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NSG Visit June 15, 2002

A Fascinating Visit to the World of

Elbert G. Hubbard

East Aurora, New York


Donovan A. Shilling

Saturday, June 15, 2002, was one of those off and on again showery days. However, the scattered raindrops didn't deter fifteen members of the New Society of the Genesee from traveling to East Aurora, New York, to discover more about the fascinating world of Elbert Hubbard-salesman, publisher, lecturer, and initiator of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America.

Our experience began at 363 Oakwood Avenue in East Aurora, where we were welcomed by Gen Steffen, her husband Gene and Don Meade and Bill Schultz who had all come to show and tell us about the Elbert Hubbard Roycroft Museum.

Mrs. Steffen, who is co-curator, explained that Roycroft craftsmen had in 1910 constructed, for Gladys and George ScheideMantel, the forest-green, shingle and clapboard bungalow that now houses the museum. George was head of the Roycroft leather shop.

Mr. ScheideMantel formed stylized faces of people with dyed leather. Two pairs of his small wall plaques are in the upstairs room where he worked. His tools and work table are still in place.

In 1985, Gladys ScheideMantel, when she was 100 years old, gave the house and her cat, Pietra, to the Aurora Historical Society. Today, in addition to the original furniture in the dining room, including a built-in handcrafted chestnut china cabinet with glazed doors and wrought copper hardware, and a ceiling lighting fixture with Steuben glass globes, and the ScheideMantel's furniture in the bedrooms upstairs, the house contains many examples of works by Roycroft artisans.

In the living room is an adjustable-back, paddle-arm chair in the Morris style, several oil paintings by Alexis Fournier and many pieces of Roycrofters work in copper, wood, ceramic, stone, glass and leather.

The lighting fixtures in the house were designed and made by Dard Hunter, a leaded-glass artisan and also the designer of distinctive Roycroft dinnerware which has borders of his color, "Hunter green," and orange. Many hand-produced objects, es-pecially wooden furnishings that bear the Roycroft symbol, are quite expensive today. A small Roycroft bookcase was recently valued at $15,000 on the Antique Road Show program.

Many items bear the Roycofter's distinctive guild mark-an "R" within an orb or oval with a doubled cross atop and one within the oval. We were told that the crosses represented faith, hope and charity or head, heart and hand. Whatever the significance, Dave Minor suggested that the symbol has provided excellent brand recognition over the years.

The Arts and Craft Movement was started in England by William Morris and was instituted in East Aurora by Elbert Hubbard in 1895. He had been a sensational soap salesman working as a partner with his brother-in-law, John D. Larkin in Buffalo. At 36, he sold out his interest to become a writer. He started the Roycroft Printing Shop and published numerous literary pamphlets and books. The Philistine, "A Periodical of Protest" ran from 1894 to 1915. His classic essay, "A Message to Garcia," helped him become "an overnight literary success in 1899." The essay reached a circulation of 80 million copies and is still being printed today. Hubbard was also famous for his Little Journeys booklets which came out monthly. For the year 1906 great lovers were celebrated: Josiah and Sarah Wedgewood, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, Balzac and Madame Hanska. The 1907 set featured great reformers: Henry George, Garibaldi, Theodore Parker, Anne Hutchinson. Years were available collected into two books bound in limp green velvet leather, silk lined and stamped in gold for only $3.00 each, or both volumes for $6.00.

It was Hubbard's entrepreneurship, and dislike for mass produced, machine-made articles and the "mad onrush of modernism" that had invaded his world, that led him to establish Roycroft enterprises. He soon gathered some of the nation's most skilled coppersmiths, bookbinders, leather workers, potters, painters, printers, and furniture builders to his Roycroft colony in East Aurora.

Among the people attracted to the Roycrofters were Stephen Crane, W. W. Denslow who was the original illustrator of the Wizard of Oz books, Fritz Kreisler, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Samuel Warner.

Hubbard wrote, "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 three H's: Head, Heart and Hands."

Following our museum visit we ate lunch at the Roycroft Inn, "The Phalansterie" as Hubbard identified the inn. When we had finished eating in the large room that had been the printing shop, Bob Seifert, the food manager took us through the Ruskin Library, the Larkin porch and the lecture room where Hubbard as "Fra Albertus" had often expressed his philosophy of Right Living. It is a large impressive room completely surrounded by murals, high on the walls, painted by Alexis Fournier depicting scenes from Egypt, Venice, Paris, London, and East Aurora.

There is more to learn about the life, works and times of Elbert Green Hubbard. He and his second wife, Alice, were sailing to Europe on the S. S. Lusitania when it was sunk May 7, 1915. He was only 58, but his Roycroft legacy lives on.

© 2002, Donovan A. Shilling
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