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Elbert Hubbard: An American Original - WNED | PBS

Early Artisans

Arts & Crafts Overview

Early Artisans Roycroft Craftsmen Merritt Jackson and Theo Bean
Courtesy of Marjorie B. and Steven Scott Searl

A late-nineteenth-century reform movement devoted to countering the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, the Arts and Crafts philosophy expounded arguments for social progress and an aesthetic of simplicity, integrity, and practicality.

The Arts and Crafts movement originated in England in the mid-19th century. The precepts of its ideology can be found in the teachings of John Ruskin (1819-1900), a writer, art critic and philosopher, and William Morris (1834-1896), a designer, artist and socialist thinker. Ruskin was a harsh critic of industrialization. He railed against the inferior quality of machine-made goods and disparaged product designs favoring show over usefulness. He believed mass production subjugated workers to machines and denied them the dignity and pleasure of thoughtful and creative labor, and he advocated instead the practices of the medieval guilds.

According to the Arts and Crafts philosophy, art and utility and the labors that require imagination and creativity and promote ownership make life more meaningful; mass production not only lowered the standards of design and workmanship but also the working conditions and the quality of life of the community.

Early Artisans Roycroft Metalsmiths
Courtesy of the Roycroft Arts Museum

Stressing hand craftsmanship as an antidote to the unhealthy character of industrial society, William Morris attempted to realize Ruskin's ideas in Morris & Company and the Kelmscott Press which produced decorative, functional arts including furniture, ceramics, glass, textiles, wallpaper, and books. Beauty, they believed, was to be found in utility, and art was to be integral to daily life activities. Morris maintained, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few or freedom for a few."

Like its English counterpart, the American Arts and Crafts movement revealed a belief in the democratization of art, appreciation of nature and the inherent qualities of materials, respect for structure over ornamentation, commitment to utility, and the synthesis of nature, love of craft, and simple living into the artistic process. Societies appeared in many cities to promote its principles and sponsor exhibitions of handmade decorative arts. One of the most influential was Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1897.

Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929), who was born in England and studied at Oxford with John Ruskin before coming to America, established with his wife Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead (1861-1955) an arts and crafts colony at Woodstock, New York called Byrdcliffe. While their intention was a utopian community of artisans, the enterprise was largely supported by his personal fortune. Will Lightfoot Price (1861-1916) established a similar community in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, modeling it on the utopian English village described by William Morris in News from Nowhere, but the idealistic experiment failed because it could not meet market demand and maintain the caliber of quality desired.

In England, Morris, too, had discovered that quality had its drawbacks. Artfully designed, hand wrought goods intended to provide moral uplift for all classes were outside the means of commoners. Because his works were labor intensive, Morris was never able to achieve production of affordable, fine-crafted goods for the public at large.

Early Artisans Roycroft Craftsman Fred Danner
Courtesy of the Aurora Town Historian's Office

Inspired by Morris but hoping to do better, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) founded the company that would become Craftsman Workshops in the community of Eastwood in central New York in 1898. He started his own publication, The Craftsman, in 1901, with articles on furnishings and practical advice for simple living. Stickley finally settled at Craftsman Farms in New Jersey in 1910, and though he became renowned for the high quality of his furniture, metalwork, and textiles, he was never able to realize his utopian vision for Craftsman Farms and his business venture ended in bankruptcy. Unlike others who possessed the technical and artistic background for Arts and Crafts designs and manufacturing, Elbert Green Hubbard's (1856-1915) skills lay in sales and marketing, and he successfully adapted the Art and Crafts philosophy, if loosely, to fit American consumerism.

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.

At its peak, more than 500 people worked on the Roycroft campus in East Aurora, New York – a quiet horse town outside of the bustling industrial center of Buffalo. The Roycrofters had their own baseball team and marching band, lectures and music programs, farm fresh produce and dairy: it was communal living in a clean, healthy environment that provided gainful employment for the townsfolk, offered patronage for craftsmen and artists, and fostered creative expression and learning. Roycroft also became a vacation destination - a utopian retreat where visitors could escape the strains of modernization.

Roycroft remained in operation until 1938, 40 years after the Kelmscott Press went silent, some 20 years after Stickley, Whitehead and Price closed their doors, long after the Arts and Crafts aesthetic reached its zenith.

Elbert Hubbard was not an artist, he was not a socialist, and he was not a profound writer, but he was a pragmatist, a prolific and influential writer and lecturer, and a man of action, and it was Elbert Hubbard who likely came closest to realizing the reform aims of the Arts and Crafts philosophy.

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Funding for Elbert Hubbard: An American Original provided by The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation
Elbert Hubbard: An American Original is a production of WNED-TV