Printing the First Folio

The First Folio was a major publishing project. To finance it, Edward Blount and printer William Jaggard headed a small syndicate of publishers; the other two members of the syndicate owned the rights to some of the plays. Jaggard, who had become blind from syphilis in 1612, produced the First Folio in his print shop, but he died before it was complete. His son, Isaac Jaggard, took over the shop and completed the book.

But how was the First Folio put together? To produce it, two pages of text were printed on each side of a sheet, creating four pages in all. The sheet was then folded in half. In most cases, three folded sheets were nested together to form a self-contained 12-page quire; a small number of quires had different lengths. The First Folio, which is more than 900 pages long, is made up of one quire after another.

DIY First Folio

Learn about early modern printing techniques and make your own copy of the First Folio using DIY First Folio, a teaching tool created by Folger Institute and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Interactive exercises demonstrate how William and Isaac Jaggard printed the earliest collected edition of Shakespeare's plays.

Comparing First Folios

Unlike today, some of the printed sheets were proofed and corrected while the book was being printed. For example, a metal type letter might have been printed upside down and would need to be turned around so that it would print correctly on the same page after that. Sheets that were printed before these changes, instead of being discarded, were used in the First Folio, as were sheets printed after the changes. As a result, there are differences from one copy of the First Folio to another.


Hinman collator
Hinman collator. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

The Hinman Collator

In the 20th century, the ability to track the differences between copies of the First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library offered a way to study the process of early modern printing. Before World War II, Charlton Hinman began comparing copies of the play Othello, page by page, by hand—a procedure called "collation."

While he was at war, he heard about efforts to compare aerial photographs of a given site by superimposing them. In the same way, he envisioned a machine that could greatly speed up the work of comparing First Folios more accurately. In this device, mirrors and blinking lights allowed a researcher to superimpose images of the same page from two First Folios. In the combined image, tiny typographical changes between the two copies would seem to move.

Hinman's machine led to a business that produced commercial Hinman Collators for other libraries and institutions. His focus, however, remained on his research. In 1963, he published a major work, Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. To produce it, he compared 55 of the Folger First Folios.

Today, Hinman Collators are still sometimes used to make new discoveries at the Folger. The device also helped to inspire the name of the Folger blog for scholars and researchers, The Collation. The device was pictured and described in the blog's first post.

Watch  |  Folger Videos

See a Hinman Collator in use (go to 4:09)

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