Paying for Shakespeare: Henry Folger’s Checks

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By Stephen H. Grant

On the Ides of March five years ago, Johns Hopkins University Press released Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger, the first biography written about the founders of the Folger Shakespeare Library. During the research phase in which I visited 35 archives in the US and UK, I put off delving into one archive: Henry Folger’s 10,000 cancelled checks. The real estate they occupied consisted of four archival boxes, safely stashed in the Folger’s underground vault, containing nothing but checks. Unfortunately, I found no stubs that might have added valuable information. After weeks of analysis, I could confirm the adage: “a checkbook is an autobiography.” It reveals your financial obligations, your interests, and your values. I wrote an article on the subject: “A Checkbook is an Autobiography: The Case of Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930)” The Americanist Independent online journal, vol. 1, issue 3, September 2014, 4–36.

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Check for $100,000 sent to the Rosenbach Company on July 22, 1919, to purchase several rare books from the Marsden Perry Library. Perry was known as “the man who owned Rhode Island.”

Dr. Abraham S. W. Rosenbach was the American bookseller in Philadelphia who helped Folger procure the most dazzling array of his Shakespeare treasures. A century ago, on July 22, 1919, Folger penned a check from his account with the Columbia Trust Company in New York to The Rosenbach Co. for $100,000 (over £1 million today). Items included the 1594 edition of Henry VI, Part 2; Venus & Adonis from 1595; and William Penn’s copy of the 1605 edition of Richard III. The ace of spades in the haul, however, was Edward Gwynn’s copy of the 1619 collection of plays called the Pavier Quartos. Correspondence files in the Folger vault reveal that the collector corresponded with 600 booksellers, 150 alone in England.

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Check for $53,000 Henry Folger sent John D. Rockefeller Sr. on Jan. 29, 1918, as partial repayment for a loan to buy Shakespeareana. Rockefeller is said to have given away $35,000 dimes as a publicity stunt.

Folger’s irrepressible desire to possess Shakespeareana caused periodic cash shortfalls, which filled his life with short-term debt. When he learned he was the highest bidder on major book auction items, he went into overdrive to secure the financing. Consequently, hundreds of checks went not only to providers of the coveted objects but also to the individuals or institutions that loaned Folger the financial resources to secure them. In 1918, Henry Folger was president of Standard Oil Company of New York, that would become Mobil Oil Corporation. The head of the Standard Oil group was John D. Rockefeller Sr., who was delighted to make Mr. Folger a loan at the going rate of six percent. John D. had written a colleague, “I regard Mr. Folger’s paper as good as gold and his collateral of the best.” No surprise there, as the collateral was Standard Oil stock certificates! On January 29, 1918, Folger signed a check in the amount of $53,000 (£630,000 today) made out to his boss. The funds were to repay a loan to buy Shakespeare gems.

FPb57, from a 4x5 color transparency

Fashionable British portraitist Frank O. Salisbury painted this likeness of Henry Folger in 1927. He is wearing his purple Amherst College hood and gown and clasping the unique copy of Edward Gwynn’s Pavier Quartos from 1619, for which he had paid $50,000 in 1919. Folger had carried the volume wrapped up in a newspaper to his sitting in the Waldorf Hotel. The portrait hangs in the Folger reading room.

For purchases in foreign currency, Folger benefited from Standard Oil’s European presence and the exchange courtesies bestowed on Company senior executives. He contacted Standard Oil Company of New York’s treasurer’s department, which notified a Standard Oil subsidiary in London, the Anglo-American Oil Company. It sent a check in pounds for Folger’s books, noting the exchange rate and amounts paid. Folger reimbursed headquarters with a personal check. The collector favored monthly installments, and badgered his booksellers to allow him ten percent discount, as he paid in ready cash.

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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