Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard

I first heard of Elbert Hubbard around 2007. For the 5 years or so before that I had been engaged, along with a number of our parishioners, in a fundraising effort for our church, the Church of Scientology of Washington State in Seattle, to procure and renovate a building which would become our permanent home base. It was a project every Scientology church around the world was carrying out and we all were putting a great deal of effort into getting our projects done; but some of us were having more success than others. To help us international church management made available a new edition of a little booklet written by a guy named Elbert Hubbard called “A Message to Garcia”. Management had become aware of the little booklet because it was mentioned in a lecture by the founder of Scientology, American philosopher and writer L. Ron Hubbard. As it turns out, Elbert Hubbard was the famous Scientology founder’s great uncle, though not by blood. LRH’s father Harry Ross Hubbard was adopted into Elbert’s brother’s family as a very young boy, and was raised by them as a Hubbard.

 No doubt Harry Ross heard much about his uncle Elbert as he was growing up. In the late 19th and early 20th century America it seems most people had, for Elbert Hubbard was unquestionably one of the most colorful and dynamic figures on the American scene during his era–something I have only very recently come to understand. Not too long ago a friend of mine gave me as a gift a copy of a book entitled Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora. The book was written by a guy named Felix Shay in 1926 and the copy given to me by my friend is a first edition with a foreword written by none other than Henry Ford, who seems to have personally known and admired Elbert. Shay was a close associate of Elbert’s and worked with him for many years. On reading the book one realizes that Elbert Hubbard was one of those rare “larger than life” individuals, and once met he was not easily forgotten. To understand him better a little history is in order.

 Elbert Hubbard was born in 1856 and raised in the town of Hudson, Illinois. In 1872 at 16 years old he was a door to door soap salesman for the Larkin Soap Company. He was a natural at sales and within 10 years he rose to being the number two man at Larkin. A genius at promotion, by the time he was 30 Elbert had transformed Larkin Soap away from door to door sales into one of the largest catalog retailing companies in the nation, rivaling Sears and Roebuck. He is considered to have been one of the greatest creative forces in American business in the latter part of the 19th century as regards promotion and marketing. He married at the age of 24 and by 30 he was wealthy with a growing family, an excellent job and excellent prospects.

Despite his success Elbert was not happy. He felt something was missing in his life. He had been reading the works of Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau and ultimately determined that his future lay in being a writer. He quit Larkin, cashing in his stock options for $75,000 (over $1 million in today’s currency) and eventually enrolled in Harvard to pursue his writing dream. He also started an affair with a woman named Alice Moore, and the relationship ultimately led to not only a daughter but Elbert divorcing his first wife and marrying Alice. Elbert considered Alice his soul mate and would spend the rest of his life with her.

Seeing that university was not for him, Elbert dropped out of Harvard but in no way abandoned his dreams as a writer. In 1894 he traveled to England to do research for a series of short stories he planned to write called “Little Journeys”. While there he became enamored with the works of William Morris who was one of the driving forces behind what was being called the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Arts and Crafts had sprung up as a protest to what its adherents considered the dehumanization of industrialization and mass production techniques and advocated a return to the handmade skills and quality of the artisan in fields such as woodworking, furniture making, leather and ornamental metal work. It even eventually extended into the field of architecture influencing some of the top architects of the time including Frank Lloyd Wright. Morris also had started his own printing and book making company called Kelmscott Press which specialized in creating and publishing limited edition, high quality books reflecting the Arts and Crafts ideal.

An early copy of "The Philistine"

An early copy of “The Philistine”

Elbert was massively inspired by Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Never one to sit on his inspiration, upon his return to the United States Elbert took the step that would ultimately define his life. In the town of East Aurora, New York, where he had already been living for some years, he became a partner in a small printing company called the Roycroft Press and launched a new magazine he called “The Philistine”. The magazine gave Elbert a vehicle to refine his writing style as well as take satirical and witty pot shots at religion, industrialists, the medical establishment, elitist society or any other target that interested him. Initially intending only one edition, Elbert’s magazine became an overnight sensation and so went into regular publication. With its success came Elbert’s growth and success as a writer.

