Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Elbert Hubbard: Master Craftsman

Elbert Hubbard was to the Arts and Crafts Movement in America what William Morris was in England, and I think much more:  he democratized the movement.  Hubbard created a small arts and crafts industry in East Aurora, New York that did much to define the movement.  His theme was that art was the product of design and the designer and artist are one.  His products can be defined by two qualities:  Beauty and Utility.

What is the relevance of Hubbard and his work to the School of Living?  It lies in the idea of small manufacturing and shop work, hand craftsmanship and a commitment to an ideal of quality that defines our humanity.  These products are not only art but also practical goods for everyday living; the production of which both serves the needs of the community and gives it a stronger economic base.  Hubbard was also one of the leading idealists of his age promoting equality, good jobs, honorable labor in gardens, on farms and in the workshop, and a warm and humorous personality that embraced the beggar and the icons of American industry with a smile, a handshake and a good story.

Hubbard was a successful businessman (as was Ralph Borsodi) but an iconoclast who published a journal aptly named The Philistine[1].  He had the quality of being liked by almost every class, except the narrow-minded, dogmatic, superstitious clan that characterized the American underbelly.  He was a close student of Emerson.  His Little Journeys took him, in imagination, into the households, and souls, of hundreds of people, through all history, whose ideas and ideals had a positive influence on the course of human affairs. 

In an introduction to his life (The Notebook of Elbert Hubbard) we find a list these qualities, penned by his wife Alice, that she thought defined his life:

·      He is an idealist, dreamer, orator, scientist; a businessman and a philosopher.
·      He is like Jefferson in his democracy, in teaching a nation to love to govern itself and to simplify living.
·      He knows that freedom to think and act, without withholding the right from any other, evolves humanity. 
·      He is like Lincoln in that he would free all mankind … there can be no free man on the earth so long as there is one slave.
·      His work is to emancipate American men and women from being slaves to useless customs, outgrown mental habits, outgrown religion, outgrown laws, outgrown superstition.
·      He sees, too, that just so long as there is one woman (and this is before woman could vote) who is denied any right that man claims for himself, there is no free man.
·      He is like Emerson in seizing upon truth, embalmed and laid in pyramids of disuse.
·      Economic freedom is the first necessity in human happiness.  He knows too, that food, shelter, clothing, fuel, are not enough to fill man’s needs.  Man has a soul to be fed and evolved as well.  Love, beauty, music art, are necessities, too.

Elbert Hubbard was born (1856) in the age of the horse and buggy and oil lamp.  He was a country boy who became a highly successful businessman, a career he gave up to pursue his deep sense of humanity. 

Hubbard started work as a soap salesman.  He became a market leader.  He gave up this career, which would have made him a very rich man, in favor of one in literature and the arts.  Hubbard established one of the premier arts and crafts businesses in America.  He made his mark as a social critic.  His satirical and flamboyant style commanded American literature for two decades.  He was the quintessential American self-made man and his life story is largely a self-constructed legend.

He witnessed the US become one of the dominate industrial powers on Earth – electric lights, the automobile, the airplane – and died on a personal mission to Europe in pursuit of an understanding of and sense of resolution to the conflict of World War I.  He and his wife were lost at sea when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania (1915). 

Elbert Hubbard’s life was a legend, his legacy profound but like too many of the great souls of our tradition he is becoming a forgotten man.  I think this life is a story worth telling.


Hubbard was born near Bloomington, Indiana, a small, frontier prairie town.  His father was a country physician.  Like most country doctors he was well respected but poor.  When he collected a fee for his service it was often in kind.  It was a close and loving family.  Dr. Hubbard was a free thinker.  There were plenty of books in the house and Bert became an avid reader at a young age.  He had a “hungry mind.”  He also had an intense love of nature.

Young Bert grew up like other small-town Midwesterners of the day.  He went to school and church.  He was nine years old when the American Civil War ended.  In the summers he worked as a farm hand.  He had an extraordinary love of horses.  He was well liked but early on displayed streaks of both stubbornness and tenacity.  His first venture into salesmanship, at age 14, failed.  Then an uncle invited him to sell soap[2] door to door.  Bert was very good at it.  He loved the work.  He loved mingling with people of all sorts.

The uncle had married the sister of one John Larkin and went into the soap business with him.  Both the marriage and the business partnership broke up.  John Larkin married Bert’s sister.  When Larkin moved to Buffalo, New York, to set up a new soap business that became a market giant, he invited Bert to join him.  He was offered a one-third partnership and was to direct marketing and sales.  This was the era of massive commercial expansion in America.  The industrial age was in full swing.  Factories were springing up all over to produce consumer goods.  Salesmen were on the move from house to house, town to town.  Sears and Montgomery-Wards were selling goods by catalog.  Railroads were carrying freight to within reach of every farm.  The Larkin Company begin to make a fortune[3] and Elbert Hubbard was making his mark as one of the countries most innovative marketers[4]. 

Hubbard had, early in life, been drawn to Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin was self-educated, a very successful self-made businessman, a printer, a philosopher, a distinguished scientist and man of influence’ who dedicated, and staked, his life on the creation of a free and democratic society.  Hubbard also discovered Whitman, the poet of Democracy; he was deeply attracted to the works of Emerson and he was also drawn to a then famous, or infamous, free-thinker, Robert Ingersol[5].  From them he adopted the watchwords of:  Initiative, thrift, efficiency, self-reliance, patience, courage, industry and good cheer.  He knew that success came from hard work, dedication to an ideal and a drive to rise above the ordinary. 

