Roycroft was both a reformist movement and a community of craft workers and artists formed during the beginning of the Arts & Crafts movement 1 in the United States. Elbert Green Hubbard (no relation to L. Ron!) founded a community in 1895, in the village of East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo. Participants were known as Roycrofters.
While William Morris is the undisputed king of late 19th century design, Hubbard visited his shop in England around 1882 and many of Hubbard’s ideas were borne from Morris’ simple brilliance. The aesthetic and social vision of the Arts and Crafts movement derived from ideas Morris developed in the 1850s with a group of students at the University of Oxford, who combined a love of Romantic literature with a commitment to social reform. In 1861 Morris began making furniture and decorative objects commercially, modeling his designs on medieval styles and using bold forms and strong colors. His patterns were based on flora and fauna and his products were inspired by the vernacular or domestic traditions of the British countryside. In order to display the beauty of the materials and the work of the craftsman, some were deliberately left unfinished, creating a rustic appearance. Truth to materials, structure and function became characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement.
As a youth, Hubbard worked as a cub reporter in Chicago. He became the junior partner in a Buffalo soap-making factory in 1875 and his innovation of direct mail marketing brought him enough money to sell his portion of the company and become independently wealthy.
Hubbard was a flamboyant man, and believed in social, economic, domestic, political, mental and spiritual freedom. He claimed to be an anarchist and a socialist. In A Message to Garcia and Thirteen Other Things (1901), Hubbard explained his credo by writing “I believe John Ruskin, William Morris, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy to be Prophets of God, and they should rank in mental reach and spiritual insight with Elijah, Hosea, Ezekiel and Isaiah.”
The Roycroft Brand
In 1881 Elbert married Bertha Crawford. Bertha was of a prominent Illinois family and together they moved to East Aurora, New York, and had four children. As previously described, Hubbard decided to start his own community after visiting William Morris and his Kelmscott Press in England around 1892. By 1897, Hubbard had secured the location, craftspeople, printers and presses, and began his community. At its height, the Campus was home and work to over 500 artisans and craftspeople.
Hubbard edited and published two magazines, The Philistine and The Fra. The Philistine was bound in brown butcher paper and featuring largely satire and whimsy. (Hubbard himself quipped that the cover was butcher paper because: “There is meat inside.” The Fra was used to market and promote the
Roycrofter’s designs directly to purchasers. The name “Roycroft” was chosen after the printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who made books in London from about 1650–1690. And beyond this, the word roycroft had a special significance to Elbert Hubbard, meaning “King’s Craft.” In guilds of early modern Europe, king’s craftsmen were guild members who had achieved a high degree of skill and therefore made things for the King. The Roycroft insignia is referred to as an “orb and cross” which encloses the letter “R”. It was borrowed from the monk Cassiodorus, a 13th-century bookbinder and illuminator.
The Roycrofters produced beautiful, if sometimes eccentric, books printed on handmade paper, and operated a fine bindery, a furniture shop, and shops producing modeled leather and hammered copper goods. They were a leading producer of American Arts & Crafts work. Hubbard became the leader of the arts community there and became known as “The Sage of East Aurora” and “Fra Elbertus.” The arts community became so renowned that it became a tourist destination.
The Roycrofter Community
The community was set up to be self-sufficient and based on pre-industrial agrarian ideals where artisans and their families lived and worked in healthy, idyllic conditions. The community reflected the Movement’s ideals of art and craftsmanship as instruments of social reform in an organization as well as in its superior products. The high quality and unique artistry of the Roycroft creations made them very popular at the time. Today, they are highly collectable. 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.
As the leader of the community, Hubbard also marketed himself as a popular philosopher, advocating individuality and positive thinking while disparaging formal education. Also a writer, Hubbard published a ten-page pamphlet in 1899 entitled, A Message to Garcia. That pamphlet argued for employers in the United States labor relations and sold about 45 million copies. That same year, Hubbard received an Honorary Master of Arts from Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts.
An ugly divorce ensued in 1903 as Elbert had been having an affair with Alice Moore, a teacher at East Aurora Academy, resulting in a daughter, Miriam, in 1894. Bertha took custody of their four children. Alice and Elbert finally married the following year and together they argued for liberal divorce laws, feminism, and women’s rights. With the scandal that followed after the divorce, Hubbard carved another motto over the Roycrofters Inn, “They Will Talk Anyway.”
In 1913, Hubbard plead guilty to misusing the postal service because they judged that he sent “filthy” materials to his mailing list. He had sent a letter to his subscribers with a joke that referenced contraceptives. This was apparently a rather grave offense because not only was he fined $100, but he was also deprived his rights of citizenship. Since his main mission in life was to travel and write, this was a significant punishment. First, he appealed directly to President Wilson but was denied. After World War I broke out, he appealed again on the grounds that he had to cover the war, and his pardon was granted at once. He was firmly on the side of the Allies. For a small taste of Hubbard’s writing style, he described “Kaiser Bill” (Kaiser Willhelm II) as a man with “a shrunken soul, and a mind that reeks with egomania . . .. He is swollen, like a drowned pup, with a pride that stinks . . .. Caligula, the royal pagan pervert, was kind compared to the kaiser” (published in The Philistine, a Roycrofter magazine).
