Four hundred years ago, on December 5, 1623, Sir Edward Dering spent nearly £4.50 as he went about London throughout the day. The 25-year-old bought a number of household items, sent a letter to Cambridge, and saw a play. He also went to see a bookbinder, paying to have a group of printed plays from his collection bound together. He purchased some new books, too: two more playbooks, a Latin book of “considerations upon eternity,” the Workes of playwright and poet Ben Jonson, and two copies of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. This last title, now best known as the First Folio, had just been published, probably less than a month earlier. At £1 each, the two Shakespeare volumes were, by a wide margin, Dering’s largest expenditures of the day. In second place was the set of knives he bought for a friend, and they ran only 12 shillings—just over half the cost of a single First Folio. Even the Jonson volume, a substantial book in its own right, was only 9 shillings.
To the average worker, spending £1 on a book in 1623 would probably have seemed like spending around $4,000 or more for one today.
To the average worker, spending £1 on a book in 1623 would probably have seemed like spending around $4,000 or more for one today. The First Folio would have been an out-of-reach luxury. To someone like Dering, though, nearly any good or service he wanted would have been a financial afterthought. He routinely spent large sums on clothing—on one occasion, a single suit cost him just under £7—and expenses related to being knighted alone ran north of £200.
On the one hand, then, the First Folio was always a pricey book, even from the day it was published. On the other, though, the book was not yet the First Folio, the high-status collectible that it is today. In fact, for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first-edition identity of the 1623 edition was a liability rather than a selling point. The second edition of 1632 added more prefatory material, including John Milton’s first published poem, and the 1664 issue of the third edition—the Third Folio—added seven plays to the original 36-play collection. (Scholars today believe that Shakespeare had a hand in only one of them, Pericles.) At that point, the First Folio would have seemed outdated, not able to serve readers as well as the newest, expanded edition. Auction catalogs from the end of the seventeenth century commonly describe copies of the 1664 book and the 1685 Fourth Folio, which also has the additional plays, as belonging to the “best Edition.” Famously, after the Bodleian Library at Oxford University acquired their Third Folio, they got rid of their 1623 edition.
The First Folio’s depreciation reversed as critics and educators transformed Shakespeare from a well-regarded playwright and poet into England’s greatest author and, eventually, a staple on high school and college syllabuses.
The First Folio’s depreciation reversed as critics and educators transformed Shakespeare from a well-regarded playwright and poet into England’s greatest author and, eventually, a staple on high school and college syllabuses. Around 1750, sales of the book for the first time reached numbers well above original retail prices. In 1756, a copy sold for a bit over £3, and in 1787 one reached £10. After another sold for £35.70 in 1790, the critic George Steevens proclaimed that the First Folio had become “the most expensive single book in our language.” A little over a century later, in the years just after 1900, the average cost of a copy ballooned to £1,000. And prices truly began skyrocketing in the 1960s. In 2020, the Mills College First Folio sold for nearly $10 million, setting a record for the highest price ever reached by a work of Western literature.
The earliest First Folio in the United States appears to have arrived in 1845 when the diplomat and book collector Thomas Pennant Barton paid a prominent London bookseller £110 for a clean, complete copy. It is now at the Boston Public Library, along with the rest of Barton’s approximately 12,000-volume collection. As profits from industry and the financial system that developed alongside it during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries elevated American fortunes, more and more First Folios made the voyage across the Atlantic. Today, approximately two-thirds of the 228 known copies of the book are in American collections. Over half of those, 82, are at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Henry Clay Folger, the collector who amassed them, made his money working for Standard Oil.
No First Folio appears to have arrived in Texas until the early 1920s—and the first of them wouldn’t have made it west of Washington, D.C., if Folger had had his way. In 1915, a bookseller working for him as a scout wrote an English collector, the Rev. William Fulford Adams, to see if he would be willing to sell. Adams sent back a postcard that reads, in full: “Sir I have no intention of selling my First Folio Shakespeare. It is something to have one.” And he appears, indeed, to have held onto it until his death, at which point it finally crossed the Atlantic. But not to Folger. Instead, it ended up in the hands of a collector based in Orange, Texas: Miriam Lutcher Stark. Late in 1925, she announced that she was donating her library to The University of Texas at Austin. Her First Folio arrived on campus shortly thereafter.
Like so many books that have been around for a couple of hundred years, the Stark volume suffered some damage along the way. But unlike many, which have often been left with missing leaves and tattered bindings, it is a First Folio, a book that because of its status has occasioned extensive restoration, often using cutting-edge (if now frowned-upon) techniques. Early in the eighteenth century, this copy underwent a straightforward rebind, probably because the book’s original binding was deteriorating. This type of treatment was standard for pretty much any book that the owner wanted to preserve. Later, though, probably by the end of the nineteenth century, the boards of that binding detached, as did several leaves at the front and back. The title-page appears to have been completely lost by then, if not earlier; the final leaf, too. And the very first leaf, with fellow playwright Ben Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare’s title-page portrait, was almost certainly in very rough condition, with extensive losses.
Darker, smoother leather visible around the sides of the eighteenth-century binding’s spine is from a procedure known as “rebacking.” New spine leather was put down, and the old spine was pasted on top of it. The suede of the existing covers was lifted enough to tuck the extended edges of the new spine leather underneath, and both were then glued down. At the same time, the detached leaves were reattached, and facsimiles of the missing title-page and final leaf were bound in. Perhaps most remarkably, all of the original paper of the leaf with the Ben Jonson poem was discarded, except for the few square inches in the middle containing the printed text of the poem itself. That paper was then carefully grafted into a replacement leaf, and missing parts of letters around the edges were supplied with pen and ink. This nearly seamless repair, shown below, would not have been possible more than a few decades before 1900. Much of this work eventually failed, too. In the early 1990s, the Ransom Center completely rebound the volume in new leather-covered boards, saving the once-repaired eighteenth-century covers and spine to support research.
Texas’s second First Folio was also The University of Texas’s second. It arrived in 1958, not long after the Harry Ransom Center was itself founded, as part of the large collection built by Edward Alexander Parsons, a lawyer and amateur historian from New Orleans. In this copy, a number of leaves have been provided in full or partial facsimile. The book’s very first leaf is a complete replacement, with the entire text of the Ben Jonson poem provided in handwritten, pen-and-ink facsimile. The title-page of this copy is not dissimilar to the Jonson leaf in the Stark copy: Original material has been grafted into another leaf, but here there is a blend of fragments and facsimile. Portions of both text and portrait are from 1623, but it takes a careful eye to tell which portions are which.
On January 21, 1986, The University of Texas held a press conference to announce that the Ransom Center had just acquired the collection of early English books and manuscripts assembled by Carl H. Pforzheimer, an affluent banker and stockbroker. With it came the Ransom Center’s third First Folio. (Another First Folio was donated to the Dallas Public Library later that year.) The Pforzheimer copy, unlike the other two at UT, has seen very little repair, despite being rebound at the end of the eighteenth century: The title-page and leaf with Jonson’s poem are fully original and in excellent condition. The wrinkle: When Pforzheimer purchased the volume at Sotheby’s in 1920, it didn’t have two leaves present in most other First Folios. These, one with two poems in praise of Shakespeare and another that lists actors who performed in his plays, he initially supplied in facsimiles printed on blank leaves of seventeenth-century paper. But he wanted true originals, which he eventually found in the form of fire-damaged copies. He had them repaired, but for unclear reasons never bound them in. They arrived at the Center in a folder along with documents detailing their restoration. Notably, however, the Sotheby’s cataloger; a leading bibliographer, Henrietta C. Bartlett; and Pforzheimer himself knew of additional copies without these two leaves and suspected that at least a few First Folios had originally been sold without them. Because of its condition and provenance, which can be traced back to at least 1660, the Pforzheimer First Folio provides what is arguably the strongest evidence for this possibility.
As the First Folio became the famous volume it is today, more and more copies were subject to the types of repairs and restorations we can see in the Ransom Center’s three copies. Those alterations are part of the story of Shakespeare’s rise and of the rise of the 1623 volume that has preserved so many of his plays for us. They are part of why at least 228 copies of the book survive today. And why they sell for such high prices. Paradoxically, though, as the Pforzheimer volume may remind us, the very same restoration work meant to venerate the book and its author have obscured—and in some cases probably destroyed—copy-specific evidence that would help us more fully understand its earliest history.
Dr. Aaron T. Pratt is the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Ransom Center.
The Ransom Center’s three First Folios are on view in The Long Lives of Very Old Books alongside more than 150 other books, manuscripts, and broadsides. The exhibition will be on view through December 30, 2023.
Explore the stories behind extraordinary books from the Ransom Center’s collections that were published by Europeans between the mid-fifteenth and late-seventeenth centuries. Items on view include a Don Quixote that has been annotated by a class-conscious reader and a copy of the first book printed in the English language with a hand-stitched repair on a torn leaf. Other notable volumes are a Bible that purportedly traveled to New England on the Mayflower, an encyclopedia that made its way from the press of Aldus Manutius in Venice into the Islamic world, a group of playbooks implicated in a series of high-profile thefts, and a sixteenth-century book that a 1960s Harvard under
graduate used as his personal diary.
These volumes testify to the value of treating early books as historical artifacts and offer glimpses into the lives of people who have come before us. Looking at these early volumes as historical artifacts provides evidence of how the books were originally made, who owned them, where they have traveled, and how they have been read, used, abused, and altered over the centuries.