- Historic Sites
“Commune” In East Aurora
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
Hubbard was splendidly imaginative in the methods he employed to sell Roycroft goods. He got the first number of the Philistine off the ground by mailing free copies to a carefully selected list of writers and journalists. Following Larkin & Co. precedents, he sold his publications by mail order instead of through the standard book agents, advertising: “All volumes are sent direct. … We do not sell to book-sellers, therefore occasionally there be dealers who cough or sneeze on mention of our name. Do not mind these jaundiced, jealous gentlemen of the anvil chorus —let us know what you want and we will try to please you. … If you want Roycroft books you have to write direct to East Aurora for them. East Aurora is now a money-order postoffice, and the place is down on the map, Mr. [William Dean] Howells to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The old Larkin premium idea was also brought into play: a one-dollar year’s subscription to the Philistine brought with it a sample Roycroft book and membership in the Society of the Philistines. But for ten dollars a subscriber got the Philistine for life, plus membership in the American Academy of Immortals. The duty of each Immortal was happily confined to “living up to his highest Ideal (as nearly as possible) and attending the Annual Dinner (if convenient).” Life members of the academy had their names recorded on the “Great Roster,” and, as another facet of this elaborate gimmick, a few subscribers were known as “Thirty-third Degree Members” (price: lioo). The special enticements accompanying this grand contract have been lost to posterity.
Hubbard attracted advertisers with a list of “Some Reasons Why Your Advertisement Should Appear In ‘The Philistine,’ ” among which were: (i) its large “national” circulation; (2) the fact that the magazine “is read and passed along”; (3) its distribution to “a class of people who think and act for themselves and who have the money and brains to discriminate in favor of good things”; (4) the advertising price of one hundred dollars per page, which “is less than one-twelfth of the cost of printing and addressing an equal number of ordinary postal cards”; and (5) the editor’s reputation as “probably the most widely quoted and most positive force in the literary world of today.”
Hubbard not’ only printed the advertising copy of others in his magazines, but he also wrote copy and became one of the highest-paid ad writers of his day. He had given some thought to the subject of advertising, justifying it on the grounds that “life is too short for the consumer to employ detectives to ferret out merchants who have the necessities of life to sell” and contending that its two main functions were selling products and creating good will. Advertising should be a “fine art,” “lubricating existence and helping the old world on its way to the Celestial City of Fine Minds.” His own copy leaned heavily on what was known as the “associated idea,” which merely meant arriving at the main pitch via an indirect and presumably less commercial route—like starting off with a quotation from Emerson, skipping to Pericles and Athens, and concluding with a bouquet to Davenport’s Restaurant in Spokane. The defenseless consumer was thus led unawares to the advertised product and given the feeling that his favorite maker of bicycle chains or elastic trusses was somehow connected with Culture. ” ‘Time,’ said Immanuel Kant, ‘is an illusion’ ” began a Hubbard watch advertisement.
The personal touch in Hubbard’s advertisements (“I take off my hat to Fred Harvey”) became more marked around 1910, when he began to sign his ads, a practice that he is said to have invented. This led to a next step, the writing of long essays of appreciation for various companies, which were then sold in booklet form to the subjects themselves, who usually distributed them to their employees or more widely for public-relations purposes. Such jobs were done for Stetson hats, Steinway pianos, Elgin watches, Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, and such other manufacturers as Gillette, Wrigley, and Heinz.
As these puffs grew in popularity and profitability, Hubbard came to devote most of his time to writing them. Soon the eccentric editor of arty ephemera, the agnostic, the marital nonconformist, had become, in one commentator’s words, the “Voice of American Business.” All employees were urged to work hard, to be self-reliant, and above all, not to “knock” (Satan fell from grace because he was a “knocker”). Labor unions that attempted to introduce the closed shop, restrict production, and regulate hiring practices were succeeding merely in halting the wheels of progress, throttling natural ambition, and making “tramps of steady and honest workmen. …” The socialist vision would yield only a society of jellyfish. A Marxist, Hubbard quipped, was “any man who, when given a room in a hotel that contains two beds, sleeps in both; and who also uses the towels to polish his shoes.” In contrast, captains of industry were giants on the earth—like railroad magnate James J. Hill, eulogized by Hubbard as “a great modern prophet, a creator, a builder. Pericles built a city, but this man made an empire.”