Henry Clay Folger was born in New York City on June 18, 1857. His father, who was also named Henry Clay Folger, was a wholesale millinery dealer; his mother’s maiden name was Eliza Jane Clark. Young Henry Folger was a tenth-generation descendant of the Nantucket settler Peter Folger, a surveyor and school-teacher. Peter Folger’s daughter, Abiah, was the mother of Benjamin Franklin, and another family member, Maria Mitchell, was the first female astronomer in America.
Henry Folger was the oldest of eight children. To help his mother, he assumed many responsibilities at home; Emily Folger later wrote, “he used to say that when he took up a book he unconsciously reached out for a cradle ‘to rock with the other foot.’” Henry Folger prepared for college as a scholarship student at Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn and entered Amherst College in the fall of 1875. He completed his studies at Amherst with financial aid from private individuals, including the father of his roommate Charles Pratt.
Upon graduation in 1879, Henry Folger took up a clerkship in an oil company owned by Pratt’s father and associated with Standard Oil. While he learned the oil business, he received a law degree with honors from Columbia University in 1881 as well as a master’s degree from Amherst. In 1885, Henry Folger married Emily Jordan, who became a vital supporting partner in his lifetime project of collecting Shakespeare materials.
Henry Folger’s interests outside of Shakespeare included music and golf. A boy soprano who became a baritone, he sang in the Amherst glee club and choir and later supported amateur choral societies. This interest, together with the incidental songs in Shakespeare’s plays, led him to collect early modern music in both printed and manuscript forms. An avid golfer, Henry Folger often played with Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller and invented his own putting technique, somewhat reminiscent of a croquet stroke.
In 1911, after the antitrust break-up of Standard Oil, Henry Folger became president of Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil Oil). Three years later, Amherst granted him an honorary doctorate for his efforts in collecting Shakespeare’s works. Henry Folger became chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York in 1923, and retired in March 1928 to devote himself full-time to plans for the Folger Shakespeare Library. On June 11, 1930, he died unexpectedly of heart failure following an operation.