At the heart of the Shakespeare collection
Meet some of the Folger First Folios
Listen to a podcast episode about collecting the First Folio
This title page is from Henry Folger's favorite First Folio, which he described in a 1907 article as "the most precious book in the world." Folger First Folio 1, which is also known as the Vincent copy, is stunning for two entirely separate reasons.
One is its ownership history. This page has a Latin inscription dated 1623, the year the First Folio was published. It describes this First Folio as a gift from the printer, William Jaggard, to his friend and customer Augustine Vincent. Since the First Folio was still being completed when William died, this finished copy was probably presented to Vincent by William's son Isaac Jaggard, who took over the printing house.
This First Folio is also outstanding because of its size. First Folios, like other rare books, have typically been trimmed during every past rebinding, which means that their pages vary in size. Those with larger pages, and thus more of the original margins, are more valued. The Vincent copy is the tallest First Folio known today.
The notes that are found in some First Folios tell us something about the way that readers used the written plays. In Folger First Folio 16, this page from Henry VI, Part 3 includes handwritten stage directions: "Stabs him," "Stabs him," and "Dyes."
The play takes place during the War of the Roses, a struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of England. In this scene, Queen Margaret and Lord Clifford kill Richard, Duke of York, brushing off the objections of the Earl of Northumberland.
These added stage directions were written by Sir Thomas Hanmer, politician and amateur Shakespeare editor, and an early 18th-century owner of this First Folio. Hanmer marked up several other pages of this First Folio in the same way. The First Folio also includes similar notes by another, unknown person in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Folger First Folio 51 has a handsome, early 19th-century binding produced by bookbinder George Orrock in Edinburgh, Scotland. Bindings like this reflected the value of a First Folio to its owner and the world.
This front cover, made of green goatskin, is gold-tooled with an outer frame border. Descriptions of such patterns can be intricate as well. The Folger Bindings Image Collection notes that the inside of this border has a pattern of "spiked heart pinnacle fleurons, compound triangular scroll fleurons, and corner ornaments with a star-filled petal design."
When the First Folio was published, some copies were purchased with no bindings; purchasers would have bindings added to suit their tastes. Over the centuries, most First Folios have also been rebound in different ways, often multiple times, due to wear or their owners' preferences.
Some of the more interesting proofs of how people once encountered the Folger First Folios are the outlines of rusty scissors. This scissors outline is in Folger First Folio 63, on a page from King Lear. Rusty outlines of scissors can be found in two other Folger First Folios as well.
It seems almost certain that these outlines are quite accidental, but we're not sure how they occurred. You can learn more about all three scissor outlines in a post in the Folger's blog The Collation. The blog post notes the traditional theory that a bookbinder left behind a pair of scissors, but it suggests an alternative explanation. In the past, women often gathered to do needlework or sewing. A woman reading aloud to a group might have used sewing scissors to temporarily mark her place in the book—leaving, instead, a lasting mark for us to examine now.
This handwritten page is from an account that was bound into Folger First Folio 54, a First Folio that was owned by a family in England for more than 250 years in the period before Henry Folger bought it in 1913.
In the 19th century, a member of the family, Captain Charles Hutchinson, became convinced that the Hutchinsons' First Folio had at one time been personally owned by his famous 17th-century ancestors, Lucy Hutchinson and her husband, Colonel John Hutchinson. Colonel John Hutchinson was among those who signed the death warrant for King Charles I. When the monarchy was restored, the colonel was arrested and died in prison.
Lucy Hutchinson wrote a memoir of his life. Long afterwards, the manuscript was edited and published by Captain Hutchinson's father, becoming an important record of the English civil war. Captain Hutchinson wrote a short family history that was added to the First Folio, treating the volume like a treasured family scrapbook. You can learn more about this First Folio and the Hutchinson story in the Folger blog Shakespeare & Beyond.
A somewhat battered witness to the weight of almost four centuries, this 17th-century First Folio binding has a 19th-century rebacked spine and a cover that is badly "crazed" by earlier attempts at restoration and treatment. Angela Burdett-Coutts, who purchased the famous Daniel First Folio and its oak casket, inherited this First Folio from her father.
At one time, this First Folio belonged to the Sheldon family. Remarkably, their association with it goes back to the 17th century. It's often not possible to trace a First Folio's provenance so far back in time. The binding bears the coat of arms of its earliest known owner: Ralph Sheldon, who was born in 1623, the same year that the First Folio was printed. His coat of arms, which is quartered, includes an appealing trio of birds at upper left and lower right.
After Burdett-Coutts died in 1906, her library remained intact during the lifetime of her husband. When it was auctioned in 1922, Henry Folger acquired both of her First Folios through American book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach. This one is Folger First Folio 10.
Folger First Folio 78 includes these doodles by a young child in the 1700s, lured to the extra space on the page that lists the major actors in Shakespeare's plays, including Shakespeare himself.
We know very little of how the drawings came about, although they appear to be somewhat chimney focused. They do show, however, that while the First Folio is revered as a treasure today, it was once simply a book in someone's library.
This particular First Folio also includes the names of two of its past owners. Elizabeth Okell inscribed it as "her book 1729" and more than a century and a half later, it was inscribed "W. Michael July 12, 1894." Much like the drawings on this page, each handwritten inscription shines a brief light on a moment in the long life of this First Folio as, like all of the surviving First Folios, it passed through many generations of owners.
Due to their value and importance, First Folios were often beautifully rebound and ornamented in different ways. Some of the Folger First Folios have gilt page edges with decorative patterns.
Colorful marble endpapers are yet another adornment. This is a closeup look at the inside cover of Folger First Folio 29, showing a marble endpaper and the intricately tooled pastedown of the red leather binding. A "marble" pattern was manually produced by floating colored inks on a liquid surface and capturing the result with a piece of paper, which could then be used as an endpaper.
This First Folio was bound by Riviere & Son in London in the late 19th century. (You may be able to see the words "Bound by Riviere & Son" in very small gold writing partway along the bottom border, although the lettering is tiny.) The Riviere firm was well-known for its fashionable bindings, and it was hired to create bindings for several of the First Folios that are now at the Folger.
Research and discovery
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.