By Gail Kern Paster
Preparation for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 75th anniversary this spring has involved many trips to our archives, where information about the original dedication and the Folgers’ own papers reside. The latter collection includes not only all correspondence between London book dealers and Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, but other personal papers of both Henry and Emily Folger.
The results of our research have given us a deeper sense of who these two remarkable people were. Clearly collectors by nature, they retained the biographical bits and pieces that most of us throw away. An enthusiastic member of the Amherst glee club, Henry held onto his concert programs. He kept programs of Amherst football games. In letters he wrote home to his mother from college, he told her of trying to save money by doing his own laundry, only to singe his clothes by leaving them too close to the fire. Such detail reminds us of this successful Standard Oil businessman’s humble beginning. It is wonderful to have an informal glimpse of the younger man in a photo of Henry and his Alpha Delta brothers arranged casually in front of their fraternity house.
Perhaps because the Folgers were childless, the archives contain many surprisingly personal effects—Masonic memorabilia, for example, and relics from America’s Gilded Age, such as Henry Folger’s monogrammed gold brushes and the golden bowl engraved with Shakespeare quotations given by Standard Oil upon his retirement in 1928. We even have some of Emily Folger’s jewelry, given by her husband on special occasions, including a wonderful hair ornament made of white horsehair and studded with diamonds.
The presence of such artifacts in the Folger archives reminds us that this institution was the personal creation of two individuals deeply devoted to a private life of collecting rare books together. Just as the ashes of Henry and Emily Folger are buried behind a bronze plaque in the Reading Room, so they left in our care the material remnants of their lives on earth. On the library’s 75th anniversary, these effects show us how personal this stewardship sometimes is.
Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened in 1932 with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.