From Soap to Socialism: The Origins of Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Press

The printing, publishings, illuminations, and distribution for my book were all undertaken by a small community of artisans at the Roycroft Press in East Aurora, NY. Elbert Hubbard, author of Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors, and the rest of the Little Journeys collection, began his work in New York after a visit to England and William Morriss’s Kemlscott Press. Hubbard began his life as a partner for the Larkin Soap company, but exposure to the growing Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century enchanted Hubbard. He was inspired on his journey to write his first collection, Little Journeys, of which my book is one. Unable to find a publisher for his new endeavor, Hubbard decided to become one. He returned to America and set up shop in East Aurora.

(The Chapel in East Aurora)

Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors, along with all of Hubbard’s publications, was published in the small printing shop on the Roycroft Campus. An application to the National Parks Service for historical status says that the shop was home to typographers, illuminators, and binders. It was built in a rustic, medieval style, much like the rest of the campus, and had various sayings and proverbs on the walls.

Hubbard’s colony, named for the phrase for King’s craftsmen, drew in artist and artisans from throughout the United States. Among the most notable are Dard Hunter, a paper and book maker whose work was influential in the Arts and Crafts movement, and W W Denslow, an illustrator most famous for his work on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The colony also had a political side. It held firm to the belief that art was not worst making unless it was for all people, and found commonalities in socialism. Publications by the press, including the periodical The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest and the essay “Jesus was an Anarchist,” received much criticism from the general population. Hubbard was convicted of distributing obscene material in 1913.

(Elbert Hubbard)

However, the Roycrofters were not without their supporters. The press’s popularity grew so quickly that Hubbard found the need to build a hotel on the campus to house visitors. This hotel was furnished with hand-made artisanal furniture. The furniture soon became just as popular with visitors and new craftsmen were brought in to manufacture furniture and other household objects. As the press grew it became more and more diverse, and in 1900 a copper shop was even built on campus.

The beliefs and principles that drove Hubbard to found and run the Roycroft Press lead me to believe that his Little Journeys series were published with a rekindling of artistic and literary appreciation in mind. Hubbard was disillusioned by the commercial aspects of art and bookmaking. He saw quality being lost in favor of profit margins. Hubbard also found few similarities between himself and the literary figures of the day, often railing against writers like Rudyard Kipling in his periodicals. It would seem that his books detailing the lives, skills, and careers of famous artist, musicians, and authors were published with the hopes that they would educate the public on the true forms of art.

This colophon in the back of the book has helped to uncover more information about the illustrations. The initials and other designs were done by Samuel Warner and hand illumined by Maud Baker. Warner would have carved the outline for the initials into a wood block to be printed alongside the text. Illuminators like Baker would then carefully fill in the image with color. Further research into Maud Baker and Samuel Warner has not turned up anything specific on the two yet, but it has shown that Maud was one of many illuminators working for the Roycrofters. There were many others and they all did work on various publications as they were printed.

(Mark of the Roycroft Press)

The Roycrofters thrived under Hubbard until his death on board the Lusitania in 1915. Hubbard and his wife Alice, a notable suffragist, were on board the ship when it was struck by a German U-boat. Hubbard reportedly acknowledged that the Germans had gotten them and then retired to an open room with his wife. Care of the press then passed to Hubbard’s son Bert, under whom in continued until collapsing in the mid thirties.