Welcome to Part Two of The Roycroft Mystery, a true story involving beautiful old books, art, a Buffalo business man, and my great-grandmother, Emilie Schellenberg Paull. In case you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, you might want to read Part One of this post before continuing. If you read yesterday, you’ll already know that I think it’s possible that my great-grandmother was a Roycrofter, an artist for Elbert Hubbard’s arts and crafts community in East Aurora, New York at the turn of the 20th Century. She lived not far from East Aurora and was a young woman when the community was at its peak. Still, more evidence was needed to definitively conclude that she did contribute artwork to some Roycroft books.
The Roycroft Mystery, Part Two
Inside the box that my grandfather gave me before he died — the one that contained the drawing I used for my logo — were numerous other drawings, watercolor paintings, the text and illustrations for a children’s book on birds (along with the rejection letter that my great-grandmother received from the publisher), a diary, and two decrepit old photo albums. I spent a few days going through everything, hoping to get to know this woman who had, across the spread of three generations, touched my life.
I also found a typed copy of her diary in the box. It appears that one of her daughters, my great-aunt, transcribed it sometime in the mid-20th Century. It covers the span between 1897 and 1902, the years leading up to Emilie’s marriage to Robert Paull, my great-grandfather.
I read the melodrama of my great-grandparents’ romance, complete with competing suitors, foreboding future mother-in-law, sisterly competition, and adolescent angst. One funny entry talks about Rob (my future great-grandfather) coming over to visit unnanounced when Emilie was in the middle of washing her hair. She felt she looked “quite a sight”. It’s always a bit of a shock to me to discover that people living a hundred years ago experienced much of the same silliness as people who live now. I always assume (probably wrongly) that previous generations were wiser and more confident than my own generation. I forget that, like us, they didn’t always know ahead of time whether the choices they made would have good or bad consequences. Reading a diary like this one, mundane in most of its entries, is a reminder that human nature hasn’t changed much over the course of centuries.
Suddenly, I came across one entry dated December 20, 1897, which states, “Today I have painted until I am sick of the sight of a paintbrush and I most certainly would throw up the whole thing if I didn’t need the money so badly.”
Aha! Here was a mention of painting for money! I can find no other mentions of this in the portion of the diary that I have. There is no mention at all of what she was painting, for whom she painted it, and how much she was paid. Her family was not exceedingly wealthy but they were not poor either. I am not at all certain why Emilie felt she needed the money so badly. Was it possible she was one of the countless young women Elbert Hubbard employed to decorate his lovely books?
After I finished reading Emilie’s diary, I moved on to her old scrapbooks. They were filled with photos of Emilie at college, with her friends and family, and on different travels to lakes, other states, and even Havana, Cuba. From the dates written underneath the photos, the pictures appear to cover the period of her life between 1897-1902, the same era as the typed portion of the diary.
On the last page of one of the old scrapbooks, is a photo entitled, “Roycroft Den, East Aurora, NY”. It is undated. If you look closely at the photo of the scrapbook page, below, you’ll see that it appears to be a purchased photograph rather than one taken with a camera. I think this is so based on the fact that there is a small black border around the photo and then the white border. This bordered format does not match any of the other photos in the scrapbook. I wonder if she bought the photo as a souvenir on a visit to East Aurora, or if she was actually there, or if she cut it out of a book or magazine. No way to tell for sure.
Among the four Roycroft books I received from my grandfather that I described yesterday, one is signed by Elbert Hubbard II, the son of Elbert Hubbard:
There is no date on the inscription from Hubbard, but the book itself was published in 1901. It’s called Will o’ the Mill, by Robert Louis Stevenson, has a colorfully illuminated title page and silk endpapers. Did my great-grandmother know Elbert Hubbard II? Did he just sign it for her because she was a visitor, something he is reported to have done for the hordes of visitors to the Roycroft Inn? Did he inscribe it directly to her because he knew her?
Perhaps the most beautiful of the four books in my possession is Old John Burroughs, written by Elbert Hubbard (or Fra Elbertus — his nom de plume) himself. Bound in half brown suede over green and tan marbled paper, the book itself is lovely. It was also published in 1901, and many of its pages are embellished with watercolor paintings. You really must see these. I am posting them below.
Tomorrow: Emilie the artist