Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
Elbert G. Hubbard
Roycroft Arts and Crafts
As the nineteenth century progressed, modern industrialism became the paramount moving force in world economies. The Burned-Over District was thus to change accordingly as modern factories arose along the old Mohawk Trail and on the Ontario Plain. In the new more materialistic society, the concern for perfecting oneself or even of the perfection society was no longer as important as it had been before the Civil War. As was true throughout Europe and the United States, the traditional manner of manufacturing by small workshops using hand methods was to be replaced by the modern factory system which turned out goods on a mass production basis. The resulting plethora of goods made many items available to the public at large, and objects and materials which once had been available only to the well-to-do could now be found in the possession of everyman and everywoman. The downside to the new industrialism was the problems of inadequate and often dangerous working conditions, monotonous labor at machines, and payment to the laborers which was often insufficient to support a family.
In the mid-1800s as this new world of mass production in factories grew apace, there were voices raised against the direction the economic world was taking with its inadequate safeguards for the safety and health of workers, with children at work in factories, and with the loss of craftsmanship as the markets were flooded with items of inadequate design and poor workmanship. Among the voices so raised were those of John Ruskin and then of William Morris in England, individuals who longed for a return of what they saw as the glories of the craftsmanship and the social cohesiveness which the crafts and the individual workshops had engendered in Europe's Middle Ages. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the Art Nouveau movement on the Continent, and the various utopian societies which had their day were a part of this reaction against the impersonality and the loss in the quality of the work of the individual. The United States had had its utopian experiments which aimed for the cohesiveness of society based primarily on agriculture in the short-lived experimental societies prior to the Civil War, but the creation of industrial society which resulted in the North from the war, the expansion of the railroads, and the factory system were not to reflect a primary concern for quality and craftsmanship in the United States.
This was to change in part when the English Arts and Crafts movement found followers in the United States. Among those influenced by William Morris and his desire to return to handwork by craftsmen was Elbert Hubbard. Few individuals in America, with perhaps the exception of Frank Lloyd Wright, have been so self-possessed and conscious of his own importance as was Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft movement in East Aurora, New York. He may not have invented the American version of the Arts and Craft Movement, as he fondly believed, albeit he was a part of the movement at a time when New York State boasted four Arts and Crafts communities. Hubbard differed strikingly from John Ruskin and William Morris, the spiritual founders of the movement in Britain. Morris in particular was concerned not only with fine craftsmanship, but with social justice which he felt could only be found under socialism. Hubbard's devotion to fine craftsmanship had its high and low points, for what he really was interested in was making money from his enterprises; capitalism was the form he preferred, and in time he became the apologist for some of the more unwholesome major companies at the turn of 1900s.
In many ways, Elbert Hubbard was also the forerunner of the later Madison Avenue advertising firms of a half a century later since he was an innovator who devised systems to lure customers into purchasing particular objects, be it soap in his early career or the products of his Roycroft enterprises between 1895 and his untimely death in 1915. If Thomas Watson posted his slogan of "THINK" throughout his business enterprises to inspire his employees, Hubbard preceded him with his mottos in which he proclaimed "Discipline," "Self-Control," "Every knock is a boost," "Conformists die, but heretics live for ever," and other such folksy, uplifting, pithy statements which he used in his later advertising slogans. These were all meant to bolster the spines of his fellow Americans who did not value their own intrinsic worth. Although he was a man who was not an artist or a designer, he did encourage various forms of craftsmanship in his Roycroft establishment but with more panache than the quality such as was brought to the Arts and Crafts Movement by men such as Gustav Stickley who produced Mission Style arts and crafts of a more consummate nature in the same period.
Hubbard was born in 1856 in Bloomington, Illinois, into a family of modest means, the only boy in a family with three girls. Educated in a rural school, he was an avid reader who never aspired to a college education. His future was assured when he was fifteen by the fact that his sister Hannah was being courted by and then married young John Larkin of the Chicago soap-making firm of Larkin and Weller. Thus at age nineteen in 1875 Hubbard hit the road as a successful door-to-door salesman, traveling by horse and wagon in rural Illinois selling his brother-in-law's soap. With his usual lack of modesty, he claimed that his success as a salesman resulted from (in his own words), "My smile was contagious, also infectious, as well as fetching. When I arrived in a town, everybody smiled…I scattered smiles…all over the route…and I sold the goods."
