“Commune” In East Aurora


It is true that he established at East Aurora one of the most advanced and pleasant sets of working conditions in America. When one task grew tiresome, employees were free to move to another; they had coffee breaks; and their shops were well ventilated and flooded with light. When work was done, Hubbard organized picnics and led hikes in the woods. His handsome stone and timber buildings housed a library, gymnasium, and music room complete with instruments, which were available to Roycrofters after hours. There was a Roycroft brass band and an art gallery, there were lectures on art and literature, reading clubs, classes in drawing and clay modelling, even “devotional services” at which Hubbard would read the writings of John Ruskin, Emerson, and other favorites. But benevolence went hand in hand with despotism. While the chief Roycrofter was no tyrant, he did demand hard work and lots of it, fired shirkers (though with no pleasure), and insisted that his flock refrain from smoking or partaking of the grape. Moreover, behind Roycroft curtains, hidden from the view of visitors, the Fra secreted the archsymbol of modern industrialism: the time clock.


Hubbard’s effort to create a worthy American version of Morris’ Kelmscott Press put him in a rarefied world of Romanesque type, deckled edges, and Japanese vellum. Roycroft books were admired by many and continued to produce a good income for Hubbard’s son years after his father’s untimely death, but George Bernard Shaw was accurate when he called Hubbard merely a “pseudoMorrisian,” whose books could not meet the rigorous standards of “fine printing.” Riddled with typographical errors and bizarre affectations, they were imitative at best and cheap at worst. Now and then an admirable collection of Tennyson or Ruskin would emerge from the hand-driven presses, but more often Hubbard’s printers were occupied with putting out books that were no more than promotions for Roycroft products or stunt jobs like the Essay on Silence , which was made up of totally blank pages and brashly advertised with a critic’s caustic remark that it was the best thing Hubbard had ever done.


In further imitation of Kelmscott, the East Aurora artisans produced plaster busts of Morris and Fra Elbertus, bas-reliefs of Franz Liszt and Walt Whitman, mission furniture, ornamental iron work, book bindings, hammered-copper book ends, andirons, woven rugs and baskets, stained-glass windows, mattresses, jars of preserves, and maple sugar candy. A typical Philistine advertisement offered Roycroft goatskins, stationery, lounge pillows (“made roycroftie from two whole goat skins, laced together with leather thongs and tassels”), and magazine racks. Hubbard served up the Roycroft products, magazines and mattresses alike, with a preciosity of language that unerringly grates on present-day sensibilities. One volume concluded: “So here then endeth WHITE HYACINTHS, being a Book of the Heart, containing thoughts that have been voiced before, but not so well. Done into print by The Roycrofters at their Shop which is in East Aurora, Erie County, New York, MCMVII .”

Hubbard’s literary contradictions were as perplexing as those that marked his personal life and his business practices. At times he contributed genuinely thoughtful and searching essays to the Roycroft volumes, but more often his own work consisted of blasts at his literary enemies, cracker-barrel philosophy, and buffoonery. It was easy to see him, in one writer’s words, as “the mountebank of East Aurora.” The baffling lack of harmony among his many roles is probably due to the fact that Hubbard was, before all things, a promoter. When he moved from hand soap to hand-illuminated initials he took his commercial savvy with him. The key to touting The Roycrofters was to tout himself. From there it was a short step to becoming an expert in pushing the products of those who advertised in his pages. And in the end, Hubbard became a leading drumbeater for the American business system itself.

Like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain before him, like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer after him, Hubbard (though certainly not in their league as an author) created a public personality for himself to advertise his work. He cheerily confessed that his own writing was aimed at spreading the news that “I am still on earth.” Striving for celebrity status, he doffed his business suit in favor of the big hat, long coat and hair, and flowing tie. His characteristic appearance—a newspaper once said he looked as Daniel Webster “might have looked after a long spree, and deprived of the kind offices of a barber”—soon became familiar in a nation as yet without newsreels and television.

Relaxed and engaging, Hubbard became one of America’s most popular and highly paid lecturers, passing on to the culturally starved his own brand of art, history, literature, and self-improvement. The public seemed to love it. Hubbard gave eighty-one lectures in 1901 alone. A 1906 schedule indicates that he spoke in eighteen cities in nine states from October 25 to December 20. And, after years of displaying his wares at the lectern, Hubbard took the leap to vaudeville itself during the 1909-10 season, touring for ten weeks at one thousand dollars per week. One of his companions, Sir Harry Lauder, wisecracked: “Mr. Hubbard is the only one of us who wears his make-up on the street.”