The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Harmsworth Collection

Book collecting is a passion, or as Nicholas Basbanes famously called it, “a gentle madness,” that affects no few people. Henry and Emily Folger were two such bibliophiles, amassing the largest private collection of Shakespeareana in the world. This collection now forms the core of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which as an institution gives shape to their larger vision of making the study, appreciation, and enjoyment of Shakespeare’s works available to all. Yet as I and my colleagues are often quick to point out, our library has grown far beyond what the Folgers individually collected in the ninety years since we first opened our doors. In reality, our library is now not just the Folger collection, but a collection of collections, including the Mary P. Massey collection of herbals; the Stickelberger Collection of tracts related to the Reformation; the William Henderson Collection of playbills; the James L. Harner collection of miniature books; the Peggy Cass and Carl Fisher Collection of Tinsel Prints; and many more. Together, these collections of collections become a body greater than the sum of its parts, and their collectors’ interest and ambition in assembling them is evident.

Early librarians added extensively to the original Folger collection, with some staff spending as much as six months out of the year abroad in the United Kingdom and in continental Europe on acquisitions trips, but no true collection was acquired until 1938. In that year, the library added the first collection to join the Folgers’; Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth’s collection of English books printed before 1640. The joining of the Folgers’ efforts, focused on Shakespeare and his immediate circle with those of Harmsworth, who focused his collecting efforts on a much broader sampling of early modern English culture, established the five-year-old library as an epicenter for the study of early modern English. When Harmsworth died in 1937, his collections (which encompassed much more than just English books) were widely acknowledged as one of the largest and finest known outside of institutions such as the British Library. Joseph Quincy Adams, the Folger’s first director, was determined to get what he considered the prize portion. He succeeded, in a coup that shocked the book collecting world, and angered his competitors.

Adams was granted $10,000 a year (worth approximately $1.2 million today) to continue to acquire rare books and manuscripts that would build the institution into a competitive research library on par with Harvard, the Huntington, the Morgan, and other libraries with significant holdings from early modern Europe. Like his peers (highly-educated, wealthy men who directed the development of research libraries in the United States in the early twentieth century), Adams was obsessed with the competitive spirit of collecting, and most importantly, building a better collection of rare books and manuscripts than any other library in North America.

In order to bring in his prize, Adams had to convince the Amherst College President, Stanley King, of its value. In a letter to King written in 1937, Adams’s ambition is palpable:

When [Leicester Harmsworth] died several months ago, I promptly took measures to discover what would become of his famous collection. I also carefully studied the contents of his library in order to find out to what extent it would duplicate, and to what extent it would enrich, our own Library. Sir [Leicester] was not primarily interested in early editions of Shakespeare, but he specialized in securing unique or excessively rare items, and was particularly concerned in the intellectual background of the Shakespearian [sic] age. His Library would give us very few duplicates, and would, by addition, place the Folger in the very front rank of Elizabethan libraries. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the Harmsworth Library is one of the most famous ever formed, and is universally recognized as superlative in the field of sixteenth and seventeenth century literature. Recalling that Mr. Folger made an effort to secure the Duke of Devonshire Library (at $1,000,000), and lost it by twenty-four hours to Mr. Huntington, I thought it proper for us to investigate the possibility of our securing the Harmsworth Library, the only great private collection that remains.

Adams, his assistant director James McManaway, and bibliographer Edwin Willoughby had been planning this move for years. When one of Sir Leicester Harmsworth’s daughters visited Washington DC in 1936, they jumped on the opportunity to (as obliquely as possible) persuade her of the Folger’s fitness for her father’s collection by showing off the state of the art vaults, temperature controls, regulated humidity, and other impressive features. McManaway complimented her father’s generosity in making his books readily available to scholars. In 1937, McManaway spent his summer in London, “[listening] for rumors about the Wise and Harmsworth Libraries.” Late in the summer, the word came—the Harmsworths were selling the library through the firm of B.F. Stevens and Brown. This firm just so happened to handle the Folger’s auction bids and assist in purchasing books for the reference collection, and McManaway managed to secure their assistance in an attempt to attain this largest of fishes. As he later recalled, “Brown almost gasped” when he brought up the idea; “Folger couldn’t be interested…the collection was too large and Folger funds were too meagre.” Determined, and promised the “inside track,” Adams and McManaway pressed forward.

Born in 1870 to Alfred (a barrister) and Mary Geraldine, Leicester was thirteen years Henry Folger’s junior. The fourth of fourteen children, his father reportedly struggled with alcoholism, leaving the family in dire straits. Leicester and his brothers attended Marylebone Grammar School, and ultimately he and five of his siblings were raised to the Peerage. His older brothers, Alfred Charles and Harold Sidney, went on to found a deeply influential media empire called the Amalgamated Press. This encompassed newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, still in operation today. Alfred became Viscount Northcliffe, while Harold became Viscount Rothermere. Leicester and his brothers Cecil and Hildebrand worked for the family company, incorporated as Harmsworth Brothers Ltd, but Leicester left this business after a time. He was elected to sit as a Liberal MP for Caithness, and seems to have been most interested in the upkeep of country roads, fishing rights, and other concerns of his constituents. And of course, with book collecting. According to Henry J. Brown, one of Adams’ main correspondents in the endeavor, Leicester oversaw his book collecting entirely by himself except for a single librarian, “and never confided in the other members of the family, who were not really interested in it.”

