Born in 1856 in Illinois, Elbert Green Hubbard's first work experience was on the family farm and later assisting in his father's medical practice. From a young age, Hubbard was a boisterous, hard-working (but self-absorbed) lad with a fervent do-it-yourself attitude who believed strongly in American know-how.
By age 19, with an entrepreneurial spirit driving him, Hubbard went to work for the Larkin Soap Company. His outgoing personality made him a talented salesman. Eventually he became an extremely valuable employee, graduating from sales to advertising work. Pioneering a variety of successful mass-marketing techniques, this phase of Hubbard's life was extremely lucrative during the 17 years he was at Larkin.
However, despite his accomplishments as a salesman, Hubbard's real passion was writing, and he sought a literary career. After marrying his wife, Bertha, and producing three children, he made the decision to go to Harvard. At the age of 38, he sold his accrued interest in Larkin Soap to pursue his passion.
Hubbard's collegiate aspirations were quickly demolished by the University system and its intellectualism. This had a notable effect on his later ideas about American know-how and hard work. He left of Harvard, but nevertheless continued his education, devouring the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Ruskin, Turner, Gladston, Carlyle, Eliot, and Dickens. Though he didn't graduate from Harvard, while there he was inspired to start on his literary effort, "Little Journeys." In 1894, he set sail on his first trip to Europe to meet and talk with leading personalities of his time, subsequently gaining additional material for "Little Journeys."
On this trip, Hubbard claims to have met and been greatly influenced by William Morris, founder of the Kelmscott Press and one of the preeminent leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement. However, this claim has been called into question as one of the many "Hubbard fabrications." Nevertheless, this was the beginning of a different phase in Hubbard's life. Upon returning to America, Hubbard published the first of his "Little Journeys," on George Eliot and John Ruskin. He left his polished shoes and expensive wardrobe behind, adopting the Bohemian lifestyle and attitude prevalent among many of the literati of the Gay 90s.
Back in East Aurora, Hubbard established The Roycroft Press in 1895. Roycroft was something of a double entendre based as it was on two 17th C. bookbinders, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, and the old term "royal craft." The Press expanded and eventually encompassed a range of crafts to become simply "The Roycrofters," an Arts and Crafts community based near Buffalo, New York. A quotation from John Ruskin formed the Roycroft doctrine: "A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness." Hubbard based his creative society on his belief in the beauty and functionality of craftsmanship and the rejection of sterile, machine-made goods that lacked quality and style.
The Roycroft society of artists and craft workers gained notoriety very quickly. By 1905, they were operating their own factory, farms, banks, and blacksmith shops. In reaction to industrialism and the mass production of items that many craftsmen deemed of inadequate design and poor workmanship, the Roycrofters created unique books printed on handmade paper, ran a bindery, and managed their own furniture shop. Their ideas of superior design were linked to their ideas of a superior society. This was a Utopian vision of a society in which workers could take pride in their craft and skill, instead of being abused by the destructive working conditions in that were prevalent in urban factories with their atrocious labor practices and dangerous environments.
Hubbard began publishing more and more of his own socialistic writings and "truisms," including them in the two magazines he published, "The Philistine" and "The Fra". He was probably most well-known for his inspirational essay "A Message to Garcia," about a soldier who is sent on and succeeds in accomplishing a difficult mission. The essay was given to all U.S. Marines and Navy members in both the first and second World Wars, and meant to inspire Americans to "get the job done" without asking questions or giving in to uncertainties.
The new Bohemian perspective also lead to his involvement with a young Welsh schoolteacher, Alice Moore. In 1894, she gave birth to a daughter, Miriam. By 1901, Bertha Hubbard was sufficiently humiliated to give Elbert the heave ho and file for divorce. Though many of his relationships crumbled around him, Hubbard worked harder than ever. By 1904, the furor had died down and Elbert and Alice were married. Alice became an active partner in Hubbard's enterprises and was instrumental in keeping the Roycrofters on track as Hubbard's public speaking career flourished.
Hubbard was one of the most sought after public speakers in the nation from 1905 to 1915. His down-to-earth values and philosophies on life started out based loosely on a William Morris-inspired socialism and eventually developed into a fervent defense of free enterprise and American aptitude.
In May 1915, Elbert Hubbard set sail for England on the Lusitania. Both he and his wife were killed when the ship was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine Unterseeboot 20. Rather than risk being parted in the ensuing pandemonium, the Hubbards retired to a state room where it is presumed that they died together according to at least one writer who described their last moments.
"All boys and girls want to make things with their hands, and they want to make beautiful things, they want to `get along,' and I've simply given them a chance to get along here, instead of seeking their fortunes in Buffalo, New York or Chicago. They have helped me and I have helped them; and through this mutual help we have made head, gained ground upon the whole." —from the Introduction to Little Journeys
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