Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Roycrofters, Elbert Hubbard

Get happiness out of your work or you may never know what happiness is.
Elbert Hubbard

In a small village named East Aurora in upstate NY just outside of Buffalo in 1895 Elbert Hubbard founded the Roycroft community of crafters. The community reflected the Movement's ideals of art and craftsmanship as instruments of social reform in its organization as well as in its products. The high quality and unique artistry of the Roycroft creations made them very popular. But it was the business acumen and charismatic personality of its founder, Elbert Hubbard, that made Roycroft one of the most successful artistic enterprises of the Arts and Crafts era.
Hubbard was a very successful salesman that became part owner of the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, NY. He sold his interest in the company and retired to East Aurora to persue his interest in writing. On a trip to England he visited William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, Hubbard was intrigued by the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement and decided to start his own handicraft press in East Aurora. He set up a print shop and published a magazine called "The Philistine" which contained his interpretations of the craftsman ideals. The magazine, along with other philosophical pamphlets and publications, became popular and helped to bring Hubbard and the Roycroft community to national attention while supporting their activities at the same time.
The press led to the establishment of a bindery where Hubbard's books as well as classics from literature were bound in leather, this led to a leather shop and a metal shop, finally a furniture shop was added. The handicrafts were sold throughout the country advertised in magazines and in ''The Philistine" and due to Hubbards accumen as a salesman soon the Roycrofters were known throughout the country. He was at heart a businessman and salesman and he succeeded in selling not only the Roycroft products but the Roycroft concept and even himself as an American Ruskin or Morris to an ever-growing segment of the American public. People flocked to East Aurora to meet the man, to buy Roycroft handicrafts and to live and work at the Roycroft community. Hubbard built the Roycroft Inn in 1903 to house the large number of visitors and filled it with furniture and wares from his shops. The Roycrofters, as the craftsmen were called, published catalogs featuring leatherwork, copper wares, leaded glass lamps and their version of the popular Morris chair. Both the inn and the catalogs fostered an increased demand for these handicrafts which resulted in an increase in the number of workshops and people employed at Roycroft.
As Roycroft grew, Hubbard set up a community that was to be self-sufficient, based on pre-industrial agrarian ideals where artisans and their families lived and worked in healthy, idyllic conditions. Housing was provided in the form of Bungalows in the craftsman style. In the small shops, the emphasis was on hand-crafted items. The artisans worked in their own areas of expertise but were encouraged to apprentice themselves to other craftsmen to develop new skills. Pay was low but this was offset by the living and working conditions and the opportunity for creative artistic expression. Local villagers were hired to train with the artisans and to work in the shops as well as in the gardens and fields. Housing and jobs were also provided for a few people and their families who came to the community disenchanted by life and work in the industrial society of the day. Hubbard, like the lord of a feudal estate, personally saw to the welfare of visitors, the community and the surrounding village, organizing intellectually and morally enriching activities such as musical concerts, festivals, and his own lecture series. Such benevolent touches as gifts at Christmas and playgrounds for children further cemented the Roycrofters' bonds of loyalty to their leader. Hubbard became a cult figure on both local and national levels.

Hubbard published many profiles of famous people in his "Little Journey's" series. From 1905 till 1915 Hubbard was one of the most sought after lecturers in the country, he was also in great demand as a writer and the Hearst Newspapers paid him hansomly to be a correspondent. Elbert Hubbard and his wife were travelling to Europe in 1915 to continue collecting interviews for his "Little Journey's" series, unfortunately there were sailing on the Lusitania when it was struck by a German torpedo and sunk. The community continued on under his son's guidance, but the great depression put brought it to a close, it was sold at auction in 1938.

Today, the spirit of the Roycroft community lives on due to a renewed interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1994, the Margeret L. Wendt Foundation bought and restored the Roycroft Inn with most of its original furnishings. The Roycroft meeting house, built in 1899, is currently the East Aurora Town Hall. A few of the original buildings remain on the campus and some are open to the public. For instance, the ScheideMantel house, once owned by a Roycrofter, was donated to the Aurora Historical Society and today houses the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum. Various festivals, Roycroft handicraft auctions and exhibitions, educational programs and Arts and Crafts societies help to keep the memories and interest alive. In the 1970's the Roycroft Renaissance was born and using the principles of the Roycrofters artisans are juried and if their work meets the standards of quality and craftsmanship they are awarded with the title of Roycroft Renaissance Artisan and are able to use the double R Roycroft Logo, they are re-evaluated annually for three years and then may be awarded the title of Master Artisan. When you see the double R mark on a piece of work be assured that it is made with the highest standards of the "Head, Heart, and Hand".

Further Reading - The Roycrofters at Large - the webpage of The Roycrofters

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
Elbert Hubbard


Mark said...

Hey Brad,

Nice profile of Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft movement. Coincidentally, I recently wrote about this subject on my blog when I covered a lecture from one of the current Roycroft Master Artisans. You may be interested in the post.

Nice work on your blog!

The Craftsman's Path

Margaret said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! It was a pleasure to read. I've heard about Roycroft but I had no idea about Elbert Hubbard's movement. This was really informative! Thanks again!