But Elbert had much more in mind for Roycroft than “The Philistine”. Before long he became sole owner of Roycroft Press and within a few years had turned it into what was not only the first but also the most successful Arts and Crafts oriented organization in the country. Starting with the Roycroft Press, which he developed into a printer and maker of fine, aesthetic, handmade books on the model of Morris’s Kelmscott Press, he ultimately turned Roycroft into an artisan based production facility for all the trades involving woodworking, furniture making and iron working. At its peak over 500 artisans lived and worked there and as a result the Roycroft campus grew and grew. Elbert used his marketing genius to promote the products produced, finding eager publics tired of mass produced uniformity and willing to pay more for the high quality artisanship from the Roycrofters, as they were coming to be called.

Plague marking the site of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, NY

Plague marking the site of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, NY

How Elbert accomplished this astounding feat has everything to do with “A Message to Garcia” for it was with the publication of this little article that Elbert roared onto the national stage and attracted national attention to what he was doing at Roycroft. The idea for the article sprang from a conversation Elbert had with his son Bert. One evening in February of 1899 they were discussing who the real hero was of the recently concluded Spanish American War. Popular thought maintained that Teddy Roosevelt was due to his charge up San Juan Hill.  Bert pointed out, however, that that the real hero was a soldier named Rowan who had been given the assignment by President McKinley of carrying a message to the rebel leader Garcia in the interior of Cuba. Rowan carried and delivered the message without hesitation or questions braving swamps, jungles and the enemy in the process. After a moment’s thought Elbert realized his son was right, dashed off to his study and within an hour or so wrote “A Message to Garcia”.

 In writing the story of the soldier Rowan carrying this message Elbert emphasized that the real heroism he displayed was the fact that he could receive instructions from the President to deliver the message and without asking any more about it simply took it and delivered it. He did not ask where Garcia was, how he was to get to Cuba or what he should wear; he just performed the duty assigned with no further questions. Using Rowan’s example Elbert pointed out that “…civilization is one, long, anxious search for such men” and that businesses were in the constant process of weeding through employee after employee just to find them. “A Message to Garcia” was at once an appeal to the common man to strive for these Rowan-like characteristics and  a validation of the businessmen and executives who were working the long hours to get things done while searching to find such people, who were, unfortunately, very scarce.

An early edition of "A Message to Garcia"

An early edition of “A Message to Garcia”

Elbert originally intended to use “A Message to Garcia” as a filler piece in an edition of “The Philistine” and that is how it was first published. Once the piece got out, however, its sympathetic take on the plight of the executive in trying to find people who can actually do things resonated mightily with business owners and administrators everywhere. A top executive at New York Central Railroad named George Daniels ordered 100,000 copies of the little booklet for his employees and businesses and military from all over the world jumped on the “Message to Garcia” bandwagon. The booklet was translated into 37 languages, sold over 40 million copies (more than any other publications at the time except the Bible and dictionaries) and was made into two movies. In his book “Elbert Hubbard of East Aurora” Felix Shay describes the impact of “A Message to Garcia”:

 “For more than twenty-five years the “Message to Garcia” has been printed and distributed in millions of copies each year. The demand does not decrease. Time only mellows the tone of the tale. The lesson and the moral is still there… The “Message to Garcia” officially opened the Twentieth Century: for Elbert Hubbard, for the Roycrofters and for American business.”

Movie poster of "A Message to Garcia"

Movie poster of “A Message to Garcia”

With the publication of “A Message to Garcia” Elbert Hubbard became a national phenomena and celebrity. As a result of the booklet he was much in demand as a speaker and lecturer and used that avenue to promote and market Roycroft and the products produced there in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Arts and Crafts artisan colonies following the Roycroft example were started by others in the early years of the 20th century but none attained the success of Roycroft, the chief difference being that Elbert and his marketing genius stood behind the Roycroft colony. As the first years of the new century rolled by artisans from all over the country made the trek to Roycroft to visit and many stayed becoming permanent residents living, working and producing their art there.

Elbert and Alice Hubbard continued to run Roycroft until the advent of World War I at which time time Elbert decided to make a voyage back to Europe. He wanted to inspect the scene for himself as well as report on the war. He also had in mind securing an audience with the Kaiser see if he could have any effect at bringing peace to the warring nations. Ignoring the German public warnings not to board her, Elbert and Alice booked passage to England on the Lusitania and so were on board when that ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7th, 1915.