In 1875 John Larkin set up his own soap-making firm in Buffalo, New York, and in 1880 he invited Elbert to join him as a junior partner in the new company and to be in charge of sales and advertising. If ever there was a born promoter, this was Elbert Hubbard. The choice turned out to be an excellent one, for Hubbard was a genius at sales and sales promotion. There was no need for salesmen for the firm, since the company, under Hubbard's guidance, went into direct-mail order to reach the public at large. Hubbard invented various gimmicks to keep the customers coming back through the use of premiums and through coupons in order to earn gifts which were listed in the Company's catalogue. Hubbard even installed a form of credit purchasing which was meant to hook customers even further. As his importance to the company grew, he became financially established and married Bertha Crawford of Hudson, Illinois, and in time they had three sons and one daughter. In 1884 Hubbard built a home in East Aurora, some eighteen miles south of Buffalo, a small town in which to raise a family and where there were the horses which fascinated him. Hubbard did have one hobby which was to last all of his life, and that was to become a writer. He tried his hand at writing novels, three of them in fact, none of which found favor with publishers.
At the age thirty-six in 1892, he sold his share in the Larkin Company to his brother-in-law, demanding cash rather than stock in the company, a situation which was financially difficult for John Larkin and which led to a strained relationship. With the $75,000 settlement, he determined to become a man of letters. If nothing else, Hubbard always had the utmost confidence in his own abilities, but fine writing was not to be his forte. Thus he decided to enroll in Harvard College, since he had no education beyond high school up to this time, for Harvard would help to perfect his writing skills. A quarrelsome, opinionated, and headstrong individual, he found Harvard lacking, and he quit after three months. Hubbard's dislikes grew apace: publishers he strongly disliked since they did not find his novels sales worthy, colleges and educators became his bete noir after his brief Harvard experience, and for religions he had little concern and a growing contempt despite his youthful attendance at a fundamentalist Baptist church in Bloomington: "Formal religion," he was later to write, "was organized for slaves, it offered them consolation which earth did not provide." He was confident of his own writing abilities, albeit they were of the primarily of the commercial copywriter's variety; pride in his own abilities later led him to dismiss leading authors of the time, saying of Mark Twain, for example, that Twain's writing "Was nor is funny."
There was more than one reason for attending Harvard. In East Aurora a young English teacher, Alice Moore, had rented rooms in the Hubbard home, and he had fallen in love with her. When she moved to the Boston area, he followed her with his decision to enroll at Harvard. Although he found Harvard lacking, he did, however, achieve one accomplishment in 1894 by fathering a daughter by Alice Moore and then two years later another daughter by his wife. It would be 1903 before Hubbard's wife would divorce him and Alice could marry him the following year, Alice's daughter by then was ten years old. The same year that he fathered Alice's daughter, he made a two-month trip to England, and this was to bring him to a major decision as to his future when he was exposed to the British Arts and Crafts movement. He visited William Morris's Kelmscott Press in the Hammersmith section of London, and he became fascinated with the books being produced by that press as well as some of the ideals which Morris espoused. It is claimed that he met with William Morris, but this is probably apocryphal; one must be wary of such reports since Hubbard often stretched the truth somewhat for he was always his best public-relations man.
Back in East Aurora in 1895, having retired a wealthy man in his mid-thirties, he indulged his desire to become a literary man by creating the Roycroft Press, named after two noted seventeenth century London printers, Thomas and Samuel Roycroft. Hubbard also thought that "Roycroft" was the French for "King's Craft." Alas, "croft" meant "farm" in early English, but Hubbard did not know this; nonetheless Roycroft became the name not only of the press but of the entire enterprise which would grow slowly, a growth which came with time rather than from a plan. If other publishers, whom he despised, would not print his writings, he would print his own works. In time (1899) he would build the Chapel, the old English word for a group of printers or a meeting place, "a house of printers," and it served as the meeting hall for his employees. He had the Chapel decorated with art, and it served as a place for the display of the books which the press issued and later the various crafts which Roycroft produced. Here in the Chapel, Hubbard, from an elevated platform, seated on a leather upholstered "throne," offered moralistic lectures to his staff and visiting guests. Other lectures and concerts were offered in the Chapel as well.
