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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Banner image: Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger by Frank O. Salisbury (Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)

Emily Jordan Folger ’1879

Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are grateful to Dr. Stephen H. Grant for this article on a distinguished member of the class of 1879. He is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014), the first biography of Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger, founders of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Emily Clara Jordan was born on May 15, 1858 in Ironton, Ohio. Responding to a questionnaire from Vassar as to “other nationalities in your ancestry,” she gave her heritage as “French Huguenot, Scotch, and English.” Her mother was Augusta Woodbury Ricker, and her father, Edward Jordan, a newspaper editor and lawyer, served as Solicitor of the Treasury during the Civil War. He once took young Emily to meet President Lincoln in the White House.

Emily Jordan
Emily Jordan’s “photograph card” in her senior year at Vassar

Emily grew up in Flushing, Long Island, with her sisters Mary and Elizabeth and brother Francis. The sisters went to the reputed Miss Ranney’s School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, after the family relocated. In this family of moderate means, where neither parent had gone to college, Elizabeth went into teaching and Francis into a law practice without the benefit of higher education. On the other hand, both Mary (class of 1876) and Emily graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar, and eventually each earned a master’s degree in the English Department there. All three sisters taught school. Mary served as Vassar librarian before going to teach in the English Department at Smith College for thirty-seven years. From the parents, the children are said to have inherited “an enlightened mind, a sense of humor, and a critical love of books.”

At Vassar, Emily was chosen president of her class of thirty-six women. Her top academic subjects were English composition, French, and astronomy, in which she obtained a “5.” Close behind ranked botany, chemistry, math, and English criticism. Beyond her academic prowess in both science and letters, her college scrapbook reveals many extra-curricular interests: she saved scores of musical and theatrical programs, participated in debates, and attended class “sociables” and dances. Her scrapbook pages are interspersed with dried leaves and flowers. She was considered a “belle.”

Upon graduation in 1879, Jordan took a job in the collegiate department at the Nassau Institute, Miss Hotchkiss’s school “for young ladies and children” in Brooklyn. She taught a wide range of literary and scientific subjects at four grade levels. She left the teaching profession in 1885 to marry the Brooklyn native Henry Clay Folger, a merchant in the oil business. Folger’s background was similar to Jordan’s: after attending the distinguished Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, he had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1879, with pronounced interests in English language and literature, debating, theatre, and music. Both practiced the Protestant religion, attending and supporting the Congregational Church most of their lives. Emily taught Bible school and through her church supported a war orphan in France. The Folger’s marriage was childless; it ended with his death in 1930 following an operation in a Brooklyn hospital.

The culmination of her later years was April 23, 1932. On this day, Shakespeare’s 368th birthday, a delegation of her Vassar classmates traveled to Washington, D.C., to applaud their class president as she handed over the keys of the newly built Folger Shakespeare Library to the Board of Trustees of Amherst College, which would administer it. The Folgers, in a marriage described as “happy and affectionate,” pursued for forty years, with single-minded determination, the objectives of acquiring the largest possible collection of Shakespearean and Elizabethan literary works, overseeing the design and construction of a magnificent building to house it one block from the Capitol, and providing an endowment to fund library management and expansion. The achievement is unparalleled in the history of American philanthropy.

Henry Folger made a small fortune as an executive under John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in the Standard Oil Company. After the Supreme Court ruled its dissolution in 1911, Henry became president and later chairman of the board of the Standard Oil Company of New York. His executive positions in oil firms gave the couple the wherewithal to live well and to display their wealth as they pleased. Nevertheless, they lived frugally, renting modest accommodations until they bought their first house in Glen Cove, Long Island, when they were in their seventies.

They shunned luncheon invitations and social engagements. Once a year, they welcomed brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, for a New Year’s dinner. Inseparable almost all of their married life, they focused exclusively on their shared passion of collecting Shakespeariana. A family visitor to their home reported finding modest furnishings of no particular style, and “books, book, books.” The Folgers’ method of acquisition of their Shakespearean library was mainly through auction sales in London and New York, where they were represented by book dealers or agents. Emily would read through the book auction catalogues delivered by mail, turn down the page corner and make wavy lines in the margins of the items she thought the couple should obtain. In the evening, after a day at the office, Henry would go over his wife’s recommendations and develop his bid list, indicating how high for any one item his agent could bid on his behalf. Emily would keep an up-to-date catalogue of acquisitions, including record of cost and mention of any imperfections in the copy, as they might later seek to obtain a better one. When the Brooklyn home became full of books, Emily rented space in storage warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

After a few years of marriage and after Henry had started purchasing the rare Shakespearian titles, Emily decided to study for an advanced degree. With a course of study prescribed by the Shakespearian scholar Horace Howard Furness, she was accepted into a master’s program at Vassar. In 1896, she received a letter from her alma mater: the faculty had approved her thesis on “The True Text of Shakespeare,” and “the committee…expressed itself as greatly pleased with it.” Her final exam was on The Tempest. Subsequently, Emily’s role grew from that of a facilitator in the acquisition of literary works to that of the recognized Shakespearian scholar in the couple. Nor was that the end of Emily’s writing career. She published poems and whimsical tales in the magazine, The Outlook, and gave talks in a literary society she joined in New York City, the Meridian Club. Initially they addressed specific aspects of Shakespeare. After Henry’s death, she spoke to the same audience on “The Dream Come True,” the story of the library and of Henry Clay Folger. Vassar invited Emily to speak at the jubilee celebrations in 1915. For many years, she had solicited views of Shakespearian actresses and women writers of how they had become interested in Shakespeare or how they interpreted Shakespeare, and her address was entitled “Some Women Interpreters of Shakespeare.”

