Among the more striking pieces of theater history held at the Folger is this faded but still-regal coat worn by Edwin Booth when he played Richard III. The son of the well-known tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin took New York by storm in 1857 and remained a dramatic force until his retirement in 1891. Several of his costumes are housed at the Folger.
During the 1864–65 season, Booth secured his place at the top of America’s theatrical world by playing Hamlet one hundred nights in a row at the Winter Garden, a remarkable feat at a time when most plays were performed for only one or two weeks. Less than a month later, he and the nation were stunned by the news that his younger brother John Wilkes Booth, also an actor, had assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Briefly, Edwin Booth went into seclusion. But he returned in time to new triumphs, establishing Booth’s Theatre in New York (a theatrical success, though a financial disaster) and founding the Players Club in the same city.
In keeping with his era’s interest in historical accuracy, Edwin Booth derived many of his costumes from the reference works of James Robinson Planché. Planché was almost certainly the source for this garment, which incorporates the royal coat of arms of Richard’s day—British lions quartered with French fleurs-de-lis—and has a padded shoulder to indicate Richard’s identity as a hunchback. As shown in this hand-colored engraving from 1872, one of 12 showing Booth in various costumes, the actor wore it over stage armor in the final scenes at Bosworth Field.