A New Career

Hubbard, like Borsodi later, bought a home outside the city, in the village of East Aurora, on the rail line, east of Buffalo.  He wanted a place to keep his horses and where he could roam the countryside.  He decided to drop the pursuit of wealth for a life in literature and sold his interest in Larkin for $75,000[6].  Considering that Larkin and other officers of the company were moving into the multi-millionaire class, this might seem foolish but it also makes clear that Hubbard, despite his talent in business, was drawn to the beat of a different drum.  He had a deep, personal yearning to satisfy.  He was 36 and not about to retire.

To develop his writing skills Hubbard got himself admitted to Harvard.  He didn’t stay long; formal schooling just wasn’t his style.  From Harvard, however, it was only a short ride to Concord, to the home of Emerson and Thoreau’s Walden and Hubbard spent much time in deep study there.  In 1894 he went to England.  Very much like Emerson a lifetime earlier, he had a list of places and people to visit.  He took long walking tours of the England and Scotland to visit the homes of literary greats.  He met John Ruskin and William Morris (see below) and came away from Morris with a vision.  He was impressed by Morris’ craft enterprises and that Morris had created a literary style that influenced millions of people and creating a sizable market for both quality goods and social innovation.

Hubbard returned to East Aurora with a dream of writing novels and of publishing fine books.  He also had the idea for a series of essays called “Little Journeys.”  In these he would, each month for two decades, report on an imaginary visits to the home of an esteemed person.  A number of those homes he had indeed visited.  That the owner was long dead did not discourage Hubbard from having an imaginary conversation.  These stories are a suburb collection of literature that combines the real with the imaginative and sets forth the workings of the mind of Elbert Hubbard and gives him scope to weave his social philosophy.

Settling in back home he sought a publisher for his first literary effort, a novel, but, inspired by Morris, he also set up his own shop to print fine, leather-bound books.  The first of these books was of Solomon’s The Song of Songs, an edition of 600 copies.  It quickly sold out.  Unlike Morris, Hubbard’s market was the middle class.  He would make it his business to supply quality goods and social insight to this up and coming segment of America society.

To promote sales, and to publish his social criticism, Hubbard produced a little magazine.  It was in fact small in size; only 4 ½ by 6 inches.  It was 32 pages printed on fine paper in a stylish type and bound in butcher paper:  “because there was meat inside,” Hubbard quipped.  It was one of a genre of some 1,100 such journals, that had small (the other part of “small”) lists of subscribers, in print in the US at the time, and possibly by far the most successful.  He called the journal The Philistine.  The subtitle was:  “A Journal of Protest.”  The style was satirical.  He found his stride, like Ingersol, as an iconoclast. While shattering the idols of outdated America myth, he promoted Emerson’s self-reliance. The first edition came out in 1895.  He printed 2,500 copies of the first issue of The Philistine and they sold out.  Subscriptions poured in and this delightful little journal started a profitable 20-year career to the end of Hubbard’s life[7].

Hubbard started his printing business by buying out an old-style printing shop and set it up in the barn next to his house.  He found a printer who understood period styles.  Step by step he developed the art and craft of making fine but affordable books.  Type was hand set, much as Franklin had done the job, the books were hand printed on quality paper, hand illustrated and hand bound in soft leather.  Hubbard advertised and sold them.  He adopted the name Roycroft, which meant “king’s craftsmen,” for his growing enterprise.  He built the first Roycroft workshop[8] in 1898, from which would appear a growing array of handcrafted products including mission style furniture, hammered copper bookends, bowls and desk sets, lamps and candlesticks and above all, fine books.  Hubbard steadily expanded his business.

An important turning point for Hubbard occurred during the war with Spain, in 1899.  He wrote a 1,500 word essay, inspired by a comment from his young son Elbert, Jr., for The Philistine, “A Message to Garcia.”  It was about a messenger named Rowan who was given the task of delivering a message from President McKinley to a leader of the Cuban resistance, General Garcia.  Rowan set out at great personal risk, no questions asked, to complete his mission to help free Cuba from European tyranny.  The moral of the story was the then popular American myth of just getting the job done.  Hubbard wrote a classical summary of the story:  “In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon like Mars at Perihelion[9].”  Hubbard was immediately deluged with request for reprints.  Batches of reprints were run off 100,000 at a time.  Two hundred magazines and newspapers reprinted the essay.  Hubbard instantly became an American celebrity and was in great demand as a speaker.

The Roycroft enterprise flourished.  It soon had 200 employees and that number would grow to 500 by the time of Hubbard’s death sixteen years later.  He built an inn[10] to receive a rising tide of visitors. 

The Philistine became his pulpit.  He made himself an American Populist prophet.  He personally exemplified the American self-made man but he was also a satirist calling his fellow citizens to account for their foolish ways.  His style was blunt.  He was a great speaker, a humorist, had a tremendous presence on the stage, a master showman.  He even did a vaudeville act.  He had a signature style of dress:  long hair, flannel shirt, brogans, tie and hat.  He was sometimes, or so he said, refused rooms at hotels in towns were he was to speak.

A story about him exemplifies his image:  One fall day he was raking leaves in front of the Inn when a wealthy man drove up in horse and buggy and ordered Hubbard, who he thought a mere hired hand, to hold his horse.  The gentleman marched into the Inn and demanded an audience with Hubbard.  He was politely led back outside where Hubbard was patiently holding the reins of the horse.

Hubbard started publishing another magazine, The Fra, in 1908. It was a large, 9 x 14 inch format, fine black and red type and illumination and lots of artful advertisement – his own work[11].  This was “The Journal of Affirmation.”  Hubbard wrote many of the articles but published articles by other contributors.  It was never the success of The Philistine but he continued to publish it.  He built a media persona he called The Fra[12].  It promoted him as the “The Sage of East Aurora.” 

