During the 1890s, American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) founded the Roycroft artisan colony in East Aurora, New York. A former soap salesman, Hubbard used the Roycroft Press to espouse his libertarian views and produce deluxe volumes containing classic literature. The Roycroft shops—populated by talented and like-minded artisans, furniture makers, potters, and metalsmiths—injected elements of England's Arts & Crafts movement into the American cultural mainstream. The Roycrofters heavily influenced art and design in the United States in the early 20th century.
Elbert Hubbard was born on June 19, 1856, in Bloomington, Illinois, to Silas Hubbard, a country doctor, and his wife Juliana Frances Read Hubbard. The family had moved to Illinois from Buffalo, in upstate New York, and within a few years of Hubbard's birth resettled in Hudson, Illinois. Hubbard, known in his family as Bert, had two older siblings and three younger ones. The family was poor, as Silas Hubbard was often paid by his rural customers in firewood, beef, oats, or hay, if he even was paid at all, and they farmed to earn extra money. The family attended the local Baptist church, where singleminded young Bert Hubbard attended Bible study classes but refused to be baptized like his siblings. While growing up, he worked as a hired farmhand and also helped his father deliver babies. He loved horses and used his savings to purchase a horse when he was a child. Hubbard would have horses throughout his life, and in later years he could be spotted riding them around the Roycroft community.
Hubbard liked to read and plowed through books like James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature, and Robert Burton's 17thcentury tome Anatomy of Melancholy. He read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and thereafter followed Franklin's lead on learning new words. Whenever Hubbard encountered a word he did not know, he wrote it down, then used a dictionary to discover its meaning, later memorizing the word and its definition. In this way, his vocabulary expanded, paving the way for his literary career.
In the spring of 1872, Hubbard's cousin, Justus “Jet” Weller, visited the family in Indiana. Weller was a partner in a successful soap business based in Chicago. His job offer as a salesman for Weller's Practical Soaps prompted Hubbard to spent the next several years peddling soap door-to-door throughout the Midwest. As a 16-year-old novice, he traveled via horse wagon, but he soon expanded his reach by using the railroad. As he traveled, Hubbard took in new sights and attended any political meetings or lectures that caught his attention, many presented by the leading orators of the day. As he explored fairs and museums, his worldview continued to broaden.
In 1875, the Weller soap company split, and co-owner J.D. Larkin headed east to establish a new factory in Buffalo, New York. Joining Larkin, Hubbard had a one-third ownership in the Larkin Soap Company: while Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products, Hubbard handled the marketing. Hubbard printed handbills and sent them to grocery stores to get his product on the shelves. In 1881, he married Bertha Crawford, whom he had met years earlier while on his sales route in Normal, Illinois. Bertha was a flower gardener and amateur watercolorist and the couple would have three sons and a daughter.
Gifted at sales and marketing, Hubbard pushed the soap business into mail order to eliminate the need to pay salesmen commissions. In 1885, he devised the “Sweet Home Soap” package, which included laundry and toilet soap, a washing compound, and perfume, all for six dollars. He placed newspaper ads to gain customers and kindly added that “give-aways” would be included with each mail order. These giveaways included things like celluloid collar buttons and celluloid penholders. With the purchase of “Ocean Bath” soap, the customer received a bath towel. These prizes boosted sales, and under Hubbard's guidance the Larkin Soap Company became a national mail-order powerhouse. Hubbard also had the idea to turn his customers into salespeople, offering them free credit, prizes, and merchandise to sell Larkin products through organized neighborhood buying clubs.
In 1892, Hubbard sold his interest in the Larkin Soap Company and received $75,000 in the buyout. Now 36 years old, he left the business world in favor of a place where he could have more of an impact. According to David Arnold Balch, author of Elbert Hubbard: Genius of Roycroft, Hubbard wrote to his sister, stating his idea that “a useful life implies a continual performance of good and useful acts—useful to others and because useful to others to the doer also.” Hubbard decided to go to college, setting his sights on
Hubbard's time at Harvard was not wasted, however. While there, he visited nearby Concord, Massachusetts, to learn more about the famed writers and transcendentalists who had gathered there earlier in the 19th century, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. The visit sparked the idea for what would become Hubbard's “Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great” series. In producing each hardcover volume, he visited the birthplace of a famous person and then wrote a human-interest biography of the subject. These biographies were published monthly beginning in 1894, and he ultimately wrote more than 150 installments in the “Little Journeys” series.
In 1893, Boston-based Arena Publishing released Hubbard's first novel, One Day: A Tale of the Prairies, following that a year later with Forbes of Harvard. This latter novel is told through letters written between several characters, the main one being Forbes, who has left Harvard University. In Forbes of Harvard, Hubbard poked fun at higher education and eccentric professors.
In 1894, Hubbard set off on a tour of England and Ireland, visiting the stomping grounds of novelist George Eliot, poet William Wordsworth, art critic John Ruskin, and writer Charles Dickens. On a visit to Hammersmith, England, he met William Morris. An architect, craftsman, socialist, and writer, Morris was advancing the Arts & Crafts movement in England through works released through his Kelmscott Press.
Hubbard was inspired and would draw on Morris's ideas when setting up his Roycroft community. Meanwhile, he returned from England with several installments for “Little Journeys”: he had completed essays about Ruskin and Eliot and had drafts for several more. Hubbard envisioned the series published in monthly installments, either in magazine or pamphlet form. He sent his completed manuscript to dozens of publishers, but all rejected the idea. Finally, Boston publisher Putnam & Sons agreed to a one-year trial.
