When you imagine the face of early 20th century business (as we all do all the time), you probably picture the usual titans of industry—J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford. These are the men who ushered forth the age of automation, mass commercialism, and casual dehumanization. But in upstate New York, there was another man of business raging against the machine: Elbert Hubbard, a pioneer of the American Arts and Crafts Movement and the subject of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art’s upcoming film night selection, Elbert Hubbard: An American Original.
Born in 1856, Hubbard quickly arose to prominence as a dynamite soap salesman. By the age of 30, he had transformed the Buffalo-based Larkin Soap Company into a national competitor based on a new model of catalog subscription and direct “factory to family” sales. He was ahead of the curve, wealthier than ever, but he was severely unhappy and unfulfilled with his conventional Victorian lifestyle. Soon, he met his match, a schoolteacher and suffragist named Alice Moore, whom he eventually came to consider his intellectual soulmate.
For years, the two carried on an affair while Hubbard distanced himself from the soap business. During a visit to London, he encountered the work of William Morris. Hubbard was immediately taken with Morris’ back-to-basics, artisanal aesthetic. It encapsulated all the ideals of Hubbard’s heros—Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman—and pushed him to found an Arts and Crafts Movement in the United States. In 1895, Hubbard established Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts community based out of the small village of East Aurora, N.Y.
There, Hubbard and a group of dedicated craftsmen made books, furniture, and all manner of domestic products by hand. Roycroft took off, becoming a national success due to the products’ high quality and Hubbard’s skillful brand marketing. But marketing? Branding? Weren’t these the very traits Hubbard intended to eschew? The PBS documentary, Elbert Hubbard: An American Original explores the many contradictions of the man who started one of the most influential artistic movements of the early 20th century.
You can see Elbert Hubbard: An American Original at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art on April 20 at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $5 for museum members and $7 for the general audience. Complimentary refreshments will be served. For more information, visit sloma.org or call 543-8562.