The Roycrofters Art
From its beginnings in 1894, to its termination 1938, Elbert Hubbard’s Roycrofters produced some of the finest pieces of work in the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as put forth social reform in its organization and ideals. The community’s founder, Elbert Hubbard (shown right), earned an immense amount of wealth working as a salesman and part owner of the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, New York (Davis). However, his passions lie more with writing than with selling and so he sold his part of the company and retired to East Aurora, near Buffalo. Fascinated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, he travelled to England to study more and visited William Morris and his Kelmscott Press (Davis). When he returned home to America, Hubbard tried to publish a series of biographical sketches he called “Little Journeys” but with no success. He then made the significant decision to establish his own press, which he called the Roycroft Press.
The word “roycroft” was not chosen at random. Its beginnings come from the printers Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who were London bookmakers from 1650 – 1690. Furthermore, the word “roycraft” also means “king’s craft,” which is significant because only the finest craftsmen were able to work for the king (Webpage of the Roycrafters). In 1895, Elbert also chose an insignia for his guild. The symbol was borrowed from a thirteenth century monk who was also an illuminator and bookbinder, named Cassidorius. The symbol was altered somewhat so that the orb was divided into three spaces, representing faith, hope, and love. He also added an R (Roycrofters at Large Association). Not only was Elbert’s printing press named with an insignia, but it also had a motto that the whole community of guildsmen lived by. It came from a quote by John Ruskin, an English art critic and social thinker who lived from 1819 – 1900. The statement asks for “a belief in working hard with the head, hand, and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness” (Roycrofters at Large Association).
At the very beginnings of the history of the Roycrofters, Hubbard had made his own printing press to publish his works that no one else would put into print. After some time, the printing press grew to the establishment of a bindery, where objects such as leather-bound books were made, followed by a leather shop, metalworking shop, and finally a furniture shop. Hubbard began his professional career as a salesman, which he put into good use in advertising his Roycrofters and bringing in not only attention but also the funds to keep his operation going. Eventually, the Roycroft Inn had to be built in 1903 to accommodate all of the visitors (Davis). His emphasis on affordability, beauty, uniqueness, and high craftsmanship for everything produced by his craftsman is only part of why his establishment flourished. Popularity continued to grow after the publication of Elbert’s essay, A Message to Garcia and the continued publication of catalogues of all of the objects produced also kept up the demand.
As Elbert’s Roycrofters continued to grow in size and popularity, he set up a self-sufficient community to accommodate them. Bungalows were built in the craftsman style and small shops were made where hand-crafted objects were produced (Davis). Hubbard personally oversaw everything. He attended to the welfare of his craftsman and its visitors by organizing activities and giving gifts. His role as such a generous and benevolent leader eventually made him a cult figure both locally and nationally (Davis). He provided housing and work for people who were finished with industrialized life and became leader of a guild that would be known for not only the fine pieces produced but also for the artist who took refuge there. He also provided these artists with a place where they could not only take their art into their own hands but also their education by encouraging apprenticeship in all areas from papermaking to metal working. Hubbard’s Roycrafters guild, therefore, was not only a place for making wonderful pieces of work but also a refuge from the rest of the world and a place where craftsman could learn and create whatever they wished by hand.
Unfortunately, not all things are meant to last, which includes the Roycrafters. In 1915, Elbert Hubbard and his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, were among the ill-fated victims of the RMS Lusitania. Their passing marked the beginning of the end for Hubbard’s beloved guild. From then on, Elbert’s son, Bert, took leadership of the community but failed to keep up with the change in American tastes. Furthermore, the Depression hit, which further deepened the drop in sales and attention (Webpage of the Roycrafters). In 1938, the Roycrafters were auctioned off and barely survived under multiple owners until going bankrupt in 1987.
The Roycroft Museum
Today, the memory of the Roycrofters still remains even if the community itself has perished. The items made by the craftsman are much sought after by collectors not only for their beauty and uniqueness but also for the history behind the creators of each piece. In 1994, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation bought and restored the Roycroft Inn. Also, the Roycroft Meetinghouse, built in 1899, is the current town hall for East Aurora and the fourteen remaining houses on the site are open to the public (Davis). The location, known as “Roycroft Campus,” became a national historical landmark in 1986 and the donated Scheidemantel House is now the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum. The museum and the activities such as festivals at the Roycroft Campus help keep the memory of these people and their work alive for each new generation of craftspeople.
Elbert Hubbard did much to promote new ideas on craftsmanship and social reform. He placed emphasis on handmade objects so that all were not only attractive but also unique. He also promoted living in a community where everyone worked together and taught each other how to further their craft with knowledge outside their normal studies. He was generous in providing a place for artists to live solely based on their craft and intelligent in how he went about keeping it a self-sustaining community. The Roycrafters were an important part of the history of the Arts and Crafts Movement and continue to be so today, even though they are no longer at work.
“’A Catalogue and Some Comments’ by Elbert Hubbard." Roycroft Books. Paul Jackson, 09 Sept. 2009. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. <http://www.roycroftbooks.org/index.htm>.
"The Roycroft Community - The Roycrofters." Www.arts-crafts.com. The Arts and Crafts Society, 1995. Web. 03 Apr. 2010. <http://www.arts-crafts.com/archive/hdavis.shtml>.
"The Roycroft Mark: Old and New." Http://www.ralaweb.com/. The Roycrafters At Large Association, 27 Aug. 2009. Web. 03 Apr. 2010. <http://ralaweb.com/history>.
"What Is Roycroft?" The Webpage of the Roycrofters. Web. 01 Apr. 2010. <http://www.roycrofter.com/>.
© 2012 LisaKoski