A survivor of the sinking, a man named Ernest Cowper, in a letter to Elbert’s son Bert, reported that both Elbert and Alice emerged from their room onto the deck immediately after the torpedo hit.  Cowper saw them both standing arm and arm and said that neither of them seemed upset in the least, though the ship was sinking fast and many of the lifeboats could not be accessed due to the ship’s list. As Cowper hurried past them he looked back at Elbert and asked him what he and Alice were going to do. Elbert just shook his head. Alice smiled and said, “There does not seem to be anything to do.” Cowper concluded by saying that after Alice’s comment Elbert turned away and that he and Alice went into a room and closed the door behind them, choosing to die together rather than risk being parted in the water.

Thus ended the life of Elbert Hubbard, marketing genius, founder of Roycroft and author of “A Message to Garcia”. The little town of East Aurora, New York, on hearing of his death held a parade through town to honor him with over 2,000 citizens in attendance. A little later Roycroft Press published a book entitled “In Memoriam: Elbert and Alice Hubbard”  that included contributions from such luminaries as J. Ogden Armour of meatpacking fame, ketchup entrepreneur Henry J. Heinz, National Park Service founder Franklin Knight Lane, and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. On the campus at Roycroft there is a large boulder. On the boulder there is a bronze tablet with this inscription as a tribute to Elbert and Alice:

“THEY LIVED AND DIED FEARLESSLY

From all I have been able to gather about the author of “A Message to Garcia”,  truer words have not been spoken.

Copyright © 2013
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved

 

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13 Responses to Elbert Hubbard’s “A Message to Garcia”—The Story Behind the Story—by Mark Arnold

  1. Mark Arnold says:

    (Note: This comment from Dennis Munsterman was e-mailed to me…am posting it for him per his request.)Interesting blog. I have listened to that tape by LRH and was interested in finding a copy of “Message to Garcia” but never have.

    I did just walk over to my bookself and located a book printed by his Roycroft Press in 1927 called “The notebook of Elbert Hubbard” it’s a collection of his notes.

    It’s time to pull that book off the shelf and read a bit.

    Here’s a little sample I just gleaned from it, first thing I read:

    “The Great big black things that have loomed against the horizon of my life,
    threatening to devour me, simply
    loomed and nothing more.

    The things that have really made me miss my train have always been sweet,

    soft, pretty, pleasant things of which I was not in the least afraid.”

    OK do you want to borrow the book? But I will need it back.

    Dennis

  2. It’s out to be read now. Dennis

  3. It looks like it worked. I needed to sign up with blogspot I guess

  4. Riveting, entertaining, powerfully true and it so very much resonates with me. It brings vibrantly to my mind the message of the “supreme test”. Great article!

    • Mark Arnold says:

      For the last 5 days Steve, I have been immersed in the life of Elbert Hubbard. He was an absolutely amazing guy…I can see why LRH thought highly of him and we have much to learn from him.

  5. I.B. Nelson says:

    Used to own a near complete set of Hubbard’s “The Philistine” magazine, and still have two of his “Little Journeys” series. May still have a Roycrofters produced volume of Elbert Hubbard’s favorite quotes. Interesting man

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks I.B. Nelson! Yes, Elbert was a fascinating guy…what did you do with your Philistine mags? I have a biography of Elbert written by an associate of his and published by Roycroft press in the mid 1920s. It has some of his quotes in it. Would love to find others. MA

      • Ibnelson says:

        Philistine collection was lost in a storage locker I couldn’t pay for. Somewhere I have a Roycrofters publication of a collection of Hubbard’s favorite quotes. Do miss my philistines

  6. Gary Jodan says:

    A little over 20 years ago I purchased two original works by Elbert from a friend, Tony Powell, who worked in an antique book store. When I read “A Message to Garcia and heard a tape of the same from L. Ron Hubbard, I was awestruck at the simple yet profound idea that was its subject I had to have these books.

    The first was “The Note Book of Elbert Hubbard” published in 1927 by his son Elbert Hubbard II through Roycrafters. The other is “Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book” published by Roycrafters in 1923. I have spent many hours browsing both but their age and binding cover will not stand much. I would not completely open them in fear they would fall apart but I read them at no more than 90 degree open. They contain tremendous knowledge and age-defying ethical and practical living advice and musings, all I might add applicable today.

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks, Gary, for sharing your story of acquiring the knowledge and wisdom of Elbert Hubbard. Those 2 books you have are special. Keep them well. MA

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