Tag Archives: Amherst College

Happy Birthday, Henry Clay Folger!

Guest post by Stephen H. Grant

Here are three things to remember about Henry Clay Folger on his 158th birthday, June 18, 2015.

One. The most astounding single fact about Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930) is that he made his way to the very top of two distinct lines of endeavor. From 1879 to 1928 he climbed the ranks at Standard Oil Company from statistical clerk at age 22 to CEO of the largest, most successful petroleum business on the planet. AND he assembled the largest collection of Shakespeare items in the world. His doctor of letters degree from Amherst College cites “his services in the affairs of a great empire of industry whose produce is on every sea and its light on all lands and for his knowledge in the most important field known in English literature.” John D. Rockefeller sent Folger this wry message: “I congratulate you upon receiving the degree, and that your connection with a great and useful business organization did not detract from your high standing.” Even more to Folger’s credit was that he was not born into wealth. He needed a loan from classmates to complete his college education.Folger 1 Signed Folger PortraitTwo. Henry Folger’s most erudite, persistent, and successful bookseller, Dr. A. S. W. (Abraham Simon Wolf) Rosenbach of Philadelphia, called Folger “the most consistent book collector I’ve ever known.” What he meant by that phrase was that Folger kept his eyes on the prize. Folger bought virtually anything and everything by or associated with Shakespeare that he could acquire–as long as the price was right. Folger drove a hard bargain, such as insisting on ten percent discount when he paid with ready cash. Corresponding with 600 book dealers, 150 in London alone, Folger shared with them why he rejected a book offer or sent it back upon examination. Many times it was because the item was not “Shakespearean enough.” He was training them to go out and seek more and better items for his library.

Evidence of Henry’s consistency appears even in how he held a book. The above portraits produced 67 years apart reveal his loving two-handed grasp.

Three. Henry Folger was a very private man. He kept no diary, gave only one interview. His postcards home while on a business trip out west sent from “Henry Clay Folger” to his wife “EJF” revealed “All in fine health and spirits.” He used shorthand for many personal notes. He signed his book cables “GOLFER.” He bought property without his name appearing on the deeds. He entreated his booksellers not to divulge what he paid for his antiquarian book purchases. His greatest glee was keeping from the world how many First Folios he owned.

Only with family and close friends did Henry open up a little. Emily described her husband this way. “Not an exuberant personality, Henry always was reticent and possibly shy by nature.”

Lawrence (Larry) Fraser Abbott and Walter (Crit) Hayden Crittenden were two Amherst chums he confided in. They had done the same things Henry had: won a prize in oratory, written for the student newspaper, sung in a fraternity quartet, earned a law degree. Crit wrote, “Mr. Folger was by nature a very shy man, almost bashful. He avoided all possible meetings and conventions, or in fact any form of gatherings, due to his shyness. It was therefore the privilege of but a few to know him intimately.” H.C. wrote to Larry, “I presume no one is better informed than I am about the value of Shakespeare literature.” Folger would not have shared that claim with just anyone. Only with Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, did he share–the year he died–that he wondered if he would have his biography written some day.

grant.collectingStephen H. Grant is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folgerpublished by Johns Hopkins. He is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and the author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal.

 

 

 

Comments Off on Happy Birthday, Henry Clay Folger!

Filed under Biography, D.C., Libraries, Literature, Shakespeare, Washington

Henry Clay Folger’s Greatest Honor

Guest post by Stephen H. Grant

A century ago, in 1914, Henry Folger received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Amherst College. The citation read: “Henry Clay Folger, a graduate of this college in 1879, called to the bar in due course, called by ability, by character, by efficiency, integrity and the confidence of men in his judgment to the widest fields and the highest posts in leading and guiding the industrial development of the land; a collector of the largest assemblage yet known of the editions and the literature of the greatest dramatist, gathered with learning, watchful care and studious pains; owner of 49 copies of the first folio edition of the plays of Shakespeare, a priceless and unexampled field for comparative research. I ask you alike for his services in the affairs of a great empire of industry whose produce is on every sea and its light on all lands and for his knowledge in the most important field known in English literature to confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.”

Grant Fig 30

Emily Jordan Folger wearing her purple Amherst hood in the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1932. She gazes at the Frank O. Salisbury portrait of her husband, Henry Clay Folger, in the same hood.

Another awardee at the ceremony was ex-President William Howard Taft, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree. Who was observing the two eminent gentlemen enter the motor vehicle headed for a banquet following the exercises? Folger was five feet four and weighed 115 lbs. Taft was six feet tall and weighed 335 lbs. Inside, Dr. Taft leaned over and said mischievously to Dr. Folger, “Forty-nine Folios? We have the fiftieth at Yale.” Founder of the University’s Elizabethan Club, Yale alumnus Alexander S. Cochran donated to the Club a Shakespeare First Folio in 1911.

In picking Folger for an honorary degree, Amherst got it right. Folger had climbed to the top of two vastly different fields: the petroleum industry and Shakespeare collection. To have accomplished either one would have been a prodigious undertaking. By 1914, Folger was president of Standard Oil Company of New York, which later became Mobil Corporation. His Shakespeare collection then included forty-nine First Folios, all different in some way. Before he died in 1930, Folger had acquired eighty-two copies of the Bard’s 1623 collected dramatic works published posthumously in London.

Folger wrote Amherst trustee, Talcott Williams, “I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this the greatest honor of my life.” He wrote his pastor, S. Parkes Cadman, “It was most unexpected, but the greatest possible honor. Amherst gives few degrees. You will be amused at the basis for conferring it; it was not all Shakespeare.” From Pocantico Hills, New York, came this tongue-in-cheek accolade: “I congratulate you upon receiving the degree, and that your connection with a great and useful business organization did not detract from your high standing,” signed John D. Rockefeller.

Henry Clay Folger died in 1930 without having seen a stone of the Folger Shakespeare Library built or his entire collection assembled in the nation’s capital across the street from the Library of Congress. His wife, Emily, took over the decision making responsibilities and was present to turn over the keys of the Library to the chairman of the Amherst trustees on Shakespeare’s 368th birthday, April 23, 1932.

Later that year, Amherst College bestowed on Emily a degree with this citation: “Emily Clara Jordan, graduate of Vassar College, through many years the enthusiastic, tireless, and discriminating companion of Henry Clay Folger in the collection of a unique library of the works of Shakespeare; generous benefactress of Amherst College and of the lovers of letters throughout the whole world; the degree which 18 years ago Amherst College appropriately bestowed upon your husband it now, with the same hood as symbol, confers upon you, as I create you a Doctor of Letters.” It was a triumphant yet bittersweet moment for Emily Jordan Folger.

grant.collectingStephen H. Grant is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folgerpublished by Johns Hopkins. He is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and the author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal.

Meet Steve Grant on October 23 at the Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield, CT; on November 8 at the National Press in Washington, DC; and on December 1 at the Central Library in Arlington, VA.  For more information, visit Steve’s website.

 

Comments Off on Henry Clay Folger’s Greatest Honor

Filed under American History, Biography, D.C., Literature, Press Events, Shakespeare