Elbert Hubbard made his mark as a quotable American philosopher, writer, and lecturer. He was also quite the businessman, and is well known for his influence in the American Arts and Crafts movement. What’s most interesting about that influence, however, is that it was actually more accidental than visionary.
Before he ever could have imagined his later success, Hubbard was a freelance newspaper writer. He then moved into a lucrative career in soap sales working for his brother-in-law, John Durrant Larkin, in Buffalo, New York. He also spearheaded the marketing plan that led to Buffalo Pottery, interestingly enough. He retired from the soap business in 1892, and decided to travel abroad.
Upon returning from his travels, Hubbard was inspired to publish some of his writing based on his experiences. Fortunately for him, he found that publishers in the United States were less than enthusiastic about printing his writing. He set out to successfully publish his thoughts on his own.
Hubbard established the Roycroft Press in 1893 to print his first series of booklets, Little Journeys. His efforts met with such a positive reception that he soon became renowned as a writer. As his print shop flourished and began to grow, visitors flocked in droves to East Aurora, New York to meet him. To meet demand, an inn was opened to offer lodging to tourists.
Out of necessity, Hubbard had craftsmen in the area make furniture for use in the new hotel. When patrons admired the pieces and wanted to purchase them, an idea for another business blossomed and so did the community that came to be known as the Roycrofters.
Opening the Roycroft Shops
Hubbard opened the Roycroft Shops in 1895, and the group of talented craftspeople supplying goods for them grew exponentially embodying more than 500 workers by 1910, according to Roycrofters.com. These workshops operated by the community achieved great success over the next five years making a variety of wares including furniture, jewelry, leather goods, and beautiful copper wares such as ink wells and lamps.
“The Roycroft artisan community was a throwback to medieval England, with Gothic and Tudor style structures of stone and heavy oak. Roycroft was Hubbard’s creation, but it was not built upon a grand vision of social reform or artistic ideals; instead, it developed with a series of fortunate circumstances bolstered by Hubbard’s business acumen,” according to Elbert Hubbard: An American Original, a well worth watching PBS documentary.
Even though it was those fortunate circumstances that led to his greatest success, that doesn’t mean Hubbard wasn’t influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement as the Roycrofters took shape. He did meet William Morris, who wrote The Art of the People that originally ignited the Arts & Crafts movement in Great Britain, during his post-retirement jaunt. He was no doubt influenced by Morris’s Kelmscott Press before he struck up his own related venture when he returned home. The products the Roycrofters marketed exemplified anti-industrialization ideals so entrenched in Arts & Crafts ideals as well. It is no coincidence that the furniture and accessories made by the community firmly reflected Mission, also known as Craftsman, style.
Hubbard tragically lost his life in the sinking of the ill-fated British passenger ship the Lusitania in 1915 during World War I, but the numerous products he facilitated lived on including numerous Buffalo Pottery and Roycroft wares. In fact, his son Bert expanded distribution of Roycroft products and kept the business alive until 1938 when changing American tastes and demands finally led to their demise.
Today collectors seek Roycroft products not only for the collectible nature of the name, but for their excellent quality and superb design in the Arts & Crafts tradition. The furniture and decorative items, including coveted copper lamps, made by Hubbard’s community are revered almost as highly as those crafted in Gustav Stickley’s shop operating during the same time frame.