A very special Christmas gift

Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. Sarah Hovde, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shares the story behind a book that belonged to the library’s founder.

Many of us have probably given or received books for Christmas. Sometimes we’ve inscribed the book with a personal message, or have added a bookplate to show our ownership. These traces of ownership are referred to in the library world as “provenance,” and they’re especially important to the rare book community. At the Folger, we carefully record the information we can determine about former owners, gift-givers, and the traces they leave behind in a book—bookplates, signatures, or even letters or photographs—to help scholars study both the books and their people.

Sometimes the provenance is what makes a book special, even though the book is not that special in itself. For instance, J.B. Lippincott’s 1875 edition of the Complete works of William Shakspeare is not a particularly rare or valuable book.

PR2752 1875k spine on shelf
PR2752 1875k

However, we value our copy of it very highly because it was owned by Henry Folger himself.

Inscription in Henry Folger's Christmas gift from his brother
Inscription in Henry Folger’s Christmas gift from his brother. PR2752 1875k Sh.Col.

Mr. Folger’s Complete works was given to him by his brother for Christmas in 1875, the year before he entered Amherst College as a student and started down the path that would lead him to the Folger Shakespeare Library. At age 15, it was the first Shakespeare he owned. Though he did not leave any annotations on the plays themselves, he recorded a number of quotations on Shakespeare from literary figures such as Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the flyleaves (the blank pages at the beginning and end of the book).

Inscriptions in Henry Folger's copy of Shakespeare's complete works. PR2752 1875k Sh.Col.
Inscriptions in Henry Folger’s copy of Shakespeare’s complete works. PR2752 1875k Sh.Col.

Mr. Folger’s book was featured in a 2002/2003 exhibition at the Folger, Thys Boke is Myne, which focused on those traces of former ownership, and the different meanings and implications they can have. (You can read more about the exhibition, including links to images of some of the items featured, on its Folgerpedia page.) Mr. Folger’s book is the only Christmas present featured in that exhibition, but it is not the only one in our collection; the Folger owns about 25 or 30 other books that were given as Christmas presents (about a third of them editions of Shakespeare). Some contain elaborate presentation inscriptions from the giver to the receiver. Others contain only initials and a date—meaningful to the owner, but unfortunately not always clear to librarians and scholars today. Some names are instantly recognizable: this Shakespeare edition was given to Andrew Carnegie by his mother in 1879. It’s another example of a book made significant by its owner.

Some gift books were not owned by people as prominent as Folger or Carnegie, but were gifts that were beautiful, or useful in everyday life—or both, in the case of this “Shakespeare birthday book.”

Not all provenance information is exciting and dramatic like “Henry Folger’s first Shakespeare!” or “Queen Elizabeth’s Bible!” Much of it represents ordinary people, of whom the historical record has preserved only small traces. But all of it helps scholars understand the role of books and information in peoples’ lives, and helps preserve the historical record.

So if you’re doing some last-minute holiday shopping, consider a volume of Shakespeare—and don’t forget to inscribe it!

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