Folger Shakespeare Library

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1932

In 1879, Henry Folger was a senior at Amherst College, which he attended with financial aid from generous private individuals. That year he attended a lecture on Shakespeare given by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It sparked a lifelong fascination. His wife, Emily, came to share the bug, eventually writing a master’s thesis on the Bard.

Starting as a clerk, Folger built a career in the oil industry. He ended up as president of the firm eventually known as Mobil Oil. A few years out of college, Henry bought his first Shakespeare facsimile text for $1.25. During his working years, he and Emily built up the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, including rare antique folios and supporting publications of all sorts.

When Henry retired in 1928, the couple devoted their full energies to planning the library that would house their collection. Henry died unexpectedly in 1930, just after the 1929 stock crash wiped out most of his fortune. Nonetheless, in 1932 Emily offered the elaborate library, along with several millions of dollars in endowment, as a gift to the nation—planting it in Washington, D.C., adjoining the Library of Congress.

Thanks to the Folgers’ support, the library was able to steadily expand its holdings to become the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England. Its exhibitions, lectures, and publications, plus Folger Theatre productions, early-music concerts, and poetry and fiction readings, make it one of the cultural gems of our nation’s capital.