Hubbard, the Author
Hubbard wrote a number of novel length books that were not generally well-received; however the Roycrofter Press published some of the most beautiful editions of other writers of the period of the day, and these are highly desirable. Hubbard also wrote a number of “Little Journeys” stories after his first trip to England. These were popular short tales of visits and encounters on Hubbard’s world wide travels, or his reflections on notable characters in history. The “Little Journeys” stories were initially published by Putnam, but as soon as the Roycrofters community got their Golding Pearl press set up in 1900, Hubbard re-purposed the stories into small booklets called “Little Journeys” that The Roycrofters sent out monthly by subscription. It continued to succeed as the group grew in popularity. After writing 120 “Little Journeys,” Hubbard stopped the series in 1909. Pagination is continuous across volumes, as the monthly serial was collected every year and published as one volume available annually.
The Roycroft community produced some of the finest hand-crafted furniture, books, lamps and metal work of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and the “Little Journeys” booklets (referred to as “pamphlets” by the Roycrofters) are an inexpensive example of their fine work and the American Arts & Crafts movement. A wonderful and attainable way to begin collecting Arts & Crafts artifacts, all booklets are 6” x 8” octavo booklets, printed on one of the Roycrofters’ Golding Pearl letterpresses. They were hand assembled and hand bound using silk thread at the Roycrofters’ campus in East Aurora, New York. Many of the booklets feature vintage advertisements and full-page inspirational sayings.
RMS Lusitania Sinks the Roycrofter Community
In 1912, the famed passenger liner RMS Titanic was sunk after hitting an iceberg. Hubbard subsequently wrote of the disaster, singling out the story of Ida Straus, who as a woman was supposed to be placed on a lifeboat in precedence to the men, but refused to board the boat, and leave her husband. Hubbard then added his own commentary:
“Mr. and Mrs. Straus, I envy you that legacy of love and loyalty left to your children and grandchildren. The calm courage that was yours all your long and useful career was your possession in death. You knew how to do three great things—you knew how to live, how to love and how to die. One thing is sure, there are just two respectable ways to die. One is of old age, and the other is by accident. All disease is indecent. Suicide is atrocious. But to pass out as did Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus is glorious. Few have such a privilege. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated and in death they are not divided.”
Only three years later in 1915, Elbert and Alice boarded the RMS Lusitania on their way to interview Kaiser William II, although Hubbard was not even sure that the leader would talk with him. During the trip, Ernest Cowper, a Canadian reporter for the magazine Jack Canuck interviewed him, and Hubbard ironically proclaimed that if the Lusitania were torpedoed,
“I would not mind if they did sink the ship. It might be a good thing for me. I would drown with her, and that’s about the only way I could succeed in my ambition to get into the Hall of Fame. I’d be a regular hero and go right to the bottom.”
Of course, Hubbard did not believe the Lusitania would go down because he thought that while the Germans had done some reprehensible things during World War I, he didn’t believe they were so bad that they would torpedo a civilian ship. He was keeping a diary during the voyage, and planned to cable it from London for immediate publication in The Philistine.
On Friday, May 7, 1915, while talking in the salon with a bookseller from London, Hubbard and Alice heard the muffled impact of a German torpedo hitting the opposite side of the luxury liner. They turned to see where the sound was coming from and saw “smoke and cinders flying up in the air on the starboard side.” They were hit a second time before they actually realized the boat had been hit and would go down. Alice did not know how to swim, but made no movement toward her life jacket.
While other passengers scrambled to get their jackets on and a place on a life boat, Elbert and Alice did nothing. After remarking that “They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were,” to the Canadian journalist (who survived), the Hubbards retreated to a room on the boat deck and closed the door. It is assumed they both perished, but neither body was ever identified.
When the news made it to East Aurora, the Roycrofter community mourned the loss of the couple bitterly. Three thousand attended the memorial service. Many were convinced that the Lusitania had been torpedoed specifically because of Hubbard’s presence on board.
Even after Hubbard’s son, Elbert (Bert) Hubbard II assumed the community’s leadership, the Roycrofters seemed philosophically rudderless. In attempts to keep his father’s business afloat, Bert proposed selling Roycroft furniture through major retailers. Sears & Roebuck eventually agreed to carry the furniture, but this was only a short lived success. By 1938, the community had dwindled to just a few craftspeople and finally disbanded.
The Roycrofter Campus is on the U.S. Register of Historical Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The campus is still popular with tourists. fourteen original Roycroft buildings are located in the area of South Grove and Main Street in East Aurora. Most art colonies simply fade back into surrounding neighborhoods or countryside, but this rare survival of the “Roycroft Campus.” is still visited by people from all over the world. The Inn underwent an $8 million dollar meticulous restoration to return it to its original splendor. It was re-opened for guests in 1995.
The Campus contains 14 structures including the Inn, the Chapel, the Print Shop, the Furniture Shop, the Power House and the Copper Shop. The Roycroft Campus Corporation (RCC) was established to preserve and restore the Campus. It helped lead the successful restoration and reopening of The Roycroft Inn in 1995. Its ultimate goal is to preserve the unique architectural setting of the Campus, but moreover, to bring back to life the Roycroft community and ideals by re-introducing working artisans on the Campus; develop comprehensive, multi-faceted educational programming; and encouraging the development of a center for creativity and innovation in the decorative arts, fine arts, and literature. Today, visitors can enjoy a walking tour of the Campus, take in some classes and workshops, see artist demonstrations, shop in The Copper Shop Gallery, Roycroft Antiques Shop, and Norberg’s Art Gallery, or take in special events like musical concerts and book signings.
- The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, emerging in Japan in the 1920s. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial. It had a strong influence on the arts in Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, and its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards. ↩