At the heart of our Shakespeare collection
The Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 First Folios of Shakespeare, the largest collection in the world. A total of 235 First Folios are known to survive; the Folger First Folios include more than a third of them. The next largest group is at Meisei University in Tokyo, Japan, which has 12 First Folios.
All of the Folger First Folios were acquired by Henry and Emily Folger between 1893 and 1928. Together, the books are at the heart of their Shakespeare collection, for which the Folgers built the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Research, discovery, and exhibitions
For many years, the Folger Shakespeare Library followed Henry Folger’s guidance in describing its collection as including 79 First Folios, along with other pieces or fragments. In 2011, it began referring to the same holdings as 82 First Folios, reflecting the views of modern scholars.
The Folger collection of First Folios has made possible discoveries about early modern printing as well as other research. For example, ultraviolet images, and, more recently, multispectral images, helped to identify Folger First Folio 75 as the earliest known First Folio to leave England. Notes in Folger First Folio 54, written by a 19th-century member of the Hutchinson family, have helped to shed light on 17th-century author Lucy Hutchinson.
A source of inspiration as well as scholarly information, the Folger First Folios have led to many innovative exhibitions, including a 2016 tour of First Folios from the Folger to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC.
The stories behind the books
Every First Folio at the Folger has its own story, from the people who have owned it, to its binding and physical condition, and many other details. Some First Folios include handwritten notes and drawings (which may be from multiple centuries); others have appeared in news reports, such as when Henry and Emily Folger first purchased them.
After nearly four centuries, many First Folios at the Folger and elsewhere have lost some of their original pages. Some owners in the late 1800s and early 1900s replaced them with facsimiles, which were printed or drawn by hand, or with pages from other First Folios, a process euphemistically known as “sophistication.” Other pages have been damaged or torn, necessitating repairs that we can examine today.
Explore some of these individual books and their stories.