The Roycroft Press began in a back room of a local print shop, assisted by Harry Tabor who brought the printing expertise which Hubbard needed. Before long he would have his own print shop in a small building adjacent to his home on South Grove Street, reminiscent of the chapel at Grasmere in the English Lake District where William Wordsworth is buried. Both this building and the later 1899 chapel were to reflect English medieval architecture, an indication of the influence of William Morris, an influence from which he soon deviated. His initial desire was to create books such as William Morris was publishing, but his more ephemeral literature of a periodical nature became the main material coming from his Washington hand-press. He and Harry Tabor printed the first edition of The Philistine at the local print shop, and the magazine was intended to reflect Hubbard's thoughts on morals, politics, and religion—while making money. He put this philosophy rather succinctly, if not brazenly, when he wrote, "Now what is the good of me (the greatest writer in the world) going on turning out my spiritual guts on paper if I can't make a little money out of it?"
The Philistine was to be "a periodical of protest," and it reflected his wit and his irreverence as he castigated politicians, publishers, universities, the medical world, and religion. It was one of a number of "little magazines" which were pouring from individual presses in this era, and from an initial reputed 2,500 copies of a six-inch by four-inch publication of thirty-two pages, it was to expand to 100,000 monthly copies as a result of one 1,500-word essay, "A Message to Garcia," Hubbard wrote and published in the March 1899 issue. It was of a moralistic nature concerning an American military officer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in which the officer exhibited a blind obedience to carrying out orders despite all the obstacles confronting him. It struck the proper note with a public which was enjoying the jingoistic expansion of American military might and who saw it as a proper response to "carrying out responsibility." As a result the "Message to Garcia" is said to have sold nine million copies by 1914 (or eighty million copies if other figures are to be believed). By 1911, as a result, The Philistine is said to have had 200,000 subscribers. Another early work emanating from his press was his first book The Song of Solomon, dedicated to "dried up Puritans who have never read this," another aspect of his iconoclastic attitude toward religion.
Roycroft materials were being published with the goal of reviving handcraft workmanship as exemplified by the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, but it was quickly subsumed by the commercial spirit of much of Hubbard's work. He continually turned to the use of newer machines to bring down the costs of production, thus vitiating the goals of hand work which was at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement. Hubbard claimed that "the Roycrofters are a community of workers who make beautiful Books and Things…making them as good as they can… Our work is the product of the three H's: Head, Heart, and Hand." His goal was commendable, its realization did not always succeed.
Hubbard was not an artist or a designer, but he had the good sense, despite his massive egotism, to recruit men who had abilities which he did not enjoy and to give them free reign to do their own excellent work. William Denslow was a master book illustrator while Samuel Warner was a first-class book designer, but one of his treasures was the nineteen year old college student Dard Hunter who came to work for him one summer and was enticed into remaining on the staff. Hunter became not only an excellent printing design master, but an expert at fine paper making, a designer of stained-glass, and an excellent metal craftsman. He spent five years with Roycroft before moving on to study the arts of fine book-making in Europe and then to open his own fine-paper-making facility in New York State and to become an authority on hand-made papers.
In time a "cult of Roycroft" would develop, and there are volumes which give nothing but praise to Hubbard, to the work of the Roycroft Press and the Roycroft industries. Not everyone agrees with those who look with great favor on Hubbard and his works, for one bibliophile describes the work of the Roycroft Press as the work "of a huckster who mass-produced shoddy imitations, bound in poor quality suede, of the elegant Kelmscott books" of William Morris. One cannot, however. gainsay their popularity in their time. In truth, inexpensive, limp suede of poor quality was glued over thin cardboard for the covers of many of Roycroft books, and this suede tended to disintegrate with time.
