The Folger collection began in 1889 with Henry Folger's first purchase of a rare book. Already fascinated by Shakespeare, he paid $107.50 for a copy of the 1685 Fourth Folio of the plays. Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger spent decades gathering the world's largest Shakespeare collection, broadly defined to include Shakespeare's era as well.
As Henry continued to work full-time as an oil company executive, Emily tracked the growing collection and flagged possible purchases. When the complete collection was transported to the Folger Shakespeare Library before the library's 1932 opening, it came to an astonishing 200,000 items in 2,109 packing cases.
In 1938, the library gained a new strength in English printed books with the purchase of most of the private library of the late Sir Leicester Harmsworth, which came to about 10,000 books, including small, later purchases from the estate. After the war, from 1948 to 1968, Folger Director Louis B. Wright added substantial materials from the Renaissance in Europe, acquiring 22,000 continental books and 19,000 more English books. That growth continues to this day, with new acquisitions which build on the collection's existing strengths.