Hubbard loved the growing community of workers who staffed his enterprise at East Aurora.  This was part of his legend.  He made himself the Sheppard of his growing flock:  He became the benign protector of his company of employees.  He treated his employees with fairness and compassion and provided amenities not typically found around American businesses.  Sunday nights he held chapel and gave free inspirational talks to the staff and public.

Alice Moore

Another major change in Hubbard’s life was Alice Moore.  Alice was a schoolteacher in the area.  She was not an attractive woman but had a keen mind that engaged Hubbard.  Inevitably they formed a secret liaison that lasted many years.  Bertha became aware of the affair and Alice was sent into exile, to Boston where she pursued graduate work.  Hubbard, under the pretext of meeting with his publishers in Boston, continued the liaison.  They had a child together.  Learning of this child Bertha confronted Elbert and for a time they were reconciled, and in fact had another child of their own.  Bertha offered to adopt the child he had by Alice (Alice declined the offer). 

After a number of years of separation Elbert and Alice were drawn back together.  Hubbard set up a household for Alice in Concord, Massachusetts (Emerson’s former home) where they spent much time together.  Hubbard again used the pretense of business for his absences from East Aurora.  The affair was an open secret; Hubbard’s eldest son actually spent much time with him and Alice in Concord.  Inevitably the affair became public and Bertha filed for divorce and immediately afterwards Elbert and Alice were married.

The scandal was a national media event.  The small community of East Aurora was outraged.  Most of his employees, however, stood with him and despite some withdrawals, subscriptions to The Philistine actually surged. 

In fairness we should note that Hubbard, personally, was deeply affected by this turn of events.  He and Bertha actually loved each other deeply and her love for him continued to the end of her life.  She was the ideal corporate wife but Alice was more suited for his bohemian lifestyle.  Publically there is another story.  The scandal was enough to ruin most men but Hubbard was unfazed by it.  Being a man of controversy he indeed thrived.  Infamy being what it is in the American mind, he became the most sought after speaker in the country.  One paper offered him $30,000 a year for a column.  Alice rose to the occasion.  She took over daily operations at Roycroft and eventually became close to the employees and was slowly accepted by much of the community.  She was an excellent organizer and proved an invaluable partner for Hubbard during the remaining years of their lives.

The Arts and Crafts Movement

When Emerson visited England in the 1840s he saw the deleterious impact of industrialism already working on society.  He saw the forces of urbanization and steam power reshaping English life.  He saw both the wealth and poverty of the new order.  From this experience he resolved to seek a path back to nature, to seek a path free of the influences of European culture, and to find an antidote to industrialism, to urbanism and to the assault on the human experience they caused.

Emerson wasn’t alone in his revolt against the emerging industrial order.  Romanticism and Idealism were strong undercurrents in Britain and in the United States.  Emerson met and became lifelong friends of Thomas Carlyle.  Carlyle, and John Ruskin (below), were the pillars of an anti-modernist movement that took root in England and spread to the US.  This was the foundation of the Arts and Crafts Movement that sought to turn aside from machine driven industrialism and return to hand crafting products that were both beautiful and useful.

The Arts and Crafts Movement took its form in the life and work of Englishman William Morris.  Morris was both an artist and an entrepreneur.  He was also an active and outspoken socialist.  He drew on Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin but made his own enduring mark on English cultural life and his influence spread to Europe and the US.  In the US, perhaps the best-known leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement were Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s early career was interwoven with this movement, as were other architects.  Indeed a Craftsman home architecture emerged which included the still popular and efficient bungalow motif[13].  Borsodi’s home and School of Living building construction is an example of the Craftsman style.

Carlyle and Ruskin

Emerson had read enough of Carlyle to make a long, horse-drawn detour into Scotland to meet him.  Despite profound differences in temperament they became life-long friends.  Emerson helped get Carlyle’s works published in America.

Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) was a renowned writer and speaker in his day and is still much studied.  He wrote history and satire.  While he lost the deep faith of his family he retained a Calvinist bias throughout his life:  extremely moral and often condemnatory in tone.  Some critics compared him to the Old Testament prophets and one critic called him “a bombastic preacher.”  He hated his industrial age and turned back to both a medieval and heroic past for role models.  He loved the heroic sagas.  He turned to German literature when he decided that English literature had become degenerated[14].  He shared with Emerson a love of the German philosopher Goethe’s idealistic philosophy.  His translations of German idealistic literature sold well. 

Carlyle’s satirical works gave him his first audience but his major works were in history.  Perhaps the most influential of Carlyle’s works was Past and Present:  Four books and 47 chapters – a daunting pile of verbiage.  He wrote a large history of the French Revolution before tuning to the lives of Napoleon, Cromwell and Frederick the Great.   

He was irascible, difficult and temperamental yet he had a large popular following and a genius, it was said, for friendship.  There is little of the objective in his writing.  It is almost autobiographical:  a story of his struggle with his world.  He was a called a pamphleteer with a cause.  He sought to shock.  He used generalities.  He had a mystical conception of right and wrong.  By drawing people’s attention to the sprit of the age, the very idea of a spirit of the age, he sought to provoke them to question the plutocratic Victorian culture. 

John Ruskin (1819 -1900) was the scion of a wealthy commercial family.  He was the product of the best of art and life of his time.  Ruskin’s father was a successful and wealthy businessman.  He paved the way for a life of ease for his son.  Like Morris, with whom he shared both the wealthy upbringing and doubt about efficacy of is own class, Ruskin despised modern industrial and commercial life.  So too, as we have seen, did Scott and Helen Nearing, who were both born into wealth and to a lesser extent, Ralph Borsodi, and for that matter Elbert Hubbard, who turned their backs on the promise of fortune. 