The "Message to Garcia" not only made a success of the Roycroft Press with its orb and cross logo copied from the sign of the 1493 press of the Venetian printer Octavanius Scotus, but it made Hubbard a noted figure throughout the United States. Before long he was a columnist for the Hearst newspapers and was lecturing from platforms all across the nation, all for healthy fees. He used these payments to offset the losses of various Roycroft ventures. In general, the quality of much of Roycroft production varied since Hubbard had no unifying philosophy or artistic vision such as William Morris enjoyed. Much of the furniture, pottery, and metal work (despite the artistry of Karl Kipp and Walter Jennings, master metal smiths) was not of the highest design quality, such as Stickley furniture enjoyed or for which the Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati was noted.
Hubbard branched out into other publications, one of the most popular was his monthly Little Journeys (to the homes of famous individuals in the United States and Europe). Some of these homes he did visit, some were written without benefit of an on-site review, which one critic has referred to as "phantom trips." Twenty-pages long, for twenty years these booklets brought the world of the noted in the literary, artistic, and performing circles to the homes of middle-class America. Unhappily, Hubbard did not always let facts get in the way, one time crediting a childless couple with a family of loving children, much to the dismay of the husband and wife. Then in 1908 The Fra appeared, a 14-inch by 9-inch journal designed in fine style by Dard Hunter, a publication which Hubbard announced "was not for mummies." Printed on slick paper and with articles by other than Hubbard, it was a more serious publication than The Philistine since it dealt with topics of the day. It had an additional purpose in that its size permitted the use of stock advertisements by national companies, thereby making the publication quite profitable.
In fact, Hubbard printed multiple copies of his various publications at a special rate to banks, railroads, factories or any industry which wished to have its ads on the front or back cover of his journals. His publications soon became apologists for major American industries at a time when American industry was at its most exploitive nature. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, all of Hubbard's publications served to proclaim the excellence of his printed works through ads for these items. The Fra was published until 1917, two years after Hubbard's death. Its name came from Hubbard seeing himself as the head of a medieval enterprise, glorying in the name of Fra Albertus as he pontificated in his public speaking at his Roycroft lectures. Hubbard's appearance was part of his iconoclastic make-up: he had long flowing hair at a time when men cut their hair short, he wore a large, big, broad-brimmed, semi-western Stetson hat, and his clothes were of a relaxed nature with his sturdy shoes, flannel shirts, a large flowing cravat or bow at his neck such as Oscar Wilde had made popular. Neither his dress nor his manner nor his insolent ways endeared him to the people of East Aurora, no matter how striking a figure he appeared on the lecture stage.
In 1895 Hubbard had begun the conversion of the original print shop and his own house into the Roycroft Inn, not completed, due to additions, until 1909. The Inn was furnished with Roycroft furniture, and it eventually boasted some fifty rooms, each named after a distinguished person: the Emerson Room, the Ruskin Room, the Socrates Room, and so forth. The Inn had a peristyle passageway linking the Inn's public rooms with its guest house, a style perhaps copied from the 1903 work which Frank Lloyd Wright was designing for the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo for its new administration building. Wright was also designing the 1904 home for Hubbard's successor at the Larkin Company, the Darwin Martin House, which is becoming an historic building on the National Register today. One wonders about Wright's manner of dress with his broad brimmed hat and other unconventional modes—was he influenced by Hubbard's appearance on the public scene?
The Roycroft complex, like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, just grew continuously, an unplanned enterprise which expanded along with Hubbard's ideas. Ever the entrepreneur, he advertised for stones for his building construction, paying one dollar a wagon load to farmers who eagerly brought the unwanted stones from their stony farm lands. He then put his craftsmen from the growing number of his craft workshop to labor in building the field-stone and shingled workshops and allied buildings for what was to become a fourteen-unit campus of buildings. He bought up and moved local houses to create the site for an Arts and Crafts complex, a mixture of gothic and Tudor structures with heavy oak interiors. A stone blacksmith shop was built in 1899 and then expanded a few years later to house the copper shop as well. A new print shop was created in 1900 of field stone, followed by a three-story frame building to house the furniture, leather and book-binding crafts. There was a power plant for centralized steam services to the many buildings, and even a bank for his employees. By the turn of the 1900s there were some five hundred employees in the Roycroft enterprises.
