Shakespeare liked shipwrecks, including one in at least five of his plays. Sea storms and shipwrecks were a convenient way to separate characters or bring them into conflict, as well as stranding them in a strange place. In the “Age of Exploration,” sea voyages became enticingly more possible over time, in spite of the dangers. But although Shakespeare himself never sailed to new lands, his printed words have circled the globe. Before flight was possible (and even after), such travel of course happened by ship.
When Henry Folger was purchasing the works that make up the core of the Folger collections today, most came to the United States from Great Britain. The correspondence that he and Emily carefully saved between dealers and agents is filled with trans-Atlantic letters and cablegrams. Living in the time of free 2-day shipping from Amazon, we don’t often consider what such a lengthy shipping process might entail. Books and manuscripts were carefully wrapped and sent to a ship, followed by a two-week journey to the Folgers in New York City. Unfortunately, like some of Shakespeare’s “sea-swallow’d” sailors, one shipment never made it to its destination.
In 1915, the North Atlantic was a dangerous place. With World War I raging, the waters were filled with German U-boats avoiding the British blockade and hunting Allied vessels. Perhaps most infamously, the German submarine U-24 torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in June of 1915, killing two-thirds of her 2,000 passengers and causing an international uproar. As the war continued, Germany targeted more and more merchant vessels, ultimately sinking 5,000 ships by the time of the Armistice in 1918.
Neither this rising threat nor the fate of the Lusitania stopped an eager representative of the London antiquarian dealer Maggs Bros. from writing to Henry Folger in July of 1915. Henry frequently purchased items from this respected, well-established firm, having enjoyed doing business with them nearly since he began collecting. As was customary with overseas clientele, Maggs would often send rare items “on approval” so that the customer could examine the item personally. This was not a guarantee of purchase: Folger didn’t hesitate to return items he found “wanting.” But on July 27th, the author of this letter from Maggs was certain he had found something special to pique Henry’s interest:
They enclosed a typescript catalog tied with a green ribbon, detailing 21 letters and 4 poems written by David Garrick, noting that one poem in particular was “a love poem to Peg Woffington.” Maggs valued the collection at £420 and went into extreme detail in describing each item. The authors of the catalog were particularly keen to point out letters including “Shakespearean interest,” transcribing from one letter to a Miss Cadogan: “My dearly beloved — we shall be most happy to see you & your Anti-Shakespearean Father on Sunday night, tho’ he has manifest sins & much wickedness, they shall be forgiven on your account…
As terrible as this loss was for our collections, and as Maggs notes, for history, the correspondence that Henry Folger saved gives us insight into the dangers of the Atlantic crossing even in the 20th century. Garrick’s love poem to Peg Woffington wasn’t the only item of literary or cultural value to go down—Henry Elkins Widener, the namesake of Harvard’s Widener Library, supposedly sank on the Titanic with a second edition of Bacon’s Essais (1598) in his pocket.
Human conflict (as well as an accident) has shaped the cultural repositories of our time, and will likely continue to do so—these letters are not the greatest loss we have experienced or ever will. But I am thankful to the perhaps overzealous catalogers at Maggs in 1915, who went to the trouble of describing and transcribing these letters, and to Henry and Emily Folger, for the instincts that have preserved not only their collection but the documentation behind their collecting for future study.