“Commune” In East Aurora

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Hubbard’sjob was to move Larkin products: laundry and toilet soap, powders, perfumes, and the other purifying potions that cluttered the bathrooms and dressing tables of Victorian America. He moved them—and assured his own ascent in the business through a series of clever marketing devices notable at the time for their originality. Hc spruced up his sales force, wrote handbills, and designed display cards. He took Larkin’s unwrapped soap out of the general-store barrel, packed it in boxes of three cakes each, and sold them for seven and a half cents to grocers, who retailed them for a dime. The newly packaged soap, says a chronicler, “put the company on its feet.”

Then Hubbard took the soap away from the grocers and put it instead in Uncle Sam’s mail pouches. Larkin customers would now send their money straight to Buffalo, in return for which Hubbard would mail them the “Sweet Home Soap” combination box, a package including laundry and toilet soap, a washing compound, and a bottle of perfume. The cost was six dollars, advertised widely as a “staggering” bargain. The capstone was a new slogan, “From factory to family.”

 

From the mail-order system and combination box Hubbard jumped to premiums, stuffing free prizes in every Larkin package—perhaps a couple of celluloid collar buttons, a buttonhook, or pictures of the twentythree Presidents of the United States. With sales mounting, he offered “six solid silver teaspoons” to accompany larger purchases, though he neglected to mention that his spoons were made of solid “German silver,” a cheap alloy never sullied by the presence of any real silver. Both the Federal Trade Commission and Ralph Nader were as yet unborn, so Larkin’s house genius went on, raising the price of the combination box to ten dollars and tossing in for a premium “The Chautauqua Lamp,” a tall brass kerosene “piano lamp” with a silken shade. It was, history assures us, immensely popular.

Having already eliminated the profit-squeezing middleman through the use of mail-order sales, Hubbard finally determined to convert his own customers into salesmen. Through the Club Plan he distributed large quantities of soap to individual purchasers who then pestered their neighbors to buy it. Their only commission, according to one Hubbard biographer, was more premiums—”anything from chafing dishes to chiffoniers, from bric-a-brac to bureaus.” To lure the cautious, Hubbard dangled liberal credit terms, gambling on the peculiar fascination that he believed debt had for the average person.

Then in 1893, having set policies in motion that were to make Larkin rich and his name a household word, Hubbard abruptly sold out his half interest to his astonished partner for seventy-five thousand dollars. At the age of thirty-seven, as he wrote to his mother, he “sloughed [his] commercial skin,” believing that “he who would excel in the realm of thought must not tarry in the domain of dollars.” Forsaking the world of soap, Hubbard made his abortive effort at becoming a Harvard man. Then he sailed to England to gather data for his first volume of Little Journeys, intending to launch a literary career. While there he found inspiration and a direction for his energies in a visit to the Kelmscott Press, near London, operated by William Morris, poet, painter, printer, blacksmith, woodcarver, and socialist. Beguiled by the atmosphere, Hubbard watched Morris’ community of some three thousand employees printing hand-illuminated books and working away at furniture, wrought-iron goods, stained-glass windows, tapestries, and objects of hammered silver, copper, and brass. The American was impressed, and shortly after his return to East Aurora, a suburb of Buffalo, he founded “The Roycrofters,” named for two seventeenth-century English printers.

Publicly Hubbard proposed to liberate man from the joylessness of working at a machine all day long; privately he determined to make some money in the process—a Luddite with one eye on the profit-and-loss sheet. East Aurora would provide young people with “congenial employment, opportunity for healthful recreation, meeting places, and an outlook into the world of art and beauty,” and the Roycroft craftsmen would work under the motto “Not how cheap, but how good.”

Like Morris, Hubbard would run his company along supposedly communitarian lines, with employees sharing in all the profits. All the company’s proceeds (and soon they were considerable) went “into the common fund of The Roycrofters—the benefit is for all.” But in point of fact Hubbard was decidedly vague in defining exactly how the profits were to be shared. As a communist he made an excellent capitalist who seemed to believe that some people should be more equal than others. He was sole owner of The Roycrofters until 1905, when the firm was made a family corporation. His workers received modest wages, his authors were sometimes done out of their royalty payments, and Roycroft profit sharing was restricted to the distribution of little gifts of hams, turkeys, blankets, gloves, and the like at Thanksgiving and Christmas.