One of the many reasons why donor intent matters is that donors often come up with useful ideas that no program officer or foundation president could imagine. Andrew Carnegie, for example, was very proud of creating the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission[1], which gives medals for people who perform life-saving activities. The hero fund has been quietly honoring heroes for over a century.

It’s also likely that the Folger Shakespeare Library would not exist if it were not for the passion of its founder, Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930). Andrea Mays, in The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio, shows how Folger’s passion for Shakespeare led to the creation of one of America’s great libraries.

Folger grew up in Brooklyn and went to Amherst College, graduating in 1879. That year, Folger, paid a quarter to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, aged 75, lecture on “The Superlative, or Mental Temperance.” The lecture, Mays writes, “was not an Emersonian classic,” but it led Folger to read an essay Emerson wrote in 1864 for the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. In it, Emerson wrote:

“Wherever there are men, and in the degree in which they are civil, have power of mind, sensibility to beauty, music, the secrets of passion, and the liquid expression of thought (Shakespeare) has risen to his place as the first poet of the world.”

This passage ignited a passion for Shakespeare that would continue for the rest of Folger’s life.

After graduation, Folger went to work for Astral Oil, which was run by Charles Pratt, the father of Folger’s best friend in college. Astral was a subsidiary of Standard Oil, and Folger ended up working for John D. Rockefeller for his entire career, rising from his entry-level position as clerk to becoming president of Standard Oil of New York after Standard was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911. He retired in 1928 as chairman of the board of Standard.

Mays, an economist at California State University (Long Beach), reminds us that John D. Rockefeller was no “robber baron.” His fortune came from creating an efficient enterprise that ensured that the price of oil steadily fell. Rockefeller’s rise was a virtuous circle; he became rich because he saved consumers money on their oil bills.

By all accounts, Folger was a good employee, who rose at Standard because he was diligent at cutting costs and doesn’t seem to have made any enemies or abused subordinates at work. He married Emily Jordan (who, like Folger, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa) in 1889 and their marriage lasted until Henry Folger’s death.

Emily Folger shared her husband’s passion for Shakespeare; she helped Henry Folger with his correspondence with book dealers and with cataloging his collection. She also, from 1906 onwards, kept a diary called “Plays I’ve Seen,” a detailed listing of all the performances she saw.[2]

The one percenters of Folger’s time often competed in displays of conspicuous consumption—lavish houses, fancy clothes. Folger lived in a modest house in Brooklyn, avoided the headlines, and spent all his time buying as many objects by Shakespeare as he could.

He started buying First Folios in the early 1890s and ended up buying between 80 and 82 of them, with three being so imperfect that scholars debate about whether they are really First Folios. He also bought other rare Shakespeariana, including the only known copy of the 1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus. Finally, he bought all sorts of other stuff, including crates of playbills and other theatrical ephemera that are an essential resource for scholars of theatrical history.

In one case, Folger was beaten for a copy of a First Folio. In 1902, Gladwyn Turbutt brought a First Folio to Oxford’s Bodleian Library to see if it could be repaired. The Bodleian librarians concluded that the binding was original and one corner appeared to once have had a lock, because rare books 300 years ago were chained to the shelves. Research found that the Bodleian had sold the Turbutt copy in 1664 for 24 pounds.

Folger really wanted the Turbutt copy, but he was outbid by what people a century ago called a “public subscription” and what we would call crowdfunding. It was one of the few times Folger was beaten in his collecting goals.

Henry Clay Folger built his collection with his own money. The Rockefellers didn’t give Folger any money but provided loan guarantees and personal banking references to back up Folger’s purchases.

Mays notes one case where, in 1919, Folger bought a copy of the “Pavier Quarto,” an early attempt to compile Shakespeare’s plays, for $100,000. Only two copies of the Pavier Quarto had survived in 300 years. The bookseller who sold the quarto, A.S.W. Rosenbach, strenuously promoted the purchase in the press (over Folger’s vigorous objections) and subsequently claimed that both John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr. chewed out Folger for spending $100,000 on a book.

Mays says the anecdote “may be embellished or apocryphal.” John D. Rockefeller Jr. routinely spent over $100,000 on pieces of art. Why would he find a purchase of $100,000 on a very rare book objectionable?

From 1918, Folger realized the way to preserve his collection was to create a museum to house it. He thought about putting his library in New York, but land there was too expensive, so he looked to Washington, where Emily Folger lived as a child. He eventually found land near the Library of Congress, and spent several years quietly buying several townhouses. Construction began in 1929.

Henry Clay Folger was very involved in the design and construction of his library. He picked the architect, Paul Cret, who also built the original Barnes Foundation. He approved all the quotations on the walls of the library, and all the art on the outside. He did not, however, live to see his building finished, which happened in 1932.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has only drifted a little since its founder’s death. It’s now a place where people interested in England in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I go. They have a theatre, where I saw Timon of Athens and where the Folger Consort performs.

But the Folger Shakespeare Library wasn’t created by exquisitely credentialed foundation professionals. It is the result of one donor’s passion.

“Henry Clay Folger was a brilliant, ethical American businessman,” Mays concludes. “He was an unapologetic industrialist. And the Folger Shakespeare Library is a triumph of American capitalism and philanthropy.”

[1] I wrote about the Carnegie Hero Fund in an article in the August 2000 American Enterprise that is retrievable on

[2] The last entry, for 1930, was for a movie, The Taming of the Shrew, with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as Petruchio and Mary Pickford as Katherine. “It is not Shakespeare,” Emily Folger wrote, but “amazing what one can offer for 35 cents per!”