He, like Morris, attended Oxford as a gentleman-commoner.  Like Morris he was a prize-winning poet.  He was an accomplished artist but made his fame as a critic of art and architecture.  He traveled extensively in Europe making beautiful sketches and writing books on style and culture.  He began submitting articles for publication when he was fifteen.  He was a severe critic of the drift of English industrial culture, including art.  He was an early and strong supporter of the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood, who were, in turn, strongly influenced by him.  He was an advocate of socialism and supported various radical causes during his life.

Carlyle and John Ruskin were unlikely friends.  Their temperaments were vastly different but they were drawn by their common distaste of modern culture and love of the Middle Ages[15].  Where Carlyle scolded, Ruskin explored.  He sought the cause of what he considered civilization taking a wrong turn.  His founding principle was aesthetic:  He found his values in art.  He despised capitalism.  He saw its bad taste as a real evil.  He despised the financial valuation of human life.  Money he saw as the value that corrupted.

Ruskin’s work is widely known today, and he is still closely studied; for his art, his artistic criticism and his social criticism.  His art, and particularly his sketching, is of the highest quality.  He left a small library of writings.  These include a broad foundation of theory about art and architecture.  It takes books to explore his ideas.  In brief however, we can start with the notion about the necessity of artifacts being beautiful and/or useful.  Art, he said, was not just a matter of taste, not something exterior, but involves the whole person.  Aesthetics is the foundation of human endeavor.  Work without art is inhumane.  Through the appreciation of beauty we derive a sense of truth about the world we live in and about ourselves.  Art is thus about the conduct of life.  In art is the joy and fulfillment of life.  It is art and architecture, in the end, that defines a people and an epic of history.

Art is an expression of being, not just appreciation.  Art is the foundation of morality.  Ruskin saw a vast difference between “moralizing” and “moral being.”  The practice of art starts not just with technique but with self-exploration.  It is not pencil, pen, brush, paint and canvas or the myriad skills associated with producing a work of art, but the exploration and formation of character that comes out of the discipline of art, of studied observation and deep reflection.  Out of the practice of art comes a deeper understanding of self, of others, of the world of nature and through art the creative expression of life.  Art is never an end, always a means.  This applies not only to the creation of works of art but also to any endeavor in life.

Ruskin coined the term “Illth,” a term adopted by the Nearings and Borsodi and Hubbard, to define the dark side of commercialism.  It means “ill-being,” rather than “well-being.”  Ruskin saw in rampant commercialization, and particularly the extensive division of labor in industry, which reduced jobs to mindless, repetitive, skill-less drudgery (as did Borsodi in This Ugly Civilization) the root cause of Illth.

William Morris

William Morris (1834 – 1896) was born into a wealthy commercial family.  His father died when he was 13 but left the family very well off.  He was Welsh but barely acknowledge the heritage that so formed his temperament[16].  At an early age he was drawn to the history and art of the Middle Ages.  He inherited a love of that era from his father.  He grew up, in grand Victorian style, on a country estate surrounded by greenery.  He received a classical education at a boarding school established for the sons of British gentlemen commoners.  He was trained in the Imperial tradition, founded by Thomas Arnold, to mold young Christian gentlemen into an Aristocracy to rule England and the Empire.  He then went to Oxford where he briefly studied history and deepened his fascination with the Middle Ages.  He did not take his degree.  At Oxford he began to meet the artistic friends who would shape his life.  He started writing poetry (and later was considered a successor to Keats and as the English poet laureate) and practiced art (only one oil painting survives).  After Oxford he briefly articled as an architecture apprentice.  In 1851 the Crystal Palace, the iconic image of industrial progress, dominated the London skyline.  Morris refused to attend what he considered a garish, artless, exhibition.

When he came of age Morris inherited a sizable annual income from his father’s estate.  He was free to spend his life as he pleased.  He fell under the influence of the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood (see “A little Journey,” below).  The Brotherhood was founded by a group of artist in 1848 and Morris and his Oxford friends joined a few years later.  They were part of a group that developed a distinctive a style in protest to what they considered a corrupted Renaissance art following Michelangelo.  They sought themes that were natural, realistic, and painted with bright colors (see image below).  The great majority of their paintings were portraiture with a medieval theme. 

In the Brotherhood Morris found kindred spirits, both as artists and in social values.  Medievalism was popular among the romantic youth of the day.  It was in no small part a revolt against industrialization as depicted in Dickens’ England.  They shared a growing hatred of modern civilization with its shoddiness, loss of community and appalling poverty. The Middle Ages became their lost golden age. 

Morris and friends gathered to read Morte d’Arthur on Sundays and they learned Sir Galahad by heart.  Theirs was a chivalric joust with Victorianism.  The Brotherhood adopted the values of art as a guide to self-development and reformation of a world turning ugly.  It provided a retreat into a timeless, dreamy, mystical world.  It gave them a sense of mystery, of the sacred, and a dedication to ideals largely unappreciated at that time.  It was a bohemian life, iconoclastic, an outlet for youthful energy and carried a hint of outlawry.  The Brotherhood gave them a sense of organic community, based on pre-capitalistic values, mutual helpfulness and a sense of social obligation.  Many embraced High Anglicanism and drew moral strength from it but were full of doubts and misgivings about established religion.

One participant in the works of the Pre-Raphael artist, at least in the passive role of model, was Morris’ wife, Jane Burden.  She appeared in Morris’ one surviving oil painting but her face and figure are found in the works of other Brotherhood artists.  The paintings were set against medieval backgrounds.  She had a melancholy beauty that evoked a protective chivalric response.  She was said to be the Guinevere of the Brotherhood.  Like Guinevere, who betrayed King Arthur, Jane took up with one of Morris’ closest friends in a triage to which he seemingly acquiesced.

