The Folk-Lore Society was founded in January 1878 (it kept the hyphen till 1968), and was thus the first society in the world devoted to the subject. There had been protracted correspondence in N&Q in 1876–7, initiated by Eliza Gutch (‘St Swithin’), calling for such a body to be formed. After some hesitation over the definition of its remit, a group of already well-known figures, including W. J. Thoms and George Laurence Gomme, took up the challenge and announced the formation of the Society (with 107 members); its journal, The Folk-Lore Record, was launched in February 1879. In the first issue, the Society's object was defined as ‘The preservation and publication of Popular Traditions, Legendary Ballads, Local Proverbial Sayings, Superstitions and Old Customs (British and foreign) and all subjects relating to them’ (Folk-Lore Record 1 (1878), p. ix). The music, dancing, and material culture excluded from this official agenda nevertheless had a place in the personal work of some members, and sometimes in the pages of the journal; eventually they became the remit of the English Folk Dance Society, the Folk-Song Society, and the Society for Folk Life Studies.
Initially, the Society's aim was to publish books and a journal; members met only once a year, the work being carried on by a Council which met at intervals. There were occasional lectures in the 1880s, more regular ones from the 1890s onwards. For the first 30 years of its existence, the Society was a forum for intellectual discussion between well-known scholars, who debated their theories hotly, even acrimoniously, in its publications and meetings, which were often reported in the daily and weekly press. Many debates concerned very broad issues, approached in a scientific spirit: the origin of mythology, the relationship between folklore and the minds and lives of primitive humanity, and/or contemporary ‘savages’, the cultural diffusion of traditions. The goal was, and long remained, to cover the topic worldwide, and over the whole span of history. One high point of this first phase was the Society's hosting of the International Folk-Lore Congress of 1891.
Large publication programmes were launched, resulting in many books of lasting value. Work began on several ambitious schemes: to collect all English proverbs and collate them with their foreign analogues; to classify and analyse all British ‘popular customs and superstitions’; to collect folktales, on a worldwide scale, and tabulate them according to their main plots and incidental traits; Gomme's plan for a ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Lore’. Most of these wide-ranging plans remained unfinished, for lack of manpower and/or money. With hindsight, one can see it might have been wiser to focus research more sharply on Britain itself, but the Society's policy had always been to view its subject from an international perspective, not an insular one.
As the 20th century dawned, the Society began to lose impetus as founder members died or retired, and the Great War killed many who might have replaced them. After 1918, professional academics turned more to the new subjects of anthropology and sociology, which were gaining the foothold in universities which folklore had failed to achieve. Matters cannot have been helped by the fact that the most prominent ‘heavyweight’ now associated with the Society was Frazer, whose old-fashioned methods were disapproved of by professional anthropologists. Nevertheless, a Committee (led first by Burne, then by Hartland, then by A. R. Wright) worked throughout the war and on into the 1920s and 1930s on a major undertaking begun in 1910, a survey of British calendar customs to update Brand; this was eventually published in eight volumes between 1938 and 1946, covering England, Scotland, Man, and Orkney and Shetland.