Hubbard's contempt for universities and public education were offset by his creation of the Roycroft Farm School, inspired by the philosophy of John Dewey where one "learned by doing." Thus he offered free room and board for boys, men, and women who could work for the public good for at least two hours a day in his workshops and receive an education in return. The "public good" was in fact a way of obtaining additional help for the Roycroft crafts, and before too long the New York State labor laws against child labor brought an end to this experiment. It is ironic that whereas the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain had been a reaction to the use of child labor in modern industry, here at Roycroft children were being used, albeit they were obtaining some training.
The Roycroft Convention brought noted speakers to the campus and the Inn from 1902 on, and the Roycroft complex could boast of visits by Ellen Terry, Bret Harte, Henry Ford, Clarence Darrow, Clara Barton, Thomas Edison, and Carl Sandburg among other distinguished persons. Hubbard lectured on occasional evenings at the Inn, oft times insulting his guests in his own inimitable and outspoken way. As Fra Albertus in the Inn lecture room, he expanded his views on "Right Living" in a room whose walls were decorated by Alexis Fournier with scenes of Egypt, Venice, London, and East Aurora, all the sources of world culture.
Then in 1903, Bertha Hubbard sued for a divorce, and all the details of Hubbard's philandering ways became public. One newspaper had a heyday with the divorce proceedings, proclaiming that Hubbard "had traveled much and tried all kinds of morals and now gets along without any." Unabashed, Hubbard reported such details in The Philistine to the delight of his readers, and his attitude is perhaps best expressed in one of his pithy mottoes "Sin is only mis-directed energy," a concept obviously foreign to his detractors.
The following year he and Alice Moore were married, thereby making their daughter legitimate in her tenth year. Alice was an intellectual and a perfect match for Hubbard's shortcoming. An organized individual, a good business woman, she went to work for the Roycroft enterprises and gradually took control of the various departments, bringing order where it was very greatly needed in management and to finances. The expansion of Roycroft crafts into metal work, pottery, furniture, leather goods, baskets, and glass had, again, grown like Topsy, and attacking the individuality and lack of organization was a service which Alice Hubbard could and did provide—often to the dismay of long time employees who were used to a more casual approach to their work.
By 1909, the Inn was another money-maker along with the printing firm as well as his lectures on the national Orpheus Circuit. In 1910 Paul Bartlet was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Michelangel for the Roycroft campus—a not too subtle indication of the creative elect with whom Hubbard associated himself. By 1910, however, sales for the various crafts, other than printing, were declining, in part because of the lack of vision as to what should be produced and in part from the varying quality of Roycroft goods. To make ends meet, Hubbard was selling his essays and articles to leaders of American industry as he became more and more an apologist for the unbridled free enterprise of the time. This was a far cry from the social reform ideals which William Morris had proclaimed as part of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, a movement which ostensibly had encouraged Hubbard on his visit to the Kelmscott Press in 1894 — but then Hubbard never had the commitment to the public good such as motivated Morris. The period between 1910 an 1914 were good ones for the Inn and for the public events when it was said that 25,000 people a year were attending Roycroft functions, but the outbreak of World War One was to see a change.
Hubbard announced, in 1915, that he intended to speed up the peace process by speaking with the Kaiser. Alice and Elbert Hubbard sailed for Europe on the S.S. Lusitania. They were among those who perished when that vessel was sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915.
After his father's death, Hubbard's thirty-two year old son Bert took over the Roycroft enterprises and managed to keep it running, but the originality his father had brought to the organization was now lacking. The Roycroft Press continued to operate, but it all too frequently was reprinting former material and using former illustrative materials. In 1930 there was one addition to the campus when Jerome Connor was commissioned to create a sculpture of Elbert Hubbard, and today the statue of Michelangelo and of Hubbard adorn the foreground of the high school grounds across the main street of East Aurora from the original Roycroft campus. In 1938, the results of the 1929 depression and its aftermath, changing tastes, and the lack of the esprit which his father had brought to Roycroft saw the business come to an end. Although buildings of the complex were placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1974, it was questionable whether the Roycroft experience was now no more than history.
