Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters
Sometimes you find yourself in a dead-end and know that there is something better you could be doing with your life. It matters not if you have made a small fortune as a partner in the Larkin Soap Company, if your dream is to be a writer and to promote high quality goods. So in 1894 Elbert Hubbard quit his lucrative position to set up a printing company in East Aurora, New York, taking as his inspiration William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement. His aim was to convince Americans that beauty was to be found in everyday objects.
The press was called Roycroft after two English printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who operated in London between 1650 and 1690. As important to Hubbard was the fact that roycroft was a title given to guildsmen who had achieved a high degree of skill and were thus qualified to make objects for the monarchy. The books produced by the Roycroft Press were noted for their elaborate book-binding and typography and used traditional skills and techniques. Hubbard’s espousal of high quality, traditional craftsmanship soon saw an influx of like-minded furniture makers, metalsmiths and leathersmiths. An arty community was born in East Aurora.
The Roycroft motto clearly spelt out their aims; “The Roycrofters are a small band of workers who make beautiful books and things—making them as good as they can.” They took a quote from John Ruskin as their modus operandi – “a belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that each task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.” Eschewing some of the mistakes other communes had made, Hubbard deliberately excluded those who just wanted to spend their time there pontificating rather than getting their hands dirty. Instead, as Hubbard recalled, his preferred recruits were “boys who have been expelled from school, blind people, deaf people, old people, jail-birds and mental defectives” who all managed to do good work.
Although Hubbard owned the property, Roycroft was similar to other American utopian communes in that meals were taken communally, there were meetings, sports events and communal studies. Wages were low but then there was little to spend money on. The commune managed to create an atmosphere of shared values where work was satisfying and everyone looked out for each other.
Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the community thrived and developed what was known as the Campus. In 1909 a powerhouse was built to provide the workshops with heat and electricity and hundreds of craftsman-style bungalows were built to house the artisans. By the early 1910s the Roycrofters were producing everything from lighting and stained glass to pottery and jewellery as well as the staple products of books and furniture. Much is still sought after today.
Hubbard, by this time, had seen commercial success from his books, Little Journeys and A Message To Garcia, and toured the States on lecture tours. This, of course, provided ample opportunity to attract and recruit like-minded craftspeople. Alas, though, tragedy struck Hubbard and by extension the Roycrofters in 1915 when he and his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, were lost at sea when the HMS Lusitania went down.
Hubbard’s son, Bert, assumed his father’s role and tried to wholesale the Roycrofters’ furniture into retail outlets. Sears & Roebuck eventually stocked some of the goods but it was a short-lived success, the commune closing its doors eventually in 1938, after the depression forced Bert to file for bankruptcy. Fourteen of the original Roycroft buildings can still be seen today.