling at Amherst College. During his junior year his father's business failed, and Henry had to attend the College of the City of New York. His childhood friend and Amherst classmate Charles Pratt, and another classmate, William M. Ladd, guaranteed the funding needed for him to continue his studies at Amherst. Folger graduated from Amherst with an A.B. and was elected Phi Beta Kappa in 1879. He then studied law at Columbia University, supporting himself through school with a job at Pratt's father's oil business. In 1885, four years after he graduated from Columbia, he married another Shakespeare enthusiast, Vassar College graduate Emily C. Jordan. She became a vital partner in Folger's collection of Shakespearean works, and helped purchase books and catalogued the collection.

Folger remained with Pratt & Co. following his graduation. He advanced from clerk to secretary and eventually chairman of the manufacturing committee. As chairman he worked with the management of one of the company's big plants, the Standard Oil Co. In 1908 Folger was elected director of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, and the next year director of the Standard Oil Co. of New York. When the Standard Oil trust dissolved in 1911 he helped reorganize it, and became president of the New York company. During his years with Standard Oil its original capital of $5,000,000 grew to $450,000,000 by 1927. By 1928 its net income was $39,645,228 and it owned the entire outstanding stock of several other companies, including the Tank Storage and Carriage Co. Ltd. of Great Britain, the Standard Transportation Co., the Lotus Oil and Distributing Corp. and the Magnolia Co. of Texas. Five years after becoming chairman of the board of directors, Folger left his job to dedicate himself to his Shakespearean library.

Folger had begun purchasing Shakespearean works shortly after he graduated, starting with the Handy Volume Edition of Shakespeare, published by Routledge. For the rest of his life, and throughout his travels, he always kept at least one of the thirteen volumes by him. He competed directly with Henry E. Huntington and another collector, known as the "dean" of Shakespeare collectors, William A. White. White and Huntington, however, collected in other areas while Folger only collected Shakespearean-related materials. Dealers knew this, and often made their first offers to Folger. His first major purchase was a Halliwell-Phillipps edition of Shakespeare's first folio in reduced facsimile. At that time, he had no intentions of starting a collection; he simply wanted to learn more about Shakespeare. But as he studied the edition and discovered the remarkable differences between the first folio text in his facsimile and the contemporary edition, he felt compelled to study more original editions. By the time he completed his collection he had every known issue, but one, of each of the four Shakespeare folios. His collection also included some of the first and rarest of the quartos, including a rare copy of "Titus Andronicus" (1594) purchased from the Lund library in Sweden, and the Gwynn volume, the only known copy of a collected edition of nine plays, which Thomas Pavier and William Jaggard brought out in 1619. Another significant purchase was the Vincent copy of the first folio, brought out in 1623 and still with the original bindings and uncut leaves.

The Folgers took several trips to England to add to the collection, combing auction houses and book catalogues. When he could not travel, Folger had agents search and bid for him. Collecting became the childless couple's obsession, and they lived simply to better fund their collection. As quoted by Baker, by 1889 Folger described his collection in a letter to a friend as "a modest library." Later he wrote that he had "been signally fortunate . . . quite beyond my greatest hopes and have made a collection of material illustrating Shakespeare which I believe will soon be notable." By 1909 his vision for his library had expanded. He wrote that he had "found the means of adding to my collection of Shakespeareana until it is the largest and finest in America, perhaps the world. That is really saying a great deal, for collecting Shakespeareana has been the life-work of many students during the past hundred years." Amherst College awarded Folger with an Litt.D., in 1914.

Once the Folgers realized they had the finest Shakespearean collection in America, if not the world, they started plans to construct a building for it in Washington, D.C. Folger wanted to create a building whose exterior would match the classic architecture of the nearby Library of Congress and U.S. Supreme Court buildings, and whose interior would reference Elizabethan England. The library had room for 150,000 volumes, a study room, a reading room, an exhibition gallery, reception and administration rooms and an auditorium based on a Shakespearean theater. Though Folger died before the building was completed, he lived to see the cornerstone laid on May 28, 1930, less than two weeks before his death. The library was left in the trust of Amherst College trustees with an endowment for maintenance and expansion.

The Henry Clay Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1931. It had 80,000 volumes, including those owned by other well-known authors, scholarly works on Shakespeare, prompt books, and manuscripts. There were 1,400 different copies of Shakespeare's collected works, with seventy-nine copies of the first folio, fifty of the second folio, and twenty-four of the third folio. Among Shakespeare's poetic works are two copies of the sonnets from their first printing in 1609, and ten copies of the first collected edition, published in 1640. Folger had written several monographs on Shakespearean subjects. These have a place in the library, as do Tudor and Stuart histories. As Adams noted, the library also holds art works, furniture, and other related artifacts.



Adams, Joseph Quincy, The Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library: A Report on Progress, 1931-1941, Trustees of Amherst College (Amherst, MA), 1942.

Catalog of the Manuscripts of the Folger Shakespeare Library, [Boston, MA], 1971.

Catalog of Printed Books in the Folger Shakespeare Library, [Boston, MA], 1970.

Dictionary of American Book Collectors, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 140, American Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

The Folger Shakespeare Library Washington, Trustees of Amherst College (Amherst, MA), 1933.

Henry C. Folger, 18 June 1857-11 June 1930, privately printed (New Haven, CT), 1931.

Wright, Louis B., The Folger Library: A Decade of Growth 1950-1960, Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC), 1960.

Wright, Louis B., The Folger Library: Two Decades of Growth: An Informed Account, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, NC), 1968.


Outlook, November 23, 1907.*