- Historic Sites
“Commune” In East Aurora
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
In the spring of 1915 a handsome fifty-nine-year-old man with a marked resemblance to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan boarded ship in New York, bound for England. Other passengers stared unabashedly at his long black Prince Albert coat, his outsize black tie, his almost shoulder-length tresses topped by a Stetson hat. There was indeed nothing ordinary about Elbert Hubbard. When the Lusitania was torpedoed in the Irish Sea a few days later, his death was reported across the United States in the same paragraph that recorded that of the multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. The Literary Digest described Hubbard’s loss, along with that of several theatrical notables, as a “Blow to Arts and Letters.” And forty thousand Americans wrote their condolences to his son in East Aurora, New York.
Who was Elbert Hubbard, this deeply mourned victim of war? Few today are able to identify him except as the author of an inspirational popular essay entitled “A Message to Garcia.” But Hubbard was more than an uplifter. Eor twenty years this one-time soap salesman mixed handicrafts, village atheism, success worship, and ballyhoo into an improbable amalgam of earnest truth-seeking and charlatanry. Though he equalled few of them in real talent, he reminds one of Ben Franklin, Bob Ingersoll, Norman Vincent Peale, Mark Twain, Emile Coué (“Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”), Horatio Alger, Walt Wrhitman, P. T. Barnum, and Mary Baker Eddy. Part vulgarian and part aesthete, part Owcnite socialist and part robber baron, Elbert Hubbard lived a life of compelling interest.
Hubbard was primarily a huckster, a man with a keen nose for publicity, who first channelled his commercial talents into business and then into a successful writing and publishing career. In addition to “A Message to Garcia” he wrote dozens of biographical sketches called Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great (a veritable five-foot shelf when collected) and published two periodicals, the Philistine and The Fra . The former, launched in 1895, at one time had a monthly circulation of 126,000. Although Hubbard wrote ads willingly, as well as essays preaching the virtues of the American free-enterprise system and the talented social benefactors who ran it, his magazines appeared between arty brown covers, were printed by an organization supposedly dedicated to a communal economy, and were full of Hubbard’s antiestablishment manifestoes. He favored enlightened reforms in penology, supported a tax on inherited income, and claimed that he opposed child labor (though many a prepubescent found employment in his East Aurora works). Three established professions were constantly under attack in the Philistine . First was the clergy, whose privileged status the agnostic Hubbard assaulted by opposing blue laws and Bible-reading in public schools and by favoring the taxation of church properties. Second came physicians, who also felt Hubbard’s public scorn, for Fra Klbertus, as he styled himself, was a kind of slapdash Christian Scientist who believed in drugless healing and Fletchcrism (chew a lot and live longer), and opposed vivisection and vaccination. Finally, there were the academics, irreconcilable enemies after Hubbard spent part of a year at Harvard, where he enrolled at thirty-seven after quitting the soap business for “literature.” Hc got little out of it but a hatred for professors. His forte was the aphorism, which he invariably turned against his intellectual “betters.” “You can send a boy to college,” he wrote, “but you cannot make him think.”
Nonconformist Elbert Hubbard wore hippie-length hair and ran his publishing business like an artists’ colony—yet American businessmen worshipped his words
In his most unorthodox moments Hubbard even defended new notions about female equality and held unusually progressive views about marriage and divorce. On these issues his personal interests were deeply involved, for after years of respectable marriage, Hubbard began an affair with another woman and lived a double life for years. In one two-year span he had one daughter by his wife and another by his mistress. Finally he divorced the wife and married the “other woman.”
The success and popularity of a man so paradoxical, and perhaps so fraudulent, demands an explanation. The answer lies in his remarkable skills as a salesman and promoter. To understand these it is necessary to drop back to his early business career, which began in 1872 when the sixteen-year-old Hubbard was hired as a salesman for J. Weiler & Company, a Chicago soap firm headed by his cousin. Young Elbert was so sharp at doorto-door selling in and around Bloomington, Illinois, that before long his territory was widened to include Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, where housewives found him on their thresholds, smiling eagerly, a box of soap in his hand. Around 1880, when his cousin’s partner, John Larkin, went to Buffalo to organize a new soap company, Hubbard followed. First a mere drummer and then general manager, Hubbard at last became an equal partner in the new company.
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.
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.”
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.”