It took six months of negotiations and impatience (President King went on a three-week vacation to Bermuda in December 1937, nearly causing Adams a nervous breakdown). Despite this, almost before any other libraries were aware of it, Folger obtained preliminary check lists, made an offer, and closed the deal. In February of 1938, the Trustees of the Harmsworth estate agreed to sell the pre-1640 English books en bloc for a price of £35,000. Adams wrote to Amherst President King on the date he received the good news, with his usual expressiveness: 

The news of the purchase of the Harmsworth Collection brought shouts of joy to our staff, and lifted me out of a state of nervous prostration induced by the long delay. We are all very happy. By a single stroke we have advanced the Folger into the fore-front of great world libraries, and put it on a par—so far as the 16th and 17th centuries are concerned—with the British Museum and Bodleian. A visiting scholar said to me yesterday: “The Folger is greatly to be congratulated”; I replied, “America is to be congratulated,” and he promptly agreed.” 

Nationalist expostulations aside, the work, and Folger’s history with the Harmsworth family, was just beginning. Sir Leicester, like many private collectors, organized his collection under an arrangement of his own devising. Many books were stored haphazardly among several buildings at Bexhill, the family estate, and the collection had to be carefully sorted to ensure that Folger received exactly what it had purchased but no more. Sir Alfred Harmsworth’s generous, but sometimes testy and exacting, nature is alluded to in many of the letters that went back and forth between the B.F. Stevens & Brown representatives working to pack books at the estate and the Folger. The agreement was that the Folger would only have such books as were listed on slips kept by Sir Leicester to keep track of his items and sent as a list prior to packing, but sometimes these books could not be located, or others not on the list would emerge. Leicester’s son became somewhat infamous for his repeated phrases that the purchase was firm “on the basis of sale,” and that “if there is no slip, there is no book.” Yet, on one day, Sir Alfred would generously “denude the Americana portion of his library to a truly alarming extent” in an attempt to provide Folger with all pre-1640 English titles (which is how we came to have John Smiths Historie of Virginia, among other such items) but on the next day would “cut up at the last moment between thirty and forty volumes of tracts and multiples [of post-1640 English works], extracting those items to which we were not entitled on the list.” Eventually, by early April the books were carefully packed by the antiquarian firm into 36 large cases, insured, and shipped off on the S.S. President Harding. A week later, the approximately 9,600 books arrived at the Folger on Capitol Hill, were unpacked and checked, and ceremoniously installed in a dedicated vault just off the reading room. 

Yet, the saga was not over. The Harmsworths kept discovering still more pre-1640 English titles, sometimes in the hundreds, among the remaining 24,000 or so collection items, which they would then reach out to Adams to purchase anew. Adams once described visiting Lady Annie Harmsworth, Leicester’s widow, and accidentally stumbling upon hundreds of wrapped packages in a remote building at Bexhill, which turned out to include four hundred and fifty further titles that should have gone to the library. Eventually, Adams had to be content that he had as much as could be located.

Not everyone was pleased. Writing back to Washington the summer after the books had arrived, McManaway related a conversation he had with his friend, colleague, and brilliant bibliographer W.A. Jackson, who was at that time in the process of becoming Harvard’s “Grand Acquisitor:” 

…[H]e told me that he had made his coming to Harvard contingent on Harvard’s promise that they would make every reasonable effort to secure the Harmsworth books…he stated further that it was a bitter personal disappointment to him because he wanted to work with them at Harvard and that he was sure during his whole lifetime at Harvard he could not collect so interesting a lot of books. After he heard of their purchase by Folger, he bawled out Sir Alfred for permitting himself to be stampeded by his mother [Lady Annie Harmsworth, certainly influential in the books coming to Folger] and his own fear of Spanish war developments and for losing so much money.

Jackson’s loss of the Harmsworth books to Folger was apparently a great scandal at the time, but one which he took as gracefully as possible after expressing his initial frustration to McManaway. Much of the material Folger now has on the early formation of Harmsworth’s collection comes from Jackson’s own bibliographic detective work, which he seems happy to have shared.

Ultimately, our (at that time) small library on Capitol Hill was successful in obtaining a second world-class collection due to a combination of building long-term relationships, arguing that the collection would be best placed due to lack of duplication (rather ironically seen as an advantage, given the multiple copies of the Shakespeare First Folio), and presenting the opportunity to memorialize Sir Leicester Harmsworth in maintaining his collection. There was, additionally and disappointingly although unsurprisingly, a great deal of effort on the part of Joseph Quincy Adams to emphasize the library as a “shrine” to English literature, Shakespeare, and a vision of English literature as vital to American culture. His comments, similar to those he made at the library’s opening in 1932, are redolent of white supremacist rhetoric that places elite British literature and cultural whiteness at the pinnacle of civilization. While the Folger and Harmsworth collections are indeed inspiring, they are in fact only a small part of our growing collections today—collections which, we hope, will be used (as they already have been) to tell a wide variety of stories about what it is to be human, and firmly reject the premise that Shakespeare or any other white canonical author is to be reified. Each collection that we hold as a part of this whole has its own story of creation and how it came to be here. Librarians and scholars would do well to examine the origins of these pieces, and the interesting personal and political connections that placed rare materials in some perhaps unexpected places.   

Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this post was published in the CILIP-LHG Summer 2019 newsletter

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