Elbert Hubbard: Biography, Books & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, you will learn about the life and work of Elbert Hubbard. Inspired by William Morris' Arts and Crafts Movement, Hubbard founded an artist collective in Buffalo, New York, in the late 19th century, and became a prolific writer and progressive force in American society.

Elbert Hubbard, An Enigmatic Progressive

In 1900 the St. Louis Mirror donned Elbert Hubbard as ''one of the prophets of the better day for everybody.'' The Mirror journalist went on to add: ''There is no fake about him. He believes in his work. He believes in humanity. He believes in himself. There's a flash of the fire of poetic madness in him…He talks with a queer combination of 'horse-sense' and 'the moving of the spirit.' His personality is hypnotic.''

Keep reading to discover more about this enigmatic man.

Elbert Hubbard

Early Life

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) began his career as a salesman. He was born in Bloomington, Illinois and raised in the Bloomington suburb of Hudson. At the age of 16, he got a job working for his cousin, Justus Weller, at the Weller Soap Company in Chicago. The Hubbard and Weller families were close, as were the Larkins. John Larkin and Justus Weller ran the soap company together, and at first, Elbert fit right in.

Three years later a family dispute would break out, ending (awkwardly) in the divorce of Weller and his business partner's sister. John Larkin then pulled up his roots and moved to Buffalo, New York, where he would launch the Larkin Soap Company. Hubbard became a junior partner with one-third stock in the company. Hubbard led a quaint life in Buffalo. In 1883 he married his first wife, Bertha, and they eventually had four children together.

Hubbard's life made a 90-degree turn in the 1890s. He discovered a passion for writing and the arts. He published his first book, a dime novel entitled The Man: A Story of Today (1891). Finally confident of the promise of a career as an author, he quit his job at the soap company, enrolled at Harvard (for one semester), and in 1894, spent the summer in England. This trip would change his life irrevocably.

As Artist and Author

On his trip to England, Hubbard took a tour of William Morris' Kelmscott Press. British author and artist, William Morris is recognized as the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a late 19th-century and early 20th-century trend that embraced the motto 'Back to Basics.' At a time when industry, progress, and technology were on the tips of everyone's tongues, Morris and Hubbard adopted a philosophy of art that embraced the handmade. If Etsy were around back then, these men would have been its strongest supporters.

In the late 19th century, the magazine and book trades were exploding. With new capabilities of churning out material faster and sending it farther, trade publishers were discovering a global readership audience. For Morris and Hubbard, mass industry, mass quantity, and outsourcing would destroy the arts.

In 1895 Hubbard founded the Roycroft community in East Aurora, outside of Buffalo in Upstate New York. Roycroft was the name of both the publishing house (also called a 'shop') and the press itself. From the 1890s to the 1910s, the Roycroft movement expanded quickly. Hubbard attracted the attention of like-minded, progressive artists and activists. Hubbard's Roycroft movement became both a commercial and communal venture.

Roycroft Press

Returning to a personal note, Elbert Hubbard remarried in 1904 to a school teacher named Alice, and they had one daughter. They were returning to the U.S. from Europe on the Lusitania in 1915 when the ship sank. They went down with the ship.

The Roycroft Press continued to produce books, art, and goods until its demise in 1938, due to the Great Depression's financial crisis.

Hubbard's Philosophy

There's a reason why the late 19th century was dubbed the 'Progressive Era'. It was an age of great change in America. But a subculture of writers, politicians, and artists pushed back. They clung to the promise of Utopia...a better, more beautiful, more peaceful future. It's just that Industrialists and politically-minded artists envisioned that future world very differently.

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