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The Collation

The Mysterious Case of Folger First Folio 33

Shakespeare’s First Folio has been under the microscope for centuries, studied by historians, students of literature, and actors, as well as by those who are convinced that the works of the Bard are hiding something. As many of you may have discovered through our current exhibition (First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour), the histories of the First Folios in our collections can certainly be mysterious. Today, I would like to present some unanswered questions about Folger First Folio number 33 that came to light while preparing for this exhibit.

a first folio resting on a cradle in a display case, open to about 3/4 of the way through

Folger STC 22273 Fo. 1 no. 33, on display in First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour as “The Understudy Copy”

Part I: The Journey of Folger First Folio number 33

As you’ll see if you visit our Great Hall before January 22, 2017, or read about this First Folio online, this particular copy of the First Folio was purchased by Henry Sotheran at a Sotheby’s auction in 1903, and a few months later, Henry Folger snapped it up for $825. Its previous owner, Mr. Robert Roberts of Lincolnshire, had purchased it from the London publishing firm Chatto & Windus in 1876. These publishers purchased it in 1875 for the express purpose of producing a reduced facsimile (where the original, large folio volume would be “reduced” in size to a handy quarto-sized volume). J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps, the renowned Shakespearean scholar, wrote a preface praising the facsimile’s size and utility to scholars, and it appeared for sale in 1876. Prior to Chatto & Windus’s 1875 purchase of the Folio from Thomas Hayes, noted only as “a Manchester bookseller” in Sidney Lee’s 1902 census, we have no records of this copy’s provenance.

quarto-sized book next to a reproduction sized book

This is the 1876 reduced facsimile next to our to-size reproduction of a First Folio made in 2016, currently on display (and available for touching!) in the Great Hall. (Photo by Elizabeth DeBold)

side by side images of a facsimile first folio and a real one, both open to the first page of the Tempest

Left: The 1876 Chatto & Windus reduced facsimile made through photolithography; Right: Folger First Folio number 33, printed in 1623. While the images are nearly the same size, the reduced facsimile is significantly smaller than the actual Folio.

Part II: Mrs. Henry Pott

In December of 1885, Constance M. Pott (an amateur scholar living in London who published her work as Mrs. Henry Pott), founded what would, in 1886, officially become the Francis Bacon Society. Founding members of the society believed (as many members do today) that a combination of textual and historical evidence proved that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. Bacon (1561-1626) was a statesman and philosopher who served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor under James I. Although support for Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works has been around since the late 18th century, this seems to be the first formal society dedicated to that hypothesis.

Black bound book with inlaid gold title "Francis Bacon and His Secret Society" with compliments card of Constance Pott is laid in.

Francis Bacon and His Secret Society, 2nd ed., 1911. One of the books written by Constance Pott on Francis Bacon, including chapters on his life and works, supposed authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and connections with the Masons and Rosicrucians. Her compliments card is laid in the Folger’s copy (PR2944 .P66). (Photo by Elizabeth DeBold)

“Baconians,” as they came to be known,1 have always had a particular interest in ciphers and cryptography—after all, Bacon did produce a well-known cipher of his own. Many early members of the society searched meticulously throughout Shakespeare’s works using the Baconian Cipher, as well as searching for other secret codes that might indisputably prove their hypothesis of his authorship. Some claimed to have found such secret writings: Ignatius Donnelly (at one time a prominent U.S. Senator), wrote an 1,000-page treatise in 1888 called “The Great Cryptogram” that supposedly proved Bacon’s authorship, while Elizabeth Wells Gallup, an American schoolteacher, believed she had found a new play written entirely in cipher within Shakespeare’s works. She published “The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn” in 1901.

Constance Pott was good friends with Donnelly (among other Baconians), and fully embraced the idea that Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. She published several monographs on the subject (like the one show above), and seems to have devoted her enthusiastic energies almost exclusively to this cause. Soon after the publication of Chatto & Windus’s brand-new, reduced photolithographic facsimile, she and other Baconians took a fine-toothed comb to the reproduction, coming to the conclusion that they had discovered something of great importance.

Below the first page from a circular letter she distributed widely in 1889 to collectors, scholars, and anyone else working with rare books. I have also transcribed the letter which is worth reading in its (lengthy) entirety.

Mrs. Henry Pott, Circular Letter, January 30, 1889. Curatorial File. Photo by Elizabeth DeBold.

Mrs. Henry Pott, Circular Letter, January 30, 1889. Curatorial File. Photo by Elizabeth DeBold.

To sum up the contents, Constance Pott believed that she and John Cary, another Baconian, had discovered a “great and wonderful cipher system, running through the whole of the ‘Shakespeare Folio of 1623′” within the Chatto & Windus reduced facsimile. Upon attempting to compare the facsimile with the actual Folio used to produce the facsimile, she found that the marks that were so apparent to her in the facsimile no longer appeared in Folio number 33. She concluded, based on the information she had available, that the only possible explanation was that this copy of the First Folio had been “washed” to get rid of supposedly unsightly ink marks and rebound before being sold by Chatto & Windus, resulting in the loss of the cipher. Her impassioned letter pleads with anyone involved with the rare book trade and collecting to avoid the Victorian trend of washing out ink marks and stains in old books, saying that “we may fairly hope to discover other [unwashed, marked-up copies of early modern books], especially in old private libraries, whose books, even if they suffer from the damp or the weavils, escape a worse fate at the hands of restorers.”

Henry and Emily Folger, whose own interests in buying copies of books and manuscripts that had been heavily used and marked were anomalous even by early 20th-century standards of collecting, would have agreed. It is a remarkable letter, not only showing the connections between Baconian scholars in the 19th century and Constance Pott’s own scholarly processes, but in its appeal to preserve manuscript marginalia before many collectors or scholars saw the value of such “scribblings.”

Part III: Mysteries

We have at least three copies of this circular letter at the Folger—one possibly received by Robert Roberts or Henry Folger (pasted into Folio number 33 until removed by our Conservation Department in the early 1990s), one received by the Shakespearean scholar Samuel Timmins, and one received by the Baconian scholar Isaac Hull Platt. Here are some of the questions I was left with, after reading the letter:

  • Does Folger First Folio number 33 have signs of washing or other attempts to remove marginalia?
  • If leaves were washed or chemically treated, was it potentially also in relation to the photolithographic process used by Chatto & Windus?
  • Does the Folio show signs of having been disbound and rebound, as the current binding is dated circa 1823-1838?
  • How does the 1876 reduced facsimile compare to Folio number 33?
  • How does all of this reconcile with the very real presence of early modern manuscript marginalia that exists in Folio number 33 today?

Charlton Hinman, writing for Shakespeare Quarterly in 1954, roundly abused the 1876 Chatto & Windus reduced facsimile for signs of “tampering.” He proves that during the photolithographic process, someone used a heavy and ignorant hand to make corrections to errors that do exist in the First Folio and to make incorrect “corrections” (such as changing the word “Tunne-dish” on page 74 of the Comedies to “Tunnerdish,” which is not a word). According to Hinman’s collational work, the reduced facsimile was produced from Folger First Folio number 33 starting at the front matter all the way up to approximately mid-way through Henry IV, Part I, after which the publishers used the Staunton facsimile of 1866, the very first photolithographic facsimile of a First Folio. Chatto & Windus’s reduced facsimile is extremely unreliable, and not really a true facsimile at all. As Hinman puts it, “I doubt if Halliwell-Phillipps would have been so sanguine [in his preface] had he been fully aware of how far from exact the facsimile in question really is.” (p. 400)

In comparing the reduced facsimile (knowing its unreliability) to photographs of Folio number 33, I did find small markings that might have been the ones Mrs. Pott was describing. However, this is common with books from the period—the markings could be inclusions in the paper, accidents, or evidence of early readership. Like Robert Roberts, I did not find any evidence of systematic markings in the sections used for making the facsimile. Unfortunately, since Constance Pott doesn’t describe the markings in her circular letter, there is no way of knowing whether the markings she claimed to have found were in the portions of the reduced facsimile created from Folio number 33, if they were the result of the erratic, corrective impulses of Chatto & Windus, carry-overs from the Staunton facsimile, or flecks of matter that found their way onto the plates during the photolithographic process.

In terms of marginalia, the question that puzzled me the most was the inscription “Sir Andrew, barton, Knight, pulled down his britches…” on page 100 of the Comedies (at the very end of Comedy of Errors).

detail image of "Sir Andrew Barton" inscription

It doesn’t appear in the facsimile, and a Folger cataloger determined that the leaf was supplied from another copy, supposedly in an attempt to make a complete copy. If Chatto & Windus attempted to wash or chemically correct other marginalia for photographic purposes, wouldn’t this piece of marginalia have been washed away, as well? If Folio number 33 was lacking a leaf and another was supplemented during the re-binding process post-photography for sales purposes, wouldn’t they have washed this leaf too, or found a cleaner one to supply?2

The inscription itself is not contemporaneous to the early modern period, either—although it is meant to look like a contemporary hand, our Folger cataloger determined that it was added later. Additionally, as you may have guessed, “Sir Andrew , barton, Knight, pulled down his britches…” isn’t an ownership inscription. Sir Andrew Barton (or Bartin) was a Scottish privateer whose supposed beheading after a furious sea battle by English noblemen became the subject of Child ballad 167 (and possibly 250), written in the 17th century, and was further immortalized in verse by poets such as Kipling and Emerson in the 19th century.

