June 18, 1857 — Henry Clay Folger was born in New York city on this day. He was to become president at the Standard Oil Company of New York and amassed a fortune that would allow him to indulge his passion – collecting rare works of Shakespeare.
As his collection grew, he spent nine years purchasing 14 houses in East Capitol Street, Washington DC, which he would demolish to build the Folger Shakespeare Library as a gift to the American people.
It opened in 1932 on April 23, the date traditionally believed to be Shakespeare's birthday, and today houses books and manuscripts worth millions.
When writer and actor William Shakespeare died in 1616 there was no printed record of any of his works. But two of his fellow actors – John Heminge and Henry Condell – decided that their friend’s words were too good to be lost and collected together the original prompter’s scripts.
Carefully editing them based on their own experience of actually performing in the plays, they arranged for a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and poems to be printed in 1623. The two men conceived of the project, they said, “without ambition either of self-profit or fame,” but “only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive.”
This was the First Folio. It is estimated that about 750 of them were printed. And one of these original books was sold by Christie’s, New York, in October 2020. It went via a phone bid to a private rare book collector for nearly 10 million dollars.
Another 233 First Folios are known to survive worldwide. The British Library owns five. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns 82 – the largest collection in the world. Only six complete copies are known to be owned privately.
Folger director Michael Witmore says that their First Folios are to be found several stairways down, in a rare manuscript vault. To reach
them, he says, you first have to get through a fire door. “If a fire did threaten these priceless objects,” he adds, “it would be extinguished not with water – never water near priceless paper – but with a system that removes oxygen from the room.”
A massive safe door comes next — so heavy it takes two guards to open it, and then yet another door, which triggers an alarm to alert librarians that someone has entered. After that, says Mr Witmore, “there's yet another door and an elevator 'waaaay' down to a vault that nearly spans the length of a city block.”
In addition to its Shakespeare collection, the library’s treasures include about 260,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts, 90,000 prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, and other works of art from Renaissance Europe. There is also a wealth of performance history, from a quarter of a million playbills to films, recordings, and stage costumes.
Such is the reverence in which the First Folio is held that the charred remains of a burnt copy are kept in a glass case at the University of Pennsylvania. And because the remains are too fragile to travel, a replica of the damaged book in its glass has been created for the Folger Library.
The remains came about after the 19th-century American actor Edwin Forrest bought a First Folio and kept it in a specially built glass case. In his will he left it, along with much of his wealth, to the establishment of a Home for Decayed Actors in Philadelphia.
But after his death a fire reduced what had been his most precious possession to a few charred remains. They have been kept in the glass case ever since.
“Perhaps the only book,” according to Folger, “whose remains are preserved in a specially constructed sarcophagus.”
Published: March 3, 2021
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