The single factor that contributed most to turning Hubbard the Roycrofter into Hubbard the troubadour of American business was “A Message to Garcia.” This originally appeared as an inconspicuous 1,500 word filler in the Philistine of March, 1899, dashed off after a dinnertable argument over who was the real hero of the Spanish-American War. According to Hubbard it was an American army officer, Captain Andrew Rowan. Ordered to deliver a message (whose contents were never stated) to the Cuban rebel leader, General Calixto Garcia Iniquez, Rowan left without a word and straightaway carried out the mission. Hubbard’s point was that Rowan followed orders without stopping to ask foolish questions. His moral was that it was high time to quit weeping for the sweatshop workers and shed a tear instead “for the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowsy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work.” The businessman who sacked half his work force was not being heartless but was only trying to find the men he really needed—“those who can carry a message to Garcia.” Hubbard concluded his essay with a resounding appeal for such workers to make themselves known to those who hunted for them: My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted. He is wanted in every city, town and village—in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed and needed badly—the man who can “Carry a Message to Garcia.”
(Hubbard erred in some of his facts. He had President McKinley himself giving Rowan this message, which was incorrect. Moreover, Stephen Crane, who had met Rowan while in Cuba as a war correspondent, wrote Hubbard that the hero “didn’t do anything worthy at all. He received the praise of the general of the army and got to be made a lieutenant col. for a feat which about forty newspaper correspondents had already performed at the usual price of fifty dollars a week and expenses. Besides he is personally a chump and in Porto Rico … he wore a yachting cap as part of his uniform which was damnable.”)
Nevertheless, the essay was an astonishing success. A few days after it first appeared, George Daniels, the general passenger agent of the New York Central Railroad, ordered 100,000 reprints. Hubbard, not yet realizing what he had wrought, was flabbergasted. His facilities were not up to such an order, but he gave the railroad executive permission to reprint them on his own. Before Daniels stopped the presses, he had run off over 2,000,000 copies. From this moment forward the essay had a history that was, as one writer put it, “monstrously inter esting.” Churches and schools ordered reprints by the thousands; businesses, armies, and governments, by the millions (the profits made it possible for Hubbard to expand his plant and handle these orders himself). For years, scores of U.S. and foreign business concerns bought copies for their employees. A sample list includes the Milwaukee Gas Light Company, People’s Drug Stores, Reading Iron Company, John Deere Plow Company, Westinghouse of England, the Bon Marché in Paris, and nine American insurance companies. Wanamaker’s department store in New York ordered 200,000 copies, and Macy’sjesse Straus, who always carried a copy on his person, made certain that there was a steady supply on his desk for all new employees. Over two hundred newspapers and magazines reprinted “Message.” Two movies were made, somewhat loosely based on Rowan’s exploit. A copy was given to every member of the United States Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts of America. It was translated into nearly twenty foreign languages. Every Russian railroad employee had his own copy, and the czar’s officers carried “Message” into battle against the Japanese in 1904. The Japanese outdid the Russians by giving copies to enlisted men as well. By 1913, Hubbard estimated, he had earned $250,000 from “Message” and 40,000,000 copies had been reprinted; twenty-five years later his son placed the reprint figure at 80,000,000 copies, and The Roycrofters were still printing about 150,000 copies annually.
It was “Message” that made Hubbard truly famous. It is possible that some readers came to believe that he, not Rowan, searched out Garcia in the Cuban jungle. The circulation of the Little Journeys and the Philistine doubled, Hubbard was invited to lecture at more and better places, Tufts College gave him an honorary degree, visitors began to pour into East Aurora, and the nation’s businessmen rejoiced in their discovery of an apologist who knew how to reach the very same kind of people who were being led astray by the muckrakers.
The Roycrofters carried on for a generation after their founder foundered. Critics, especially those who held dear the memory of William Morris, did not overly regret Hubbard’s passing and were often harsh in dealing with his career, describing him, for example, as “an American barker” as “different from Morris and his background as the Larkin Soap factory at Buffalo was different from Merton Abbey and the quiet reaches of the Thames at Lechdale.” Many even harsher things were said of the cultural sage who was essentially a packager—of goods, of ideas, of his own personality.
Yet Hubbard was more than a charlatan, sneered at by serious artists and intellectuals. He spoke for thousands of businessmen whose values were widely shared in turn-of-the-century America. The half-educated young clerk in Syracuse and the aspiring printer in Louisville took him seriously. Along with the feeble jokes and tasteless text and typography, he had given them laughs, a little brush (however light) with the Good Things of Life, and many Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great (however inaccurately documented). He affronted some people by everything he did, but he elevated others from the dime novel to the Philistine , which was a jump. He initially appealed to the half-baked, but a generous contemporary believed that Hubbard’s followers didn’t stay half-baked: “They come out of it. He makes lovers of books out of people who never knew books before.” Even if this was true in only a few cases, then Hubbard played some part in the making of American culture. To make t he “realm of thought” as attractive as the “domain of dollars” was to deliver a message as important as the famous one carried to Garcia.