I mentioned the other day that the drawing I used for my logo was found in a box of drawings done by my late great-grandmother, Emilie Schellenberg Paull. I also mentioned that, to my knowledge, she didn’t sell her art. As it turns out, I’m not entirely sure about that. What follows is a mystery that involves beautiful old books, art, a businessman from Buffalo who liked to publish his advice for all to read, the illustrator W.W. Denslow, and, possibly, my great-grandmother. Pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), sit back, and see if you can help me solve it.
The Roycroft Mystery, Part One
A couple of days before my grandfather died in 2003, he gave me four old books. Although I wasn’t an antiquarian bookseller at the time, he knew I was the primary book lover in the family and wanted me to have the books. The books had belonged to his mother-in-law, my great-grandmother. They were small volumes, bound in either limp suede or marbled paper and leather. Each volume had something of beauty in it. An illuminated title page, an illuminated colophon, or hand-painted page illustrations appear in each of the books. On the colophon of one of the books is written: “Illumined by Emilie Schellenberg” (my great-grandmother’s maiden name).
My grandfather didn’t know whether my great-grandmother had decorated the books in this way herself as an employee of the books’ publisher, The Roycroft Press, or whether she bought the books on a visit to the East Aurora, New York (the location of The Roycroft Press) and took them home to decorate for herself. According to my family, she was an artistic and independent young woman, who graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1899. Married in 1902, she and her husband, an interior designer, lived near Buffalo, New York. They later moved to a more rural area near Buffalo, Orchard Park.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll already have guessed that the books sent me down another rabbit trail of research. I wanted to know who the “Roycroft” on the illuminated colophon was. Here’s what I’ve been able to learn about The Roycroft Press and its founder, Elbert Hubbard: Hubbard was a former soap salesman from Buffalo, New York who decided he wanted to be the American William Morris; his aspiration was to produce beautifully made books like those from Morris’s Kelmscott Press. It’s a rare soap salesman who believes he can go from pitching suds to producing works of art. Still, Hubbard was nothing if not confident in himself. He published his many books, like Message to Garcia and the Little Journeys series, from his own private press, The Roycroft Press, which was founded in East Aurora, New York in 1892 or 1893.
Hubbard’s books, often beautifully bound, hand-illuminated, and hand-decorated, were such a hit that people began to visit him at The Roycroft Press in East Aurora, New York. So many people came that Hubbard, ever the shrewd business man, built an inn to house them. He had Roycroft artists build the furniture for the inn. Visitors liked the hand-made furniture so much that they wanted to purchase it for their own homes, so Hubbard began to have Roycroft craftsmen make and sell Roycroft furniture. Between the books and the furniture and managing visitors, Hubbard was a one-man arts and crafts industry. To support his industry, he hired more artists, leatherworkers, metalsmiths, sculptors and the like. One of his most famous illustrators was W.W. Denslow, who achieved fame as the illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. Showing his business instincts once again, Hubbard often employed young single women to decorate his books, paying them a little bit per drawing or per painting.
According to one source the Roycroft community had as many as 500 workers by 1910. Hubbard also published monthly magazines, The Fra and The Philistine, and toured the world giving lectures. Unfortunately, Hubbard and his second wife, Alice, died aboard the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915. Hubbard’s son, Elbert Hubbard II, took over the Roycrofters, which eventually went out of business in 1938.
If you’re interested, you can see some images of Roycroft books here.
The more I learned about Hubbard’s unconventional business and my great-grandmother’s background, education, and location (Buffalo is not far from East Aurora), I began to wonder if I could find out whether or not my great-grandmother had ever officially been a Roycrofter.
To Be Continued Tomorrow . . .