What is a Roycrofter? Let's start with their own definition, from The Roycroft Dictionary, published in 1914:
Roycroft: 1) Roy means 'king'; and croft means 'home or craft.' Thus, Roycroft means King-Craft; doing your work just as good as you can - making things for the King.
2) The dignity and divinity of labour - peace, reciprocity, health, industry, persistency, and endurance.
The Origins of the Roycrofters
In the second half of the 19th Century the USA saw the birth and death of many communes and new communities, as people tried to find better ways of living. In 1895, it was Elbert Hubbard's turn to start his own colony in the town of East Aurora, New York. Hubbard (born in 1856) had made a fortune by selling soap and, finding himself tired of business life, set out to become a writer. No one would print his novels or pamphlets, so he set out to do it himself. This was the genesis of what Hubbard dubbed Roycroft.
The Roycrofters were nothing if not industrious. They built furniture, copper and leather goods, published books and magazines. They built their own buildings, on what became known as the Roycroft 'campus'. They held lectures and concerts, and farmed and operated their own bank. Behind all this was Elbert Hubbard, part philosopher, part office manager, and a large part huckster1.
Hubbard would write about anything. The Roycroft magazines, The Philistine and The Fra, were full of Hubbard's articles on social issues, essays on friends and family, and whatever else came to mind. His philosophy was amorphous and wide-ranging, being generally pacifist, suspicious of religion and medicine, and touting the virtues of hard work. For a fee, Hubbard would endorse products in advertisements; over time he became very well paid for doing this. All this was wrapped up in the arts and crafts designs of the Roycroft artisans.
A Message To Garcia
In The Philistine in March 1899 there appeared a 1,500-word article on the theme of doing your job without question. This untitled article told of Captain Andrew Rowan, who trekked cross-country to deliver a message to General Calixto Garcia Iniquez during the Spanish-American war. Without realising it, Hubbard had struck pure gold. Before long companies were asking for reprints of the article, copies in pamphlet form numbering in the thousands. Hubbard was forced to use outside printing firms to handle the volume of work. The pamphlet, entitled 'A Message To Garcia' became omnipresent. Here are just a few of the firms and organisations that ordered copies:
- Macy's Department Store
- The John Deere company
- The Russian railroad
- The US Marine Corps
- The armies of Russia and Japan
And there were others. The Roycrofters basked in the attention. Hubbard went on lecture tours and raised the price for his services. The Roycrofters were a major force in popularising Arts and Crafts style in America.
The Decline of the Roycrofters
Nothing lasts forever. Tastes changed, and the Roycrofters were unable to keep up. In 1915, Elbert Hubbard and his wife Alice set out for Europe as part of a peace delegation. The Hubbards died when their ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed. Hubbard's son, Elbert II, took over, but he lacked his father's charisma. In the mid-1930s, the Roycroft colony shut down, killed by the great Depression, changing tastes, and a couple of German torpedoes.
Today many of the Roycroft buildings still exist, some in private hands, others owned by the town of East Aurora. Some organisations, sanctioned by Hubbard's heirs, continue to make the Roycrofter's works and beliefs available.
For more information see Roycrofter.com.