Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit conversation between Erica Ciallela and Sara Schliep as part of our discussion of The Personal Librarian, the first of a two-part series.
emma poltrack (Community and Audience Engagement Program Manager, Folger Shakespeare Library): Erica, I wanted to start with you. As with any work of historical fiction, The Personal Librarian takes a number of liberties. Can you give us an overview of some of the changes the authors made in telling Belle da Costa Greene’s story?
Erica Ciallela (Exhibition Project Curator for Belle da Costa Greene, A Librarian’s Legacy at The Morgan Library): (laughs) Yes, there were a number of changes made, but overall I will say the book has been wonderfully received at The Morgan–it is now our third leading reason for people visiting! I have had the opportunity to speak to Victoria [Christopher Murray] and understand some of the changes that were made and why. They really chose to fill in the gaps no one had answers to, and in doing so changed some dates and specific locations.
For example, we know the church that the Greener family attended in Washington, DC was actually the 15th St Presbyterian Church, which played a really important role in their lives. We know the minister at the time was Frances Grimke, and he was the one to baptize all of the Greener children. We have this wonderful history of the family at the church, and the church has its own really amazing history in Washington, DC. I encourage everyone to visit it.
15th St Presbyterian Church as it appeared in 1899 (Library of Congress: LOT 11303 [item] [P&P])
There are also things such as if Greene met her father again, which we know didn’t happen, timeline wise. It is also so hard to capture her voice. I read over 108 boxes of letters that she wrote, which we have at the Morgan, and unless you really are engaging with who she was on a day-to-day basis, talking to all different types of people, I don’t think you would ever be able to capture it. She can be funny and really serious and sometimes really mean, and it’s hard to bring that to life through a character.
The last thing I think people need to know is how much she thought of herself first and foremost as a librarian. One of of my all time favorite quotes of hers speaks to this:
“I’m interested . . . how you say you ‘dote on libraries.’ In general, I do not, but I do on this one and would like very much to show you through it.”
This is to a sports writer who was giving a lecture at the Morgan in the 1930s. You already get a sense of her spirit where she denies doting on libraries, “What do you mean?” but she loved every library on the planet! She sent one of our librarians to the Folger to learn how you operate. She really was just a unique individual. Once you got to know and love her, she was one of your best friends. She would tell it like it is–she could be really, really blunt and mean at times–but, really, an amazing individual.
Belle da Costa Greene, 1914 (WikiCommons)
Belle da Costa Greene, 1929 (Library of Congress, BIOG FILE – Greene, Belle da Costa [P&P;])
There are also things the book really does get right, including the power Greene held both in the Morgan and the larger book world. One of the most important acquisitions that she made was Le Morte d’Arthur, which was a Caxton, one of the oldest printed books out of England. We paid $42,800 for this book, it made national headlines, I think it was the most expensive book ever purchased up until this point. It was huge for Greene’s career, but she purchased it in 1911 and at that point she had already been at auctions for about three years and already making a splash. Everyone was asking, “Who’s this woman?” and she was like, “Oh, I’ve been here. What are you talking about?” The rare book world knew her, but she was only one of two women at the auction when she purchased this and the outside world was surprised: A woman was buying these things? But she was always very humble with her power (though in a very sassy way), which I don’t think everyone knows.
ep: I did really enjoy the parts of the book that got into her work as a librarian and her thinking about the collection, which was happening around the same time that the Folgers were working on establishing their own collection. Sara, could you speak a little about their process?
Sara Schliep (Archivist and Cataloger, Folger Shakespeare Library): Yes! Henry and Emily Folger got married in October of 1885. It was only four years later, in 1889, that Henry would start collecting. The first rare book he purchased was a Fourth Folio and they would spend the next 40 years together collecting and building out their collection of Shakespeare and early modern works. Their collecting was funded by Henry’s salary at the Standard Oil Company where he worked his way up from clerk to the top executive of the New York branch before retiring in 1928 to focus on building a library specifically for his collection. The Folgers hadn’t been born into this wealthy, elite society but they were connected to it through Henry’s boss John D. Rockefeller.
Henry Clay Folger ca. 1885 (Folger Shakespeare Library: Folger Archives Box 41)
Emily Jordan Folger ca. 1885 (Folger Shakespeare Library: Folger Archives Box 42)
Instead of attending social events, they spent their time pouring over dealers catalogs, reading through newspaper clippings, and studying rare books and manuscripts (and Shakespeare, of course) so that they could make informed decisions about each and every purchase. Because they weren’t born to their wealth, every purchase really mattered as Henry was building his own fortune. Whenever possible, they inspected the books in person to verify the advertised details and any defects and they would often negotiate prices down using their extensive knowledge of the hand press books and manuscript culture. Emily did the bulk of the record-keeping so a lot of our records are in her hand. She noted the details of individual items on index cards and cited where they had purchased them from. Henry also helped with the purchase records and did the financial record keeping.
They stored most of their valuable items in safe deposit boxes in banks and the less rare material was packed into Standard Oil crates and stored in various warehouses in New York City. By dispersing the collection, they protected it against fire or other disaster at any one warehouse but also kept their collecting quiet. By spreading it out, nobody really knew how much they were amassing and Henry believed that, by keeping things quiet, he could keep the prices low. This was a huge part of their strategy.
He would also work with a variety of different agents to build this collection so, in the same way as dispersing across warehouses, he was never showing his full hand to any of these dealers. The warehouse contracts were kept in Emily’s name to provide a layer of separation between Henry and those things in storage. They also learned early on that offering cash upfront was appealing, especially to private sellers in Britain. This strategy won them a number of rare and valuable items over other collectors whose wealth was tied up in their assets and couldn’t move as quickly.
They were collecting in what the American bookseller A. S. W. Rosenbach called, “the golden age of American book collecting.” He frames this as about 1890 through the Wall Street crash in October of 1929 and that’s exactly when the Folgers are building their Shakespeare collection. There was a ready supply of material from British owners and heavy demand from wealthy American collectors like J. P. Morgan and Henry Folger, and a whole bunch of others, but the British press often told a different story. They lamented these losses. They were indignant about these American capitalists and British treasures crossing the Atlantic for homes in American institutions.
There is a cartoon from the Morning Leader in 1906 that shows a faceless millionaire who is gathering artworks and books toward himself. The caption asks “Why is this esoteric millionaire offering a sum three times larger than has hitherto been the market value of a First Folio?” Well, this millionaire was Henry Folger and he was pursuing this particular copy because its binding was from the 1620s. It had been deposited in the Bodleian Library by The Stationer’s Company, making it one of the few First Folio’s whose provenance was traceable to the year of its printing in 1623. Henry eventually lost his bid for this one, but he and the other American capitalists with all this cash to spend were often maligned in the British press for draining England of these works of art and literature since their bids did win most of the time.
Construction of the Theatre wing, 1930 (Folger Shakespeare Library: Folger Archives Black Box Misc. not listed)
As the Folgers’ collection grew, so did their idea of building a library to house it and make it accessible. They began scouting in the early 1900s and considered locations in New York City, in Amherst (where Henry had gone to college), in Nantucket (where the Folger family had first settled in the United States), in Stratford-upon-Avon, and of course in Washington DC, which is what they eventually settled on. Henry justified this decision in a letter to a friend saying “I finally concluded I would give it to Washington, for I am an American.”
The construction on the library didn’t actually begin until about a month after the Wall Street crash, which really affected the cost of the construction. The doors of the building didn’t actually open to scholars until January of 1933, which was several years after Henry had passed away, leaving Emily to preside over most of the construction and the early years of Folger operations. Once the library was opened and had a staff, acquiring new material became the responsibility of the director and later on the curators and acquisition staff as things are done now.
ep: Already you see a contrast with Morgan and Greene, where she is known at these auctions and publicly representing Morgan, and this faceless millionaire.
EC: I have a great story related to that. One of Greene’s favorite books of all time was Alice in Wonderland or Alice Through the Looking Glass and she wanted to buy a copy to give as a gift to the Morgan, There was a rare first edition manuscript up for auction and she’s working with the dealer, but it was sold the night before the auction privately because the was a feeling in London that “This cannot leave our hands. It MUST stay.” And to this day it remains at the British Library. Greene was all set to buy it; she literally talked to everyone to say, “Nobody else bid on it, this is mine, I’m bringing it home for Jack Morgan (at this point Pierpont Morgan had already passed away).” And it was sold the night before. She was so angry about it. Apparently they don’t loan it; they are scared to let it leave. Which I understand, one of Morgan’s biggest collections is British literature. Both Pierpont and his son, Jack Morgan, had homes in England. In that heyday of collecting, there were taxes on how much you could bring in so a lot of stuff stayed at the homes in England until the tax went away in 1907. Then it all came over and Greene unpacked it and cataloged it all.
Look out for the second part of our conversation, to be published on The Folger Spotlight later this month.
We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program
Join us for an upcoming event
The O. B. Hardison Season Opening Reading: Jorie Graham
Folger Book Club: Warm Bodies
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