During the last eight years of his life Morris wrote six novels.  The themes were utopian.  News From Nowhere perhaps best summaries the ideals in these.  “Nowhere” is a more or less literal translation of “utopia.”  In it a character of his time has a vivid dream of England in the mid-twenty-first century.  He “awakes” a stranger in this new world.  Some things are familiar but much is astonishing.  It is a world of happy people.  There is no government.  There are no schools.  There is no money.  There are no machines.  Horses draw carts and wagons.  There is no ugliness, no squalor, no poverty.  Everything is produced by people seeking to express themselves through their work.  When the land was opened at the close of the industrial age, the story goes, people flocked back to it eager to grow their own food.  Food and handmade goods are found in stalls where one is given what one needs.  Everyone offers what they can.  A balance is instinctively achieved to keep society prosperous.

Morris might be said to be the jewel in the crown of the arts and crafts movement.  He had not only the vision but also energy.  He loved work, hated idleness, and bristled with superabundant energy.  He was audacious and versatile.  His vision was of an earthly paradise.  Industry had killed art and civilization so he sought to banish the machine.  It was an English paradise.  Art is the spirit of England, he said.  Ugly is moral baseness – he might have said sinful but he was a pagan at heart.  His England was that of Chaucer.  He idealized a time (more ideal than real) when there was order in the land, a beautifully ordered countryside where nature and art were blended.  He sought to restore that beauty. He revived ancient crafts [17].  He loved the old buildings, churches, barns and even peasant cottages.  They seemed to grow out of the ground, well made, of good materials and built under happy conditions.  Beauty, he strongly believed, leads to happiness.  In the revival of craftsmanship he saw a revival of hope. 

Arts, Crafts and Government

It may be worthwhile to look at how the ideas of our subjects translate into government and politics. 

The three Englishmen[18] were, it must be said, very European in their outlook.  They were drawn to a medieval past that, for all its shortcomings, was stable and meaningful.  It represented a pre-industrial ideal.

Carlyle, who had the humblest origin of the three Englishmen, had a deeply feudal view of life.  He was undemocratic.  He preferred aristocratic rule to socialism.  While he respected the institution of Parliament he saw the men at 10 Downing Street as weak political leaders.  He believed the times called for strong but good, disinterest and competent men who acted in the greater interest.  They would, he idealistically believed, achieve loyalty through their fitness to rule.

Ruskin, though of commoner origins was schooled in the Victorian ideal of aristocratic leadership.  Like Carlyle he was anti-democratic.  He did not, however, believe in Carlyle’s heroic leadership.  His remedy was the planned, socialistic society. 

Morris’s started his political activity supporting liberal causes and was drawn into socialism.  At that time a strong socialist movement was building in England.  The Fabians, formed towards the end of his life, would include such notables as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.  Morris, a contemporary of Marx, who lived out much of his life in London, was sympathetic to communism.   Morris, like Ruskin, saw industrial commercialism as the enemy of art and of society, as an oppression of the working class and destructive to skilled craftsmanship.  He was anti-capital, anti-Victorian.  But, unlike Marx, he believed that the common people, the workers, should abandon the industrial mode of production and return to the land and the small shop.  He wrote much about his ideals and was in demand as a political speaker.

America rejected both the feudal past and aristocratic rule in favor of downhome democracy.  That is, with the exception of the likes of Alexander Hamilton[19] who was anti-democratic and championed an American commercial aristocracy; an attitude which Jefferson, Jackson and other notable American’s opposed.

Elbert Hubbard was of such a democratic mind.  He was raised a Midwestern country boy whose education was in Emerson, Whitman and Populism.  He embraced the idea of a laissez-faire for its emphasis on self-reliance but had little to say, in fact, about government.  His writings idealized self-development and self-realization.  Borsodi, with his conviction of decentralization, was entirely sympathetic with local people running their own affairs.  For him people could learn what they needed to live well from the community school and very adequately govern their own local affairs.

Arts and Crafts in America

Following Morris’ example, numerous craft guilds were established in Britain.  Some were corporations, like Morris’ Firm, while others were groups of craftsmen forming themselves into guild-like associations.  There was a common rejection of modernism.  There was always that underlying romantic value of the dignity of work.  Most had a political, a socialist, agenda[20].  Ruskin had his own guild, a feudalistic association, under his admittedly benevolent aristocratic leadership.  The movement spread to both Europe and America.  In Europe, in Germany, it took a bizarre path into mechanization as exemplified by Bauhaus.  The Bauhaus style turned man and nature into machines and produced the ultramodern style of architecture characterized by concrete, steel, and glass; composed of stark and harsh angles[21].

The Arts and Crafts movement also produced the art nouveau style that represented a streamlined, fast-moving life.  Tiffany would become an iconic, stylistic, and expensive, American tradition.

The United States already had a deeply rooted folk art.  Shaker style furniture was popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (and is today).  Shaker design was derived from an ascetic lifestyle, simple, plain and very finely crafted.  The Hudson River School, with vast landscapes of the American frontier portrayed on large canvases, made a mark in romantic art.  There were art colonies[22] and institutes that promoted arts and letters all over the country, such as Chautauqua and the Delphian Society just to name two.  There were architects who designed and built craftsman-styled houses, perhaps most notably Richardson and Green and Green.  Gustav Stickley’s company produced both fine mission furniture and craftsman home designs.  There were mail order, prefabricated, craftsman homes that could be bought from catalogs and shipped by rail.

