A reduced facsimile of the First Folio was published in 1876. Shortly after his marriage in 1885, Henry Clay Folger gave a copy to his wife, Emily Jordan Folger, so that she could “see Shakespeare’s plays as they were originally given to the world.” Four years later he bought a copy of the Fourth Folio, beginning the formation of the largest and most important collection of printed Shakespeare that has ever been assembled. By the time he died, he had managed to collect more copies of each of the four Folios than had ever been assembled since each was first published.
Henry and Emily Folger kept careful records of his purchases, and, while not courting publicity, made no secret of the size of their collection. In a talk (later printed) that she gave in November 1923, Emily Folger commented that “With the thought of a Shakespeare Library which may serve the students to come, Mr. Folger has rather specialized in First Folios.”
It appears to be true that the motive behind Henry Folger’s almost obsessive desire to acquire as many First Folios as possible was the belief that it was important to collate large numbers of copies so that all the variants could be found. The fact that such variants in the First Folio text existed had been known to scholars since at least the 1840s. During the middle years of his collecting career, however, Henry Folger was more discriminating, and he turned down several copies that he considered inferior or overpriced.
It is not easy to define the Folger collection of First Folios as a precise number of copies. The number usually quoted is 82—the shelves contain 79 collections of Folio leaves to which Henry Folger himself gave numbers plus substantial collections of First Folio fragments that, if bound, would make up three additional copies.
To describe the collection as divided into “copies” and “fragments,” however, is to suggest a clear distinction where none exists. The collection includes both obvious copies and obvious fragments, but it ranges across a whole spectrum of completeness from perfect copies to defective single leaves. Charlton K. Hinman, author of the landmark 1963 study of the Folger First Folios, The Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, preferred to describe the number as “over eighty” copies.
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Excerpted and adapted from Peter W. M. Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare, © Folger Library Publications, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991