The removal of ink, stains, or other spots from early modern books was common in the 19th century, as Constance Pott alluded to in her letter. A manual from The Art of Bookbinding by Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf, published in 1890, states at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Washing and Cleaning” that “[t]he binder is often called upon to clean books; to many he is a sort of Aladdin, who makes old books into new; the consequence is that he often has placed in his hands a lot of dirty, miserable-looking books, and is expected to turn them into first-class copies” (p. 157). The Zaehnsdorf and two other manuals from the period, Bookbinding and the Care of Books (1901) by Douglas Cockerell and Bibliopegia (1865) by John Hannett recommend oxalic acid or a bath of alum for washing out ink stains (among other chemical treatments). In asking our Conservation Department about the topic, they informed me that while it’s possible to spot-treat ink stains, iron-gall ink (of the variety that would have been used during the early modern period) would have eaten into the paper to a depth that would not have been possible to eradicate completely.

Marks could have been removed by scraping the surface of the pages, but if it were possible to correct unwanted marks on a lithostone or zinc plate, wouldn’t that be easier, and preferable? In spot-checking marks that appeared in the portions of Chatto & Windus’s reduced facsimile but not in Folio number 33 (again, less thoroughly than I would like, given Constance Pott’s lack of direction in her circular letter) I found no evidence of chemical spots, rubbings, or other markings that would indicate removal of marginalia in a systematic manner.

Another sentence stands out in Zaehnsdorf’s work: “[t]o wash a book, it is absolutely necessary to pull it to pieces” (p. 158). It’s highly likely that the book would have been disbound for the photolithographic process, as well—yet, if it had been disbound, wouldn’t the binding be contemporary to the 1870s or 1880s? The current binding on Folio number 33 was done by William Pitt Pratt, a London binder working around 1823-1838. In conversation with our conservators, I learned that although it was likely for a binder’s tools to be re-used after his death (especially if he were well-known or admired), it would be very unlikely for bookbinders using his tools to stamp bindings not produced by him with his name. Folio number 33’s binding is signed, or stamped, with William Pitt Pratt’s name.

Binding stamps

Binding stamps, used for decorating the bindings of rare books, from the Folger Conservation Lab.

W. Pratt's binding stamp

William Pitt Pratt signed the binding of Folger First Folio number 33 with “Bound by W. Pratt” on the bottom inside edge of the front board.

After examining the binding, our conservators don’t believe the Folio was disbound and then rebound in the same binding—the physics of binding a book wouldn’t allow the text block to appear as even and smoothly settled as it does in its current binding. So how was Folio number 33 photographed for the reduced facsimile if it wasn’t disbound?


Based on my conversations with Folger curators and conservators, I think the most likely scenario is that the notoriously “tampered-with” Chatto & Windus reduced facsimile simply includes some stray specks or spots that landed on the plates during the wet portion of the photolithographic production process, or that were so minute and interlinear that the corrector missed or was unable to wipe them out. We haven’t been able to determine yet whether the book was treated or washed (or if specific leaves were treated), but if it was treated, it seems likely that this treatment was completed while the text block was bound (ruling out complete washing), and with an agent that completely and utterly obliterated any iron gall ink marks without a trace, and without leaving a trace of itself. The binding appears to be authentic—if not, it is a meticulously-done facsimile of a Pratt binding; if the text block was disbound, washed, and then rebound into its early-19th-century binding, the process was done almost more perfectly than possible.

Constance Pott doesn’t mention any knowledge of the binding or cleaning processes common in the late 19th century in her letter, and based on her assumption that the 1876 reduced facsimile was made entirely from Folio number 33, she seems to lack any understanding of the alternative processes of facsimile production that might have resulted in odd marks in her reduced facsimile copy. I hope scholars, bookbinders, conservators, and historians will examine copies of the 1876 reduced facsimile and images of First Folio number 33 and its binding (it has been digitized cover to cover and a few additional images of the binding are available in LUNA) along with the information provided here, and furnish their own well-supported opinions as to what happened to this copy during the 19th century.

Many thanks to Folger curators and conservators for their consultation on this post.3

  1. According to the OED, “Baconian” has been used since the early 19th century to refer to Francis Bacon and his philosophical reasoning and scientific methods—since 1874, it has also been used to denote those who believe that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
  2. See Caroline Duroselle-Melish’s post on the “sophistication” of First Folios for more information on supplying leaves.
  3. Sources used in this post:
    Constance M. Pott (Mrs. Henry), Circular Letter, January 30 1889, Curatorial Files, Folger Shakespeare Library.

    Douglas Cockerell, Bookbinding and the Care of Books (D. Appleton & Co., 1901).

    John Hannett, Bibliopegia, or, Bookbinding: in Two Parts, 6th ed. (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1865).

    Charlton Hinman, “The “Halliwell-Phillipps Facsimile” of the First Folio of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 5, no. 4 (Autumn, 1954): 395-401.

    Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf, The Art of Bookbinding: a Practical Treatise, 2nd ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1890).