Henry Folger and Emily Jordan were born in the mid-19th century, a time in which performing Shakespeare was frowned upon but reading it was encouraged. Many American families owned only two books: Shakespeare and the Bible.

Folger and Jordan were from thrifty middle-class families. Each was educated at a newly emerging liberal arts college—he at Amherst, she at Vassar. Introduced years later, they married and became partners in an enormous life’s work: collecting Shakespeareana for the New World.

They started this venture in 1885, two weeks after their wedding, while still living with his parents. By 1932, several decades and one oil fortune later, the Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated on prime real estate in Washington, D.C. It houses the fruits of their labor: 82 First Folios, 275,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts.

Grant at the Folger, standing in between portraits of  the library’s founders. Robert C. Lautman Photography, National Building Museum.
Grant at the Folger, standing in between portraits of the library’s founders. Robert C. Lautman Photography, National Building Museum.

In Collecting Shakespeare, Stephen H. Grant ’63 traces a unique story of collecting. Even without his interest in Shakespeare, Folger’s life would be of interest: He rose from modest means to become a right-hand man to Rockefeller at Standard Oil.

Folger traced his roots to a Nantucket whaling family. His parents were stretched so thin that they had to take him out of Amherst for a time. In the end, he had Charlie Pratt (of the Brooklyn Pratts) as a roommate, so he was well primed to get a job at Pratt’s father’s company, Standard Oil.

Folger made himself invaluable to Rockefeller by compiling reports and gathering data, and at one point operating a front company, which reaped great profits. Navigating through Standard Oil’s growth, Folger amassed an enormous fortune. Although he probably gained the lion’s share of that fortune through running and later selling the oil front, Grant goes to pains to show how the Folgers were also exceptionally frugal—he froze water in a pan to save money on ice delivery, and he went to work with sandwiches in his pocket.

The Folgers assembled a vast array of manuscripts—books on music, psychology, Shakespearean instruments and nearly every other subject the Bard touches, which is to say, nearly everything. In accounting for this grand project, Grant’s book slants toward Henry, though Emily probably did most of the reviewing of catalogs and selecting of materials for acquisition. Grant wonders if Folger saw his intelligent, dedicated partner as a “Portia,” without also wondering whether she saw her husband as a Prospero, Hamlet or Puck.

At times, Grant buries interesting facts in favor of unstinting praise—each chapter seems to end with a paean to the couple’s greatness. And Grant is so eager to paint a picture of the ever-frugal Folgers that he underplays the somewhat questionable sources of their money. Grant might have told the story more boldly, with no less respect for Folger’s successes. Indeed, endless praise (“The Folger family exuded affection, frugality, and trust in divine wisdom”) sometimes deadens the tale. The book doesn’t reveal much about Shakespeare studies at the time, and it is sometimes hard to trace exactly what motivated the Gilded Age couple to this particular grand obsession.

Nevertheless, Collecting Shakespeare shows the arc of a couple’s long and grand ambition. Those of us affiliated with Amherst will enjoy details of the young Folger’s life at the college circa 1875: how he endeavored to save money by doing his own laundry but ended up burning his socks on the stove, or how he overindulged a time or two with Pratt and then regained equilibrium by skipping breakfast.

Here’s one detail that haunted me: Folger won an undergraduate essay contest that paid $100—then worth a year’s tuition. Later he endowed a prize that allows Amherst students to study at the Folger. It does not cover a year’s tuition, certainly, but it’s a rich luxury and a truly grand gift. Folger gave back in enormous measure. Having access to a library like the Folger enriches us all.

Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

Stephen Grant '63 and Kent Faerber ’63.

Interview with author Stephen Grant '63

Listen to a conversation about the book between Stephen Grant '63 and Kent Faerber ’63, and read an excerpt, reviews and blog post by the author.

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Why Amherst runs the Folger

Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, became president of Standard Oil Co. He died in 1930, two years before the Folger Shakespeare Library’s dedication. His will specified that the library be administered by Amherst—a move that came as a surprise to the college. The library is now home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.

Tess Taylor ’00 is the author of a book of poems, The Forage House. She is a visiting assistant professor at Whittier College and reviews poetry for NPR.