One of the questions most frequently asked about the First Folio is, “How much did it cost when it was new?” The traditional answer is “one pound” (20 shillings), but that is only partly true. Three copies are known to have cost a pound each, but another originally cost only 15 shillings. A few years later, copies of the Second Folio of 1632 were sold for 16 shillings, 18 shillings sixpence, and 22 shillings, respectively. The question of the original price (or prices) therefore deserves a more detailed answer.
Based on the customary mark-ups by the printer, the publisher, and the bookseller, we can be reasonably certain that an unbound copy of the First Folio would have normally cost 15 shillings in London. Books were not usually bound before they reached the retailers, and many were not bound until after purchase. A London bookseller would probably have marked up the binders’ price by his usual 50 percent when he sold a book ready-bound. Common binding materials included vellum (untanned calfskin), forel (parchment—sheepskin or goatskin—dressed to resemble vellum), and calf.
The real answer to the question of how much the Folio cost, therefore, is a range rather than a price. Although unbound copies would have cost 15 shillings in London, bound copies would have cost about 16 to 17 shillings in a limp forel binding, 17 shillings to 18 shillings sixpence in forel-covered boards, and about a pound in a plain calf binding. No copy of the First Folio is known to have survived in either kind of forel binding; contemporary calf bindings are not uncommon, but most are either broken or more or less extensively restored.
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Excerpted and adapted from Peter W. M. Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare, © Folger Library Publications, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1991