Travel to England by Henry and Emily Folger, 1903 – 1923

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Henry and Emily Folger signatures in Guest Book at Holy Trinity Church, 1905

Henry Folger was unlike his executive colleagues at the Standard Oil Company in New York who vacationed in Florida and California or cruised the Mediterranean. He took his wife and collecting partner Emily to England eleven times between 1903 and 1923. In the first year, 1903, he purchased as many as EIGHT First Folios: Folger number 1, 17, 33, 45, 47, 48, 56, and 64 out of the eighty-two copies he purchased over a lifetime. In the last year, 1923, he stepped down as president of Standard Oil Company of New York to become the oil giant’s chairman of the board. That year, he acquired only one First Folio, number 53.

The Folgers traveled from New York to London and back on the steamship Minnehaha of the American-owned Atlantic Transport Line, piloted by Captain John Robinson of Watford, Hertfordshire. (See previous blogpost on the colorful Captain.) The Folgers enjoyed Shakespeare plays in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, paid homage to the Bard’s birthplace, and consummated major book collecting deals. On their first trip, Folger brought back what he termed the “most precious book in the world,” the Vincent First Folio to which he bestowed the honored number 1. On their second trip, he wrote up the story of its purchase and––after several rejection letters––got it published in Outlook magazine in November 1908, one of his rare publications about their book-buying adventures.

The Folgers each obtained tickets to spend to spend two days in the British Museum Reading Room in 1903. Henry asked to see John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays and studied Shakespeare’s signature therein. Folger was often offered for sale “genuine” Shakespeare signatures on documents that were fakes.

Folgers’ admission tickets to British Museum for two days, 1903

In Stratford, the Folgers stayed in room 10 at the Golden Lion Hotel, J. Fry, Proprietor. Ye Peacock Inn in Shakespeare’s time, the site was a Marks & Spencer department store when I visited in 2008. Stratford-upon-Avon remembered Henry Clay Folger––with a photo and caption––in an exhibition at the Nash House, the home of Shakespeare’s granddaughter. The Folgers met up at the Berkeley Hotel in London with John Anderson of Anderson Galleries, a NYC auction house. Emily jotted down notes in a diary of her British stays.

The Folgers stayed at the Golden Lion Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon

On August 25, 1905, the Folgers signed the Guest Book at the Holy Trinity Church on the same day as several visitors from nearby Cheltenham, one from Glasgow, and a fellow New Yorker. That year, they brought home to New York the eight-page Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, the Parish Magazine, and the street plan and guide of Stratford to add to their growing Shakespeare collection. In 1905, they paid sixpence apiece for tickets nos. 317 and 318 to view the New Place Museum, foundations, and garden.

One hundred ten years later, in 2015, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust announced a “new chapter” in Shakespeare’s final home, New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, where they will transform the site into an imaginative heritage attraction. It is the kind of project in which the organizers would definitely have sought Folger’s financial support. To such solicitations Folger responded in one of two ways: sometimes with a check, but more often with profuse apologies, explaining that he was putting all his disposable funds into his Shakespeare collection.

Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.
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