Boasting an enticing array of foodstuffs like pecan patties, mince-meat, preserves, pickles, honey, nut-bread and ginger cookies, it’s exactly the kind of gift you might bring while visiting family or friends during the holiday season. It seems hardly out of a place then in 2021, yet this is a “Christmas Goodie Box” from 1914.
It is a creation of the Roycrofters, a turn-of-last-century community of artisans in East Aurora, New York, just outside Buffalo. The organization was the brain-child of Elbert Hubbard, a marketing genius from Indiana who left a thriving soap manufacturing business prior to founding the Roycrofters.
The community was an expression of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which swept through the United States, from Britain, toward the end of the nineteenth century. It countered the increasing industrialization that accompanied a century of transformational American economic growth. Inspired by the medieval guild system, adherents valued hand over machine production. Although the Roycrofters eventually pursued a variety of arts, printing represented the community’s foundational craft. Hubbard himself wrote extensively too with The Roycroft Press publishing much of his work, including his exceedingly popular, A Message to Garcia.
It’s no surprise then that Hubbard pointed to William Morris as his inspiration. Morris was a leading figure in the British Arts & Crafts Movement, and his Kelmscott Press was revered for quality printing. Hubbard visited the press in 1894, two years prior to Morris’ death, and later used it to stoke the misapprehension that Morris himself encouraged his work back in the States. Scholars have since refuted the possibility of this personal encounter since Morris was ill at the time of his visit. Nevertheless, it was brilliant marketing, and a glimpse of the kind of savvy Hubbard employed to popularize his community and its products.
This is where Hubbard becomes a more complex figure, however. Although many will sing his praises, including as a benevolent employer and vocal promoter of the Arts & Craft message, Hubbard still used mechanization in Roycrofter production. One might argue that this was just an inevitable compromise to make goods attainable for those of modest incomes. (Indeed, this is something that set Hubbard and others apart from other Arts & Crafts figures, such as Morris, who used egalitarian rhetoric but whose products remained largely unaffordable for the masses.) Hubbard was also not alone among American Arts & Crafts proponents. Still, it does present a rather apparent contradiction given that it runs counter to the movement’s expressed devotion to handmade goods.
But the Arts & Crafts ideal was marketable, and Hubbard was exceptionally good at selling it. He even even adapted his own dress style from that of a typical businessman to one imbued with the Arts & Crafts aesthetic. This included a characteristic wide-brimmed hat, a floppy bow-tie and long hair. It all fit nicely into what was as much a lifestyle as a movement’s ideology.
His marketing acumen is apparent from the Hubbard letters and ephemera that pop up here and there in collections. Typed, and signed, they provide a very personal feel until one sees multiple copies of the exact same letter, and sometimes letters with two clearly different signatures (as can be seen in two letters advertising the Christmas Goodie Box). These begin to reveal that what Hubbard was selling was less reality, and more an ideal.
He was undeniably a master marketer, and in that sense a successful businessman. But those less charitable might argue that Hubbard exploited the ideas of the movement to establish a lifestyle brand that supported his business that operated in a way that was not always as advertised. Morris’ daughter herself mocked him as a “that obnoxious imitator” of her father.
Suffice to say, Hubbard is an intriguingly complicated figure, and much of the literature around him grapples with these issues. His endeavors also resonate today. After all, it’s hard not to see contemporary parallels, especially with the ongoing popularity of artisanal products and the use of taglines not unlike Hubbard’s “from Farm to Family.”
This time of year, when we typically embrace a sense of home and hearth, Hubbard’s Christmas Box and the Roycroft story adds food for thought about where the line dividing holiday tradition, and marketable nostalgia runs. Oh, and that Christmas Box? It sold for $10 in 1914, the equivalent today of nearly $280!
This post was written by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts