A Better Life – Part Fourteen

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.


A Better Life – Part Four


The Pseudo-anarchist commune of Home, Washington

At first blush, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about an anarchist commune. The popular conception of anarchism is that there are no rules but it actually is a philosophy which advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions and which views the state as undesirable, unnecessary and positively harmful.

In the summer of 1895 three men, George Allen, Oliver Verity and B O’Dell, set out in a rowing boat to find an isolated spot upon which to build a commune based on anarchic principles. They hit on 26 acres of land at Von Geldern Cove on the Puget Sound in Washington which they bought for $7 an acre, doing odd jobs to raise the money. By the following year their families had joined them and they had built some cabins.

In 1898 they had established the Mutual Home Association whose Articles proclaimed that it would “assist its members in obtaining and building homes for themselves and to aid in establishing better social and moral conditions”. Membership was open to anyone who agreed to support its anarchist ideals and pay the requisite amount to secure their plot of land, although the freehold was held by the Association. In reality, there was not much to sign up to. As the writer, Elbert Hubbard, who visited the commune noted, “there is not a church, preacher, prostitute, saloon, doctor, constable, lawyer or justice of peace. There is entire freedom”.

Quickly the word spread about the commune and soon it became home to a motley collection of anarchists, communists, free thinkers, nudists (who would ultimately be their undoing) and those who wanted to pursue unusual diets. It also collected its fair share of ne’er-do-wells. To accommodate this influx the site increased almost ten-fold to 217 acres.

The start of the problems for the commune came in 1901 after President McKinley was assassinated by the self-professed anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in Buffalo, New York State. The locals realising that they had a bunch of anarchists on their doorstep started to get uppity. The community came under increasing scrutiny and articles critical of their beliefs and lifestyle appeared in the newspaper based in nearby Tacoma. One article so inflamed passions that a group of vigilantes styling themselves as the Loyal League and formed from veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic planned to invade the colony by steamboat and put it to the torch. Their plans came to naught when the steamboat captain refused to take them.

In 1902 the community fell foul of the Comstock Law which was designed to suppress the trade in and circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use when an article advocating free love was published in a local anarchist newspaper. As a result, the post office was closed down.

Inevitably, there were frictions in the commune, the tipping point being the practice of nude bathing. Those who were in favour were labelled “nudes” by The Agitator, Home’s newspaper, and those against were “prudes”. The editor, Jay Fox, who wrote a series of articles in defence of the pastime had his collar felt for his troubles and spent two months in chokey.

The Association limped on until 1919 when its government was arraigned in court for being impotent – too much skinny dipping in the cold water, perhaps? – and it was dissolved. Still, it had lasted 26 years which by utopian standards was good going.