Emily Folger kept a play diary from 1906 until 1930, during which period she offered a wide-ranging analysis of 125 Shakespearian performances (some in Italian, French, and German) that she saw in New York, and occasionally in Stratford-on-Avon. Often she would go to the matinee performance with family and friends, and Henry accompanied her to half of them. Several times she returned a week or so later to see whether the performers had benefited from criticism they had received. She recorded the names of the actors and actresses, noting which actors “caught the spirit of the play,” observing the quality of the voice, the glibness of speech, eye contact, mobility of face, and commenting on whether the costumes were “well-colored” and “historically accurate,” she determined if the scenery was “poor” or “elaborate,” whether the waits were long, if the actors were well made up, which actors required prompting, and counted the “lispers” or actors with deficient elocution, and, rating the quality of the orchestration, she set down what the critics (often the celebrated Edwin Winter) wrote in the press about the theatrical interpretation, how full the house was, how many encores there were. Emily even recorded remarks by people sitting near her.

In her view, the greatest sin was when the “true text of Shakespeare” was cut. Then she would mournfully write “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Shakespeare was serious and inviolable for the Folgers. The final entry in the play diary was not about a play at all, but about a “talking movie.” On February 5, 1930, Emily saw Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford starring in the film version of “The Taming of the Shrew”: “Of course not Shakespeare, but entertaining. Besides, it’s amazing what 35 cents can offer!”

Her play diary gives some idea of the seriousness with which Emily Folger took her Shakespeare. The fact that the Shakespearian performances in New York City were in French, German, and Italian also reflects the universal interest the bard commanded in America in the early 1900s. Both Henry and Emily Folger believed firmly that from Shakespeare’s pen flowed the highest and most noble expression in the English language. Just as “cuts” in the plays were hardly tolerated, so the question of the “true” version of Shakespeare’s plays was one of utmost importance to the Folgers. Siding with her mentor Horace Howard Furness, Emily believed that the 1623 posthumous edition (the First Folio) of thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays offered the most authoritative text. The Folgers considered it incomparably the most important work in the English language. The Folger Shakespeare Library possesses seventy-nine copies of the First Folio, approximately one-third of those surviving copies. They are all different, as to spelling, type, bindings, errors, and defects. Some are presentation copies.

Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger
Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger by Frank O. Salisbury (Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)

Emily Jordan Folger was honored in 1932 when Amherst College conferred upon her an honorary doctorate. The citation read: “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.”

In this act, Amherst was recognizing Emily’s contribution to the college as much more than that of being the wife of an Amherst alumnus. She was an equal partner with her husband in developing the Shakespeariana collection. And when he died in 1930––before the library was finished––Emily supervised the completion of the structure on 201 East Capitol Street on Capitol Hill and the installation of the collection, and she assisted with the hiring of staff and with organizational decisions. When the funds left Amherst in Henry Folger’s will proved insufficient due to the effect of the Great Depression, Emily made substantial financial donations from her own inheritance to assure the library a solid endowment. At her death, the bulk of her estate went to the library.

Emily Jordan Folger died in on Feb. 21, 1936. Her ashes lie beside those of her husband in a mortuary urn niche in the wood-paneled Tudor Reading Room in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, behind a bronze tablet on which is engraved, “To the Glory of William Shakespeare and the Greater Glory of God.” On either side of the tablet are displayed large oil portraits of Emily and Henry Folger painted in 1927 by the British portraitist, Frank Salisbury.

The journalist Frank Waldo Fawcett, who knew Emily Folger well, described her in 1931as “a woman of keen, active, and sympathetic mind.” In an obituary, he wrote, “Mrs. Henry Clay Folger was a wonderful person. When she was old and alone in the world, she found a marvelous pleasure in being, as she said, ‘still alive.’ Each morning she wakened to the duties of the day with a keen enjoyment of the privilege of seeing the sun once more. She loved her home at Glen Cove and the Shakespeare Library in Washington, which she finished in her husband’s name, as though they were sentient creations.

Perhaps the explanation lay in her advancing age and in her isolation after Mr. Folger’s death. In any case, her genius of appreciation was sharpened by experience. She was grateful for every minute which destiny conceded to her use. It amused her to speak of herself as ‘an ancient child,’ full of zeal for new impressions, new ventures and discoveries.”

Class president Emily Jordan returned often to Poughkeepsie for reunions and to attend Shakespearian productions. In 1935, she established a lecture series called the “Folger Fund” to bring to Vassar speakers on Elizabethan topics. Vassar can be proud of its alumna, the woman responsible for the largest literary gift in the history of American philanthropy.


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