The Roycroft Inn was purchased by a series of successive private individuals in the hope of making it a viable hostelry, but by 1982 the Inn had to be closed since it did not prove to be financially successful. By 1987 the Inn was headed for the auction block when in that year the Landmark Society of Western New York assumed ownership of the building on an interim basis with grants of $200,000 from New York State, $100,000 from the National Trust, and $500,000 from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. Finally, in 1994 the Wendt Foundation assumed ownership and responsibility for operating the Inn, dedicating millions of dollars to the proper restoration of the building. The original fifty rooms of the Roycroft Inn now have become twenty-two suites, all furnished with the Arts and Crafts style of furniture of its earlier time, some three hundred original pieces of furniture and accessories now gracing the rooms of the Inn.
In 1985, one-hundred-year-old Gladys ScheideMantel (who lived to be 106) gave her 1910 Roycroft-built home in which she and her husband, the former head of the Roycroft Leather Shop, had lived, to the Aurora Historical Society and the Elbert Hubbard Museum. It is the epitome of the Roycroft period for it has original Roycroft dining room furniture, the metal lighting fixtures designed by Dard Hunter with the early Steuben Glass lamp shades, and Hunter's Roycroft dinnerware with its borders of "Hunter Green" and orange design. In addition, the house retains other Roycroft crafts in copper, wood, ceramics, and leather, as well her husband's leather-working tools from the one-time Roycroft Leather Shop. The house is a veritable Roycroft museum in its own right.
As for the other buildings of the campus, the Chapel at one time became a Baptist church, but today it is the Town Hall of East Aurora with an antique print shop in its lower level. In front of the building is a memorial stone to Alice and Elbert Hubbard placed there in 1915 after their death on the S.S. Lusitania. The 1900 Roycroft Print Shop today houses the Cornell Cooperative Extension Center, the Copper Shop is now a gift shop, while the 1912 Roycroft Power Plant is presently the Roycroft Medical and Professional Center. The former Furniture Shop, Leather Shop, and Book Bindery hold antique shops, an arts and crafts gallery, and a pottery studio and show room.
The Roycrofters-At-Large Association was created in 1976 to perpetuate the ideals of Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters of the past. It sponsors festivals, craft displays, and other activities meant to fulfill the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the nineteenth century. Thus the spirit and efforts of Elbert Hubbard still live, albeit not as functioning craft entities today.
Hubbard did have high ideals for his Roycroft enterprises. He hoped to form an association of individuals who could create excellent examples of craftsmanship, individuals who could work together under a common philosophy. He did have a charisma which attracted people to him, and his ideals, albeit paternalistic, did offer a relaxed atmosphere where picnics, lectures, concerts, and exhibitions enhanced the life of his Roycrofters. Here were marching bands, loan services for the staff, periods of exercise for their health, and morning and afternoon "times out" during the work day to break the routine of work. He did attract people of ability to his enterprises, and his lectures across the nation helped to bring in the funds which supported those crafts which were not self-supporting.
© 2005, all rights reserved, John H. Martin
A Visit to Roycroft. The Crooked Lake Review, #124. Hammondsport, New York. Summer 2002.
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Brown, Patricia Lee. "Arts and Crafts, The Road Show." New York Times. January 27, 1996.
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"Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum." Pamphlet. n.p. East Aurora, New York. n.d.
Hamilton, Charles. "The Roycroft Inn: A Brief History." Pamphlet of the Roycroft Inn. Aurora, New York. n.d.
"Headed to the Auction Block." Preservation News. 1995.
Levine, Carol. "Restoring the Roycroft Tradition of Arts and Crafts. New York Times. August 4, 1984.
"Roycroft and its Genius, Elbert Hubbard." Heritage. Volume Six #6. New York State Historical Association. Cooperstown, New York. July/August 1990.
Via, Marie and Marjorie Searle. Head, Heart, and Hands: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters. University of Rochester Press. Rochester, New York. 1994. The definitive works on Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft organization can be found in this 168-page catalogue.
"Welcome to the Roycroft Campus, a National Historic Landmark." A Roycroft Inn Pamphlet. East Aurora, New York. n.d.