In 1895, Hubbard rolled out the first edition of The Philistine, a Periodical of Protest, a pocket-sized magazine containing essays by Hubbard and others. This satirical publication was aimed at the American middle class, offering a fresh take on U.S. culture by questioning the accepted norms of the day. In his essays, Hubbard made fun of the upper classes and their education, art, and customs. He paid for 2,500 copies and mailed them all out, placing subscription information on the outside, as required by the post office for second-class mail. Although Hubbard had no intention of publishing a second edition, subscription requests poured in, and he kept the magazine going. The Philistine was mailed with a brown butcher's-paper cover, and he liked to say that there was “meat” inside.
Guided by Morris's success, Hubbard now purchased necessary equipment from a print shop and set up operations in his barn. The Philistine remained in circulation for 20 years. American Enterprise writer Bill Kauffman described The Philistine as “a hodgepodge of maxims, clever ads, contributions by such Hubbardites as young Stephen Crane, corny jokes that would make a Bob Hope gagwriter wince, and megalomaniacal self-promotion.” Three years in, circulation reached 20,000 as the lighthearted magazine proved popular. In espousing his views, Hubbard later dubbed himself “Fra Elbertus.”
In March of 1899, “A Message to Garcia” appeared in The Philistine and caused a stir. In this 1,500-word essay, Hubbard offered a commentary on leadership and duty inspired by a true story from the Spanish-American War. A young American officer, Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan, was sent on a covert mission to Cuba: locate anti-Spanish rebel leader General Calixto García and deliver a letter from current U.S. president William McKinley. Hubbard's message highlighted the initiative shown by Rowan in taking the assignment and getting the job done. The lieutenant did not ask how to do it or where to find García. Likewise, he was not given any tips or tricks, but was expected to figure it out on his own.
Hubbard wrote “A Message to Garcia” after spending a day with his office staffers and finding them incapable of meeting his demands. Frustrated by lazy and/or incompetent workers, business owners around the world loved the essay and Hubbard's pamphlet, translated into two dozen languages, was widely circulated in businesses worldwide as well as in the U.S. military for years to come. The phrase “Carry a message to Garcia” entered popular culture and was used when referring to initiative or tackling a difficult task.
By now, The Philistine was being published by the Roycroft community, which had grown due to the success of its print shop and was based in East Aurora, a small town west of Buffalo where Hubbard now lived. He named it “Roycroft” after the 17th-century English printers Thomas and Samuel Roycroft, who had served as the king's printers. The surname Roycroft was coined from the French roi craft meaning “royal craftsman.” The books that came out of the Roycroft Press had an elegant, antiquarian appearance with tooled leather and chamois suede covers and cut pages of handmade paper.
A broad social and artistic movement, Arts & Crafts responded to the mass-produced and ornate factory items generated during the late Victorian era. Made by people rather than factories, Arts & Crafts items fused a restrained form with function. The Roycroft community was inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement supported by Morris and imported similar values to the United States. Although the Roycroft community started with printers, it grew to include other artisans and the Roycroft shops turned out hand-crafted copper wares, vases, glass lamps, and furniture constructed with pins, pegs, and mortise-and-tenon joints. Simple, high-quality items, they carried the message of beauty in everyday objects.
With Hubbard's marketing background, Roycroft handicrafts sold well. In addition to advertising them in his publications, he distributed Roycroft catalogs to promote sales. He was also a genius at branding: Roycroft products were stamped with a unique insignia: a cross and orb with a medieval-looking “R.” Hubbard gave the mark three different sectors to represent faith, hope, and love. By the turn of the 20th century, artisans from across the United States flocked to East Aurora, and the workforce hit 500 by 1910. Many famous artisans got their start at Roycroft, including illustrator William Denslow, who worked for the Roycroft Press and later became known for illustrating L. Frank Baum's 1910 children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its companions.
As the catalyst from which the Roycroft community grew, Hubbard had the last say, and he was something of an eccentric. He let his hair grow long and often covered it with a wide-brimmed soft hat reminiscent of an earlier time. He had violent enthusiasms and made it clear when he disagreed or disapproved. In 1903 he caused a social scandal when he divorced his wife Bertha and married his mistress, Alice Moore, with whom he had conceived a daughter in 1894. Over time, Hubbard became a cult figure, but his vision of a utopian Arts & Crafts community ultimately remained unfulfilled.
In the summer of 1914, tensions rose over Germany's march into Belgium, and the United States entered World War I. Hubbard wrote extensively about the conflict and decided to go to Europe to find out more. In May of 1915, he and Alice boarded the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania in New York Harbor and embarked for Liverpool, England. Tragically, they never arrived: the Lusitania was sunk by German U-boat torpedoes while nearing the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. More than 1,100 passengers perished following the attack, including Hubbard and his wife.
Hubbard's son, Bert, took over the Roycroft community, but it declined rapidly after its founder's death. Although the Roycroft campus closed in 1938, most of the buildings in East Aurora were preserved as historic sites and remained open for visitors, including the Roycroft Inn. Roycroft products remained highly collectible into the 21st century.
Balch, David Arnold, Elbert Hubbard: Genius of Roycroft, Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1940.
Champney, Freeman, Art & Glory: The Story of Elbert Hubbard, Crown Publishers, 1968.
Shay, Felix, Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora, William H. Wise, 1926.
American Enterprise, January 1, 1999, Bill Kauffman, “Arts & Crafts Apostle,” p. 76.
American Heritage, October 1996, Jane Colihan, “Roycroft Renaissance”; April 1998, Frederic D. Schwarz, “The Time Machine: 100 Years Ago, A Message to Garcia.”
Reason, January 2007, John McClaughry, “Paradise Lost: A Populist's Nostalgic Ode to an America Gone By,” p. 62.□