Morris had a profound influence on the Arts and Crafts movement and industry that emerged in the US during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  There were art exhibits at the great exhibitions and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair[23].  While these exhibits brought art and artifacts from around the world, and particularly awakened an interest in oriental art, they also brought the English Arts and Crafts movement.  Perhaps the two best-known exemplars of this style, transplanted in America, were Stickley and Hubbard. 

But a final note:  Where did medievalism go?  It is still very much with us.  It can be found in Mary Stewart’s popular books on Merlin and King Arthur, in the sword and sorcery genre of fantastic fiction, in the profound popularity of Tolkien’s works, in Star Wars, in Harry Potter, and a vast range of romantic literature and cinema.  Many cities host Renaissance Fairs where one may spend a day in medieval surroundings.

A Literature of Protest

Elbert Hubbard’s literature of protest was directed to the common man and woman of America during one of its most progressive periods[24]. Hubbard started Roycroft at a time the American Frontier Movement was reaching its apex.  It was the era of the self-reliant farmer and small town businessman.  It was the era of Populism and Progressivism, two movements Ralph Borsodi cut his teeth on.  It was an expression of Emerson’s Self-Reliance.  Hubbard was an exemplar of the self-made (wo)man but deep in his soul was a yearning for a type of life Borsodi came to call “quality mindedness.”

Hubbard expressed his deeper yearnings in writings and in products.  Roycroft products included furniture, beaten copper and leather goods and above all finely printed books.  They were handcrafted books set unhurriedly and carefully in type with hand-painted illustrations.  His market was not the wealthy but the middle class, the rising class of self-reliant people who gave the American Century its character.  This was the age of Mainstreet, of small-town roots and sense of community, local self-reliance, a willingness to work and a well-formed, down-home character; an age that formed the values of a people who wanted above all peace – now lamented by many, now aging people, who experienced the last remnants of the culture.

The Philistine

This little, pocket-sized, journal was available for a subscription of one dollar per year.  It was tastefully done; advertisements were bits of artwork, mostly crafted by Hubbard himself.  The insides of the covers contained quotable epigrams.  The bulk of the writing was done by Hubbard.  The theme was often “Heart-to-Heart Talks with Philistines by the Pastor of his Flock.”  I find in these issues stream-of-consciousness writing, anecdotes, aphorisms, thoughts on the conditions of the world at large; reminders of the style of Franklin’s popular “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” of an earlier era.  Hubbard expressed his opinions with wit and satire:  Things can be better than the trite stuff of established life.

In one issue I find a little piece, a page and a half, that should appeal to those today, a century later, concerned with raising the minimum wage:

“We are hearing a good deal about the high cost of living, but things are going to be higher than they are now, and we had better make up our mind to it and not shed any lachrymose pearly drops.
 “Henry Ford’s five dollars a day as a minimum wage is not so very far away, and it is understood that any man who is paid five dollars a day for his labor is to do a minimum of monkeying and for him supervision is to be reduced to a chemical trace.
 “A higher standard of wages means a higher standard of living, and a higher standard of living means better men and better women.
 “We are farmers, manufacturers, railroad men, miners, merchants, teachers, and when all Europe is cultivating paresis, fighting, destroying, and all the time consuming, this is our opportunity, and we are going to improve it.
Hubbard liked to write stories he found inspiring, such as the following:

“Then there is another man here who has builded himself a monument, and set a standard in well-doing that is bound to make his name deathless.
 “The man is Jesse L. Nusbaum, born in Michigan, educated in Denver, graduated into the Desert, and given his Ph.D., his A.M, and his Phi Beta Kappa key from the Hopis and Zunis in joint council assembled.  Nusbaum is an ethnologist, a naturalist, a man of mountain and plain, and a builder.
 “With the aid of the Indians, …., he has reproduced … habitations [that] will house a hundred people.  Tier on tier scrapes the sky, built of stone, wood, adobe, thatched after the manner of Indians of the olden time.  You reach it by ladders.  The place is wild, weird, strange and represents the rudimentary survival of a civilization fast becoming but a memory of things that were.”

People attribute the quote “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” to Emerson.  Actually it was Hubbard who penned that line.

Little Journeys

Hubbard produced “Little Journeys” month after month for nearly twenty years.  They were originally published in pamphlets, six by eight inches, bound in butcher paper.  There are 170 of these Little Journeys.  They have since been bound into fine volumes, fourteen of them stretching a half-yard of shelf.

The volume titles of the collected works include:  Good Men and Great, Famous Women, American Statesmen, Eminent Painters, English Authors, Eminent Artists, Eminent Orators, Great Philosophers, Great Reformers, Great Teachers, Great Businessmen, Great Scientists, Great Lovers and Great Musicians. 

A Little Journey

I have the original, 1902 edition, of Hubbard’s “Little Journey” to the home of the great artist Raphael, one of the 12 eminent artists Hubbard “visited.”  The story starts, coincidentally, with reference to Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite movement:  “The term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ traces a royal linage to William Morris.  Just what the word really meant, William Morris was not sure, yet he once expressed the hope that he would some day know ….”  It is, in fact, the story of brotherhood.

Hubbard opened his biography of Raphael in the little city of Urbanio, Italy, his birthplace, in 1483.  The house where he was born still stands and in it is a Madonna and Child, painted by his father; the faces, as was the tradition of this era, are those of an infant Raphael and his mother.  His mother died when he was eight, the father at 11.  The story is that he was dearly loved child of what we would today call a middle class family.  His care passed on to a stepmother who also loved him and a local priest, who seeing Raphael’s extraordinary talent apprenticed him to Perugino, a renowned artist of his day.  Raphael soon outshone his master but the story is that they shared a warm friendship to the end of Raphael’s life.

