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Roycrofters Commune Source of Desirable Collectibles

by Sandra Lee Stuart (07/07/08).

Ever since three nine- and ten-year-old chums and I (unbeknown to our parents, of course) ventured to walk the four or five miles through terra-incognita streets to Boston‘s Museum of Fine Arts, guided only by a Gulf Oil Co. street map, I was smitten by the antiquities, travel and collectibles “bug,” seeking the unusual.

Among the most interesting antiques and collectibles that I have found are those of the J.D. Larkin Furniture Co. and Elbert Hubbard’s Roycrofters commune. The 1900s Larkin bookcase-desks and the creative 1900-1927 Roycrofter publications have become desirable collectibles.

The creative symbiosis that was born out of the joining of the families of John D. Larkin and Elbert Hubbard in Buffalo and East Aurora, New York, resulted in developing Larkin’s Sweet Home Soap Co. into a remarkably successful business.

Larkin married Hubbard’s sister, Anna Frances Hubbard. Larkin knew the soap business, but Hubbard was a pioneer in innovative marketing techniques using premiums, coupons, trading cards and even recruiting housewives as sales agents. The late-19th century was also the era of the booming mail-order catalog giants, Montgomery Ward; Sears, Roebuck; and others. Thanks in part to Hubbard’s efforts, Larkin’s catalogs enjoyed wide, successful distribution.

Influential Artisans Commune Established

It was during a trip to England in 1982 that Elbert Hubbard met William Morris,
furniture designer of the now antique and very collectible Morris Chair. Hubbard was impressed with the designer’s creative and artistic concepts. So much so that in 1895, Hubbard established a commune of artisans, leather workers, printers, metal smiths, bookbinders and artists. Hubbard named the commune the Roycrofters after a 16th-century religious order.

The Roycroft Press, with its unique art forms and innovative designs, filled a niche that was apparently waiting for Elbert Hubbard to serve its needs. His philosophical treatises, “Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook,” “Elbert Hubbard’s Notebook,” “Little Journeys”; his inspiring pamphlet, “A Message To Garcia,” had printings totaling 40 million copies.

Most popular were his monthly magazines: The Fra, and The Philistine. The
photographs are from my own collectibles of these 100-year-old antiques. The
Roycrofter’s businesses hit their peak in 1910 with more than 500 artisans working in the Roycrofter commune.

Elbert Hubbard’s nationwide lectures enjoyed huge attendance. The commune
became a “point of interest” for so many visitors to East Aurora that the Roycrofters had to build a hotel and a museum to accommodate the flow of weekend groups that came to meet Hubbard, purchase his books and the Roycrofter’s furnishings, arts and crafts.

Working with his brother-in-law, the Larkin Furniture Factory was inaugurated. Utilizing the mass-production concepts that had been advancing after the Civil War, Larkin’s home-furnishings factory, aided by Hubbard’s creative marketing abilities, resulted in Buffalo becoming one of the most important centers for mass-produced American furniture at the turn of the 20th century.

Among these were the Larkin, desk-bookcases, which were produced in several different combinations. The one pictured is of solid, quarter-sawn, white oak. The designs on the desk lid are hand cut. I was fortunate to find this excellent example in original condition, with the original locking key, on a trip to Colorado.

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