Tales from the Vault: Excuse Me, I Think There’s a Hair in My Book

Title page of the First Folio with a large engraving of William Shakespeare

Q2 verso “ink blot on period of running title containing brown and blond hairs”


William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies published in 1623, commonly known as the Shakespeare First Folio is the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays. There are 36 plays in the First Folio including the first publications of The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, among others. The First Folio has been, and continues to be, an object of intense academic study and collecting, and is largely the reason we have so many of Shakespeare’s plays today. 


The Booth Family Center for Special Collections holds a copy of the First Folio. Our copy was purchased from the Dahlgren Estate in 1964. The First Folio celebrated its 400th printing anniversary in 2023 and our copy has been receiving some renewed attention. Recently, I was called into the reading room to consult with a patron who was viewing our copy of the First Folio. The patron was visiting as part of a quest to view all 235 available copies of the First Folio and had done research in advance on the copy held in Special Collections. While he had been prepared for it, I was not expecting to be asked if I could find a hair in the book.  


Close up of the title line "The Merchant of Venice" with an ink blot after the "e" in Venice
Look closely at the ink blot at the end of Venice. What do you see?


In preparation for the visit, our researcher had consulted The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalog edited by Eric Rasmussen and Anthony James West, published by Palgrave Macmillan London, 2012. The Rasmussen catalog features detailed descriptions of 232 copies of the First Folio. It notes the past ownership and physical characteristics of the Georgetown First Folio. Buried in a dense paragraph of repairs and damage not affecting text, is the sentence at the start of this blog post. Our researcher had noted the description and identified “Q2 verso” as the last page of The Merchant of Venice and had the book open so that I could look to see if I might spot the hair.


Close up of the the title line "The Merchant of Venice" with a white piece of paper as background to show to provide contrast for a black hair stuck in an ink blog
The hair is apparent when placed against a white background


At first glance I could see a thin black line, but wasn’t sure if it was ink or hair. I looked through a magnifying glass and still couldn’t quite tell. I decided to move my finger closer and poked at the ink blot. Sure enough, the hair moved! There was indeed a hair stuck in the First Folio. The hair was much easier to see when lit from the side and the researcher and I examined it together. We noticed that there is no hair follicle, so DNA testing is not an option. We also noticed that the ink blot looks like the same ink used to print the book. While we don’t know for sure, it is reasonable to think that if that is the case, and this hair was caught in ink from when the book was printed, it means our First Folio has a 400 year old hair in it! 


Written by Jay Sylvestre