Elbert Hubbard - An American Original
Elbert Hubbard, 1896
Courtesy of the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum
America at the turn of the 20th century was in the throes of a remarkable transformation. The great agrarian society was quickly becoming a clanging, motorized, belt driven economy, and the addition of advertising and marketing to mechanized production and standardization became the new formula for business success. Some, however, spoke out against the advances of industrialization, arguing that mass production subjugated workers to machines and that no machine could match the quality of craftsmanship that came from an artist’s hand. It was this reaction that gave rise to Arts and Crafts – first in Europe and then in America.
One man who saw opportunity in the ideas and practices of the Arts and Crafts movement was Elbert Hubbard – not a household name today, but in 1900, he and the Roycroft artisan community that he founded were at the vanguard of a new ideology and democratic aesthetic in America. Reflecting the medieval guild traditions of the Arts and Crafts philosophy, the Roycroft campus was constructed in Gothic and Tudor heritage. Nestled in the rural village of East Aurora, New York – a horse town outside the bustling commercial center of Buffalo, Roycroft was similar in spirit to other Arts and Crafts communities and societies on the national scene, but it was different in one critical respect – Elbert Hubbard.
As a young man, Hubbard became an innovator in business and advertising and quickly rose from soap salesman to executive in the Larkin Soap Company that was headquartered in Buffalo, New York. Historian Michael Frisch calls him "the most creative force in the evolution of American business in the end of the 19th century."
He dropped out of what was a lucrative career to become a writer and soon discovered the idealized world of Arts and Crafts. What began as a publishing venture evolved into an Arts and Crafts community, and Hubbard’s marketing and business savvy was decidedly beneficial to his new enterprise.
By the first decade of the twentieth-century, Hubbard had become well known throughout the nation as a writer, a philosopher and a lecturer. His eccentric and flamboyant style and seemingly non-conformist ideology endeared him to many readers. He was both a reflection of and a reaction to his times, taking center stage in American thought and becoming an icon of popular culture. He was “the perfect essence of America at the turn of the century,” according to author Stefan Kanfer. Visitors flocked to East Aurora just so they could brush shoulders with Hubbard himself, and his popularity helped to boost coast-to-coast sales of Roycroft’s growing line of hand-made products.
A constant that runs through his two decades in the public eye is the powerful love story between him and Alice Moore. Their affair lasted nearly fifteen years before it became public and his wife filed for divorce. At the time, Americans began to feel the tug between strict Victorian mores and the more progressive ideas and attitudes of the new century, and Hubbard was caught in the pull. His infidelities, improprieties, illegitimate child and divorce set off a firestorm of media criticism across the nation. To the principled Victorian world, Hubbard represented a rogue, and the popular press had a field day, but his devotees had found in him a champion against "Victorian imprisonment." In the end, "no such thing as bad publicity" rang true as subscriptions to his magazine and writings – mostly dedicated to venting about society and personal pet peeves, skyrocketed.
Propelled onto the American scene and into the forefront of the American consciousness through his writings, Hubbard went on to influence popular culture and American thought for two decades and then quietly disappeared into the deep chasm between academic and local history, but his story is still vital and relevant today.