At 21 Raphael went to Florence where he quickly attained the top tier in the rank of artist that included Leonardo and Michelangelo, a brotherhood of artist founded on mutual respect – there being no shortage of work, no demand for competition except in the excellence of the art.  And like them he wins the favor and friendship of popes.

Raphael married late, his bride soon died and within a year he joined her in a common crypt at age 37.

As with all of Hubbard’s work, there is a moral to the tale, so let’s return to the beginning of this Little Journey, back to William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  This Brotherhood, that included Morris and seven friends, was a group that, as noted above, left an indelible mark on English art and culture and no small impression on its social philosophy.

Raphael became the advocate of a radical aesthetic mood:  “He used the human form and the whole natural world as symbols of spirit … [a] haunting and subtle spiritual wistfulness.”  This mood is reflected in the Madonna figures, portrayed as “tender, gentle and trustful;” as expressed in Morris’s and friends attraction to the Arthurian mythos, of chivalry and country romance of a vanished age. 

Hubbard related that this mood can be found in Morris’ “John Ball” story of the Ideal, Romantically inspired, Life.  This life is simple.  Work is done for the love of it.  When things are wanted they are made by hand.  There is no division of labor, no deformation of the spirit:  Men and woman are skilled in many ways.  There is no disparity of wealth and poverty.  There is a deep sense of place.  Art is an expression of the beauty and joy of life.  Hubbard summarizes this as “the Ideal -- & the Natural.”

There is in this art, Hubbard wrote, an elemental paganism and so it was in Raphael’s time – a pagan infidelity the Popes, who championed the early renaissance (and we must remember this is the lifetime of Columbus and the spread of printing), men more worldly than those of earlier and later, darker times, winked at, acknowledged and dismissed for the sake of the sublimity of spirit in the art.  Morris and friends were less fortunate in their time, suffering biting criticisms for their apostasy. 

Hubbard celebrated this pagan spirit (and it is a mood we find in Emerson’s Nature).  Hubbard saw in this elemental sentiment something universal in the human soul, shared across time and space, that defines a human brotherhood.  “Yes,” he wrote, “we are all brothers, to all who have trod the earth….”


In the spring of 1915, Hubbard booked passage for himself and Alice on the Lusitania.  He had been writing and speaking against the war in Europe.  He wanted a closer look.  Knowing the danger he tried to dissuade Alice but she refused.  Arm-in-arm they strode aboard this ill-destined ship.  On May 7th a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania[25].  He and Alice slipped into the depths, it is rumored, in the privacy of their cabin; entombed together at the bottom of the sea. 

Of all the victims of this tragedy, and there were other eminent men and women aboard, Hubbard, it has been suggested, was the most mourned.  The nation’s papers lingered over the story; a great American icon had been lost.  In East Aurora the town came out, and many more – 3,000 in fact, following the mayor and a grieving Bertha Hubbard, to pay their last respect to him on the Roycroft campus.

His son, Elbert Hubbard, Jr. took over management of Roycroft with the assistance of an ad-man Hubbard had hired, Felix Shea[26].  Publication of The Philistine ceases – only Elbert Hubbard had the style to produce that journal.  A memorial edition of The Fra was published but it too went out of print after a year or so.  Roycroft continued until 1932 when it too slipped under the waves of the Great Depression.  The Inn remains in operation and there is a small museum and an association of Roycrofters, followers of The Fra, still cherishing his legend now a century after his death.

Original copies of The Philistine and The Fra can be costly but examples can be found.  So too original single prints of “Little Journeys,” but bound sets of these can be found in relative abundance for under a hundred dollars.  It is a very readable collection.

Three books, in various editions, of Hubbard’s works were published posthumously by his son:

·      The Note Book of Elbert Hubbard
·      Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book
·      The Philosophy of Elbert Hubbard

In these three volumes, which can be secured at very reasonable cost, can be found much of what Hubbard thought and wrote during his life. 

Final Thoughts

The Arts and Crafts Movement shares a parallel life with the Homesteading Movement Ralph Borsodi exemplified.  Both were founded on undercurrents of Populism and Progressivism, the two great liberal movements that defined the lives of Hubbard and Borsodi.  Both men shared a profound misgiving about the course American life was taking in the twentieth century.  Both were businessmen and economic reformers.  Both sought to elevate the quality of life and mind of everyday people.  Both exemplified Emerson’s great ideal of Self-Reliance, of stalwart individualism, of deep thinking, of love of the land and fields, and in the challenge of outworn and outdated institutions and superstitions.

Of the two, Hubbard was more capitalistic and even nationalistic in his attitude, but saying that, he abhorred the excesses of both the robber barons and the jingoist.  Hubbard loved America; he loved the land, the people and the great liberal traditions of the country.  Hubbard was a master showman and salesman:  he loved the stage.  He read voraciously.  He was a talented writer who exercised wit and a biting sarcasm to shred the façade of unquestioned values.  His literary output was huge.  His profound love of beauty and quality, at affordable cost, shaped every activity to which he turned his hand.

I can only wonder what Hubbard might have done had he lived into the post World War I era, let alone into the Great Depression.  Hubbard died before Ralph Borsodi found his vocation.  I don’t know if Borsodi read Hubbard.  I’m not sure they would have agreed about many things, but I’m sure they would have shared a wide range of values about the regeneration of the American society. 

Arts and crafts has always been bedrock for the School of Living and the intentional community movement.  It is a deeply rooted value of practices such as permaculture.  We find it in the carefully handcrafted products we make and buy and in the tradition of living on the land.  The American farmer has a long tradition of adding craft to husbandry to supplement income and to fill the winter months with productive work.  Hubbard found a way to provide a living wage to 500 crafts(wo)men and to produce a large volume of fine products, many of which are valued to this day, a century since his death.  His example teaches us something important about building a community economy of quality; an economy of that is both prosperous and cultivates the good life.

