Elbert Hubbard’s life and times

can capitalism and creativity co-exist?

On Thursday, at the monthly meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society, John Matwijkow told us all about Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft campus in East Aurora, N.Y. He was a go-getter who had started his career at the age of 16 in 1872 as a door to door soap salesman for the Welling Soap Company in Chicago. After moving to Buffalo, N.Y., he got to know John Larkin, Sr., the founder of the Larkin Soap Company, which was a famous business in Buffalo. At one time, much of the work was done in an administration building that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1904.

But before the famous building was constructed, Elbert Hubbard was busy traveling door to door, selling soap. By 1882, when Elbert Hubbard was 26 years old, he was second in charge of the entire business. Before he left in 1982 to start the Roycroft Campus, Elbert Hubbard instituted a variety of changes to make sales more efficient. He replaced the door to door sales with catalogue sales. Apparently, catalogue sales were very popular, probably because people got bigger and better freebies every time they placed an order. And who doesn’t love a freebie?

Elbert Hubbard was fascinated by the Arts and Crafts movement in England. It was all about valuing beautiful and well made hand crafted items in a time of industrialization. One of the main proponents of the Arts and Crafts was William Morris. Elbert Hubbard traveled to England to meet him and to tell him about his concept of the Roycroft Campus.

Back in Western New York, Elbert Hubbard established the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora. According to the History of Buffalo website, the Roycroft campus was entire self-sufficient, and it contained a bank, a blacksmith shop, a factory, a farm, and an inn. The inn is still standing. At the Roycroft campus, there were furniture makers and bookbinders and stained glass artists and many others. It must have been an amazing experience to have been at the Roycroft campus in its heydey, with all of those artisans and other creative people.

Many famous people, such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright, absorbed the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement. He designed every element in his houses, including utensils and light fixtures. Unlike many people who participated in the Arts and Crafts movement, Frank Lloyd Wright was not opposed to using machines in the process of creating his houses and other structures.

I used to have a photo of the Graycliff estate in a blog post, but it mysteriously disappeared for unknown reasons. Very unknown, since I took the photograph.

Elbert Hubbard loved art but capitalism was his way of expressing himself. He had been a salesman for many years. His goal was the “successful capitalization of the arts and crafts movement.” His four H’s of the concept development were:

  • head (knowledge)
  • hands (physical skills)
  • heart (passion and caring)
  • help (community)

The goal of the Roycroft Campus was to make items for the betterment of community. They ranged from furnishings to building construction to equipment (including leatherbound books, metal works, glassworks, utensil, furniture, fixtures, and decor) to written works in the style of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Unfortunately, when Elbert Hubbard and his second wife Alice were traveling to Europe, the ship that they were on, the Lusitania, was attacked by the Germans and it sank in May 1915.

River Lea

I don’t know if capitalism and arts and crafts can co-exist successfully. Probably because I’ve never been very successful at capitalism. What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Elbert Hubbard’s life and times”

  1. I have no idea! But how sad that he was killed in an attack. And how weird that a picture you took suddenly disappeared from a blog post. He sounds like an interesting person. I admire those kinds of stories, of salesman rising to the top.

    1. Yes, it’s so great when a salesman can rise to the top! I admire people who do that because, for sure, I am way too shy to knock on strangers’ doors and try to sell them anything!

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