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The Secretive Couple Behind D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library

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Afraid the price of antiquarian books would skyrocket if their names were revealed, Henry and Emily Folger secretly acquired prime real estate on Capitol Hill to build what would become the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library
Afraid the price of antiquarian books would skyrocket if their names were revealed, Henry and Emily Folger secretly acquired prime real estate on Capitol Hill to build what would become the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Eighty-two years ago, William Shakespeare received a rather distinctive birthday present: A library devoted to him and his works, in the heart of the nation’s capital.

The Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated on April 23, 1932. It was founded by Henry and Emily Folger: a couple deeply dedicated to each other, and to The Bard.

Author Stephen H. Grant in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Reading Room. (Courtesy of Robert C. Lautman Photography, National Building Museum)

Stephen H. Grant is the author of the new book, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger. He says in addition to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 82 first folios, “there are 92,000 other books that the Folgers collected over a 40-year period. That comes down to six books a day!”

Sadly, Henry died in 1930, so he never saw his library completed. But now, more than eight decades later, it houses some 275,000 books — along with scads of playbills, records, maps, charts, drawings, costumes, statues, etc. — making it the largest Shakespeare collection in the world.

And as Grant points out, Henry and Emily Folger’s collection really stood out from the private libraries their social peers were assembling during the Gilded Age.

“A lot of collectors who had the money went to book dealers and said, ‘What should be in a gentleman’s collection?’” he explains. “They weren’t necessarily going to read these books. But they thought they looked very nice in their library.

“The Folgers never saw it that way. They wanted to put together a collection of books that scholars all over the world could consult and use to further their own understanding of Shakespeare and his times.”

Grant likes to say that Henry and Emily Folger had “a double love story.”

“[They] spent a lot of time together,” he says. “They were rarely separated, so there are no love letters from one to the other. But it’s clear that Emily and Henry loved each other.”

And of course, he adds, they both loved Shakespeare.

“In the [Folger Shakespeare Library’s] Reading Room, above the portraits of the Folgers is a bust of William Shakespeare,” Grant says. “So I like to say that you have Will, Henry and Emily, and in Anglo-American literary history this is the most famous ménage a trois!”

In a way, Grant says, the Folgers embodied the “marriage of true minds” that Shakespeare refers to in his Sonnet 116.

“[They] put together the perfect collecting machine,” Grant explains. “When Henry came home at the end of the day, Emily had gone through auction catalogues that had arrived from the British auction houses.

She had turned down the corner of the page. She had taken her pencil and put a big question mark as though to say, ‘Henry, we need this for our collection, don’t we?’ And then Henry would spend half the night putting together a bid list. And that would be the beginning.”

Folger Theatre, a 250-seat Elizabethan-style theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library. (Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library)

As to why and how the Folgers selected Washington, D.C., as the site for their Shakespeare collection, Grant says it wasn’t necessarily their top choice.

“I found in the [Folger’s] underground vault a penciled list of 10 locations,” he explains. “It was undated and locations included Amherst, Brooklyn, New York, D.C., Stratford on Avon and a few more.”

But in 1919, when Henry and Emily were delayed at Union Station on a rainy day, they decided to take a walk.

“They walked those 10 minutes from Union Station to Capitol Hill and they started looking around,” Grant recounts.

Henry then sent a real-estate agent a diagram, with instructions to inquire “very cautiously” about four different locations. In return, the Folgers received a promising report, and they chose a 50,000-square-foot tract on East Capitol Street between Second and Third streets SE.

“After the Folgers decided this would be the best [location], they secretly started buying up 14 red brick row houses,” Grant explains. “This was a very opulent street and it took them over eight years to buy out the owners or wait for leases to run out.”

In the late 1920s, once they had possession of all 14 houses, Henry Folger read some rather alarming news in the Washington Post: a bill pending in Congress would give their properties to the Library of Congress for a planned annex.

This news prompted Henry to write a letter to the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam: “Should I give up the thought of making Washington the choice for a location?” he asked.

“Another Librarian of Congress might have written back to say, “Sorry, mac, that’s life in the big city!” says Grant. “But [Putnam] didn’t. He wrote back and said, ‘Having you as a neighbor would be perfect. We complement each other. We are general, you’re specific. We are public, you’re private. We couldn’t ask for anything better.’”

And thus, the Folger Shakespeare Library came to be built at 201 East Capitol Street SE.

As for what they would call their new institution, Henry and Emily had a lot of discussions.

“For a while the word ‘memorial’ was on the Folgers’ mind, and then they decided that wasn’t good,” Grant explains. “So they’d call it a ‘foundation, [but] that wasn’t right.

“So when the Folgers decided on ‘Folger Shakespeare Library,’ Henry wrote the architect to say, ‘We want this to be called the ‘Folger Shakespeare Library,’ but we want the word ‘Shakespeare’ to be written in a larger font than ‘Folger’ or ‘Library.’”

And that’s exactly what came to pass. On the building’s dedication day — April 23, 1932 — newspapers reported that the guest list comprised the largest cultural gathering ever held in Washington. The doors officially opened to the public in January 1933, and today holds the largest Shakespeare collection in the world.

As Stephen Grant points out: “It all started with one couple and their vision.”

Music: "Romeo & Juliet" by The Dreamers from Dad's Album - Instrumentals


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