Century Twenty-one

My purpose is not to just tell an old story, a great story of how we came to better define our humanity, but to suggest a new story.

Elbert Hubbard has been gone for a century.  From Emerson to Hubbard to Borsodi we see a continuity and steady development of an ideal, and models for realizing that idea, for reversing the dehumanization of industrialization.  Borsodi gave us a model of a human-scaled agriculture and agrarian community, centered upon a school to develop a sense of quality in life.  Hubbard gave us a model for a human and community scale of economic enterprise that produces goods that enhance the quality and humanity of life, including quality books (and journals) that have raised the consciousness of untold numbers of people.

Emerson felt the shift, the decline, in our sense of humanity as the industrial era dawned; Hubbard as it reached it’s peak and Borsodi as we shifted into a global economy that has shaped, and caused anxiety in our lives today.  All sought to elevate our consciousness to a greater sense of self-reliance. 

Today our sense of security is undermined by a perfect wave of challenges including climate change, steadily rising population and a finance driven economy that produces wealth for a few and insecurity for the many.

Food security is a ticking bomb.  An organism, or society, is only as secure as its source of food.  Storms, draughts, exhaustion and development of farmland, water scarcity, the rising cost of energy and political and economic insecurity around the globe, are all matters of concern.  Friends living in our great cities are talking to me about their dependence upon resources beyond their reach; resources that they feel are becoming increasingly doubtful.

The back-to-the-land movement starts with the idea of a secure homestead that can produce what a family needs to survive.  The School of Living is about creating communities of homesteaders; communities of people with an elevated sense of humanity.  Hubbard’s Roycroft was about meeting the material and cultural needs of the community.  The answer to the needs of cities is clearly in developing a regional food system.  It is in rebuilding America’s capacity to produce its own material goods.  The dominant agricultural and industrial business is not going to change.  An alternative is clearly needed and I strongly argue that alternative is to be found in a localization movement that is founded upon self-reliant families and communities and small, family owned farms and shops that produce an abundance to serve the urban markets.  And yes, there is land and labor in the cities that can be repurposed along these lines.

We need a model updated to the conditions of the twenty-first century.  We have the foundation; we need the infrastructure.  More coming on this.

[1] A Philistine, in this context, is one who is dismissive and critical of shoddy culture and social practices.
[2] The demand for soap represented a growing concern for cleanliness, sanitation and good health.
[3] That fortune built at least two Frank Lloyd Wright (himself strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement) masterpieces in Buffalo, the Larkin Building, now gone, and the Martin house, now under reconstruction.
[4] Hubbard invented the practice of just dropping off a box of soap products at people’s houses and letting them decide if the products were worth paying for.  No bills, no sales pressure, no hassle.
[5] Ingersol was flamboyant; a larger than life figure in an age of showmen.  It was a personal style that attracted Hubbard.
[6] His settlement would, in those days, provide a comfortable upper middle class life for Hubbard and family for life, indeed would have the buying power of nearly $2,000,000 today. 
[7] Subscriptions to The Philistine exceeded 200,00 by the end of Hubbard’s life.
[8] Like Borsodi, Hubbard built with stone.  He paid local farmers a dollar a wagonload for stones from their fields.
[9] Perihelion is when a planet is closest and stands out bright and beautiful. It suggest a person who has done something of note.
[10] The Roycroft Inn is still in business.
[11] Ralph Borsodi was also a successful ad man, working for his father’s printing business.
[12] Fra symbolizes both “brother” and spiritual advisor.
[13] Wright’s Usonian house reflected, in a more modernistic form, this cozy and efficiency type of dwelling and his Broadacre City was a community of one acre homesteads. 
[14] Much as Tolkien turned to Nordic traditions expressed in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
[15] There are those who dismiss the Middle Ages as violent and brutal.  And for that matter, Raphael’s own Renaissance, Machiavellian age. 
[16] In contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was also of Welsh decent, treasured the primal cultural heritage which he expressed in his organic architecture, naming his home, in fact, Taliesin after a great Welsh tradition.
[17] His stained glass and other traditional crafts adorned many ancient buildings.
[18] And we could add to this distinguished list of industrial critics the names of Blake (“dark Satanic Mills”), Wordsworth and Coleridge.
[19] Hamilton, a student of Adam Smith, was the architect of the American industrial order.
[20] Today that agenda can be found in the social justice theme of the sustainability movement.
[21] Art historian do suggest that modern, abstract art is an expression of the existential angst of the day; chaos, confusion, disharmony, atonality.  Ironically Picasso’s, and other radical artist of his time, were the inspiration for military camouflage, abstract forms that break up the shape of objects and confuse the sense of sight.  Camouflage has indeed become a sophisticated art form.
[22] Scott and Helen Nearing were members of such communities.
[23] Hubbard visited it.
[24] It was a style that Mildred Loomis was very good at a lifetime after Hubbard’s prime. 
[25] The commander of the U-20, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger followed the Lusitania’s victims to a watery grave in 1917 after sinking 49 ships, the sixth highest score by a German U-boat commander.
[26] Shea wrote a biography about Hubbard. Albert Lane wrote a book about Hubbard and his work at an early stage of his career.  Another good biography, As Bees in Honey Drown, was written by East Aurora resident Charles Hamilton in close collaboration with Hubbard’s eldest son.  It is mostly the story of Hubbard and Alice, a woman that Hubbard, Jr. deeply admired despite the strain of the affair on their family