We have, unfortunately, almost no information about who originally bought the First Folios. Relatively few seventeenth-century owners inscribed their books, and fewer still used bookplates or personal binding stamps. Those who did so (and who were probably not “typical” owners) usually recorded their ownership on the most vulnerable parts of the book, which in most cases have now disappeared.
To the original purchases, and to most people who bought second-hand copies before the mid-1700s, the First Folio was not a historical artifact to preserve for future study, but a book to read and use. With repeated use, bindings cracked and boards became detached. Flyleaves were torn out to be used as blank paper; careless handling crumpled and tore the leaves at both ends of the book. When a board broke off, some of the leaves next to it often broke away, too, and were eventually discarded or lost.
To most owners before the late eighteenth century, a First Folio was merely an outdated book in poor condition. When the unique importance of the First Folio began to be more widely recognized, collectors who obtained copies usually had them cleaned, rebound, and (if possible) “perfected” with leaves from copies in worse condition. That process often destroyed all evidence of earlier ownership.
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Excerpted and adapted from Peter W. M. Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare, © Folger Library Publications, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991