The Roycroft Community
by Hilary Davis (reprinted with the author's permission)
From its inception in 1894 to its demise in 1938, the Roycroft community produced some of the finest hand-crafted(1) furniture, books, lamps and metal work of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The community reflected the Movement's ideals of art and craftsmanship as instruments of social reform in its organization as well as in its products. The high quality and unique artistry of the Roycroft creations made them very popular. But it was the business acumen and charismatic personality of its founder, Elbert Hubbard, that made Roycroft one of the most successful artistic enterprises of the Arts and Crafts era.
As salesman and part-owner of the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, New York, Hubbard had become a wealthy man. More interested in writing than selling soap, Hubbard sold his share of the company and retired to East Aurora, a village a few miles southeast of Buffalo. He was intrigued by the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement and went to England to visit William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. Hubbard returned to East Aurora in 1894 where he set up a print shop and published a magazine called "The Philistine" which contained his interpretations of the craftsman ideals. The magazine, along with other philosophical pamphlets and publications, became popular and helped to bring Hubbard and the Roycroft community to national attention while supporting their activities at the same time.
Roycroft, which means "king's house," was an artistic community which grew out of the initial success of the print shop. The shop led to the establishment of a bindery where fine chamois and leather-bound books were made. Soon a leather shop, a metal working shop, and finally a furniture shop were added. Handicrafts from the shops sold very well due to Hubbard's mass marketing techniques. He advertised Roycroft products in various magazines (including his own), writing his own copy which emphasized affordability, beauty, uniqueness and a high degree of artistic craftsmanship. He was at heart a businessman and salesman and he succeeded in selling not only the Roycroft products but the Roycroft concept and even himself as an American Ruskin or Morris to an ever-growing segment of the American public. People flocked to East Aurora to meet the man, to buy Roycroft handicrafts and to live and work at the Roycroft community. Hubbard built the Roycroft Inn in 1903 to house the large number of visitors and filled it with furniture and wares from his shops. The Roycrofters, as the craftsmen were called, published catalogs featuring leatherwork, copper wares, leaded glass lamps and their version of the popular Morris chair. Both the inn and the catalogs fostered an increased demand for these handicrafts which resulted in an increase in the number of workshops and people employed at Roycroft.
As Roycroft grew, Hubbard set up a community that was to be self-sufficient, based on pre-industrial agrarian ideals where artisans and their families lived and worked in healthy, idyllic conditions. Housing was provided in the form of Bungalows in the craftsman style. In the small shops, the emphasis was on hand-crafted items. The artisans worked in their own areas of expertise but were encouraged to apprentice themselves to other craftsmen to develop new skills. Pay was low but this was offset by the living and working conditions and the opportunity for creative artistic expression. Local villagers were hired to train with the artisans and to work in the shops as well as in the gardens and fields. Housing and jobs were also provided for a few people and their families who came to the community disenchanted by life and work in the industrial society of the day. Hubbard, like the lord of a feudal estate, personally saw to the welfare of visitors, the community and the surrounding village, organizing intellectually and morally enriching activities such as musical concerts, festivals, and his own lecture series. Such benevolent touches as gifts at Christmas and playgrounds for children further cemented the Roycrofters' bonds of loyalty to their leader. Hubbard became a cult figure on both local and national levels.
Even though Hubbard, the master, the writer and the entrepreneur, actually provided the main focus and support for the Roycroft community, it was the artisans and their designs that embodied the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement and appealed to the buying public. Roycroft became a guild of some of the finest craftsmen of the time due to Hubbard's recruiting efforts and the Roycroft community concept. Dard Hunter, an expert in papermaking , started in 1903 designing metal and leaded glass objects and furniture as well as leather book covers(2). Karl Kipp, a one-time investment banker, began work in 1908 in the bindery, developed a talent for metal work and established the Roycroft copper shop.(3) Other well known craftsmen included Frederick Kranz, who made fine leather goods, and Will Denslow and Samuel Warner, artists whose beautiful illustrations filled the Roycroft books.(4) Roycroft furniture, as advertised in the 1905 catalog as "Aurora Colonial Furniture," was described as "'simple, solid, substantial, severe, and rarely beautiful.'"(5) Most of it was made of oak, assembled with wooden pegs, pins and mortise-and-tenon joints and finished with a "secret finish" and wax. (6) All Roycroft products were stamped either with the Roycroft name or insignia which was a cross and orb once used by a medieval bookbinder. Hubbard adopted the design in 1895 and added his own touch to it by dividing the orb into three sections representing Faith, Hope and Love and adding an R.(7)
The success of the Roycroft community began to decline when Elbert Hubbard and his wife died on the Lusitania in 1915. Their son, Bert, managed to continue the business and even succeeded in getting some of the major department stores like Sears to carry the Roycroft furniture line. But the Great Depression and the general loss of interest by the public sealed the fate of the Roycrofters and the business was sold at auction in 1938. It continued at a much reduced capacity under several owners until it finally went bankrupt in 1987. (8)
Today, the spirit of the Roycroft community lives on due to a renewed interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1994, the Margeret L. Wendt Foundation bought and restored the Roycroft Inn with most of its original furnishings. (9) The Roycroft meeting house, built in 1899, is currently the East Aurora Town Hall. A few of the original buildings remain on the campus and some are open to the public. For instance, the ScheideMantel house, once owned by a Roycrofter, was donated to the Aurora Historical Society and today houses the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum. Various festivals, Roycroft handicraft auctions and exhibitions, educational programs and Arts and Crafts societies help to keep the memories and interest alive.
1. There is some dispute as to whether all Roycroft products were entirely hand made. The presence of machinery in some of the shops, the number of unskilled laborers employed and the high volume of output suggests some degree of mass production. See Wendy Kaplan, "The Art that is Life": The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920 (Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), page 316.
2.Robert Judson Clark, ed., The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1919 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 45.
3. Ibid., 47.
4. Ibid., 112-113.
5. Ibid., 45.
6. Kaplan, 316.
8. Avis Berman, "AD Travels: Inside the Roycrofter's World: the Arts and Crafts Era Survives in Western New York," Architectural Digest 52 (March 1995): 76.
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