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Who Was Elbert Hubbard?
“Character is the result of two things: mental attitude and the way we spend our time.” --Elbert Hubbard
To say that Elbert Hubbard was a marketing genius is an understatement; he is considered by many to be the grandfather of modern marketing. But who was Elbert Hubbard? What drove him to become a one-man catalyst for change?
Hubbard was the son of a country doctor in Hudson, Illinois. His father was self-absorbed and not supportive of Hubbard’s dreams. In his book, The Philosophy of Elbert Hubbard, Hubbard writes a piece about the many great men throughout history whose parents belittled them, “The father of Shelley misquoted Job, and said, ‘Oh, to be brought down to the grave in grief through the follies of an ungrateful child!’” Hubbard also discusses the lack of familial support of the talents of Voltaire, Shakespeare, and George Washington. Reading this lamentation, one can’t help but imagine that Hubbard was indirectly chastising his own father.
At sixteen, Hubbard went to work for his brother-in-law’s soap company, Larkin & Weller, as a traveling salesman. The appeal of his smile and charisma were undeniable and soon he had worked his way up the ranks. At 19 in 1875, Hubbard moved to Buffalo to work within the Larkin Soap home office.
Hubbard worked tirelessly at Larkin and created many successful advertising ideas. He was a marketing pioneer with flawless instinct and created the long-lasting success of Larkin with promotional methods like offering free gifts with soap purchases and using slogans in advertising. At 25, he married Bertha Crawford and they bought the land in East Aurora that would eventually become a kingdom for Hubbard and a different queen.
“Polygamy: An endeavour to get more out of life than there is in it.” --Elbert Hubbard
Hubbard and his wife had three children together before Hubbard left Larkin soap to become a novelist. He took a large cash buyout from his brother-in-law and proceeded to publish three novels under a pen name. During this time, Bertha was a trustee over the local school. As the trustee, Bertha often had the responsibility of housing teachers in the home she and Hubbard shared. The young Alice Moore was one of these teachers. Moore, who considered herself a feminist, lived with Hubbard and Bertha for several months and developed a complicated relationship with Hubbard. In the beginning, Hubbard and Moore shared only an interest in reading but that love of reading quickly progressed into a love affair and in 1893, when Moore moved to Massachusetts, Hubbard decided to follow. In a possible attempt to spare his wife’s feelings and to save face, he used the ruse of becoming a Harvard student to explain his intentions of moving to another state.
“The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.” --Elbert Hubbard
While Hubbard may have attended Harvard mostly to be near Moore, he still seemed to expect to be a successful student. But things did not go as he had planned. Hubbard, already set in his ways and of strong opinion, did not like the conformist attitude and expectation of the university and after three months he left. He did manage to produce something while attending Harvard and Moore gave birth to that production in 1894. His wife Bertha had another of his children a year later.
In 1895, after facing little luck with publishers, Hubbard decided to begin his own print shop, the Roycroft Press. In 1895 he printed a magazine, The Philistine and it gained some positive notoriety. Whether Hubbard knew it or not the creation of the Roycroft Press laid the foundation for his greatest and most prolific success.
By 1903, the press was going strong and Hubbard, having written the enormously popular, A Message to Garcia, had a mini-kingdom within the confines of his Roycroft campus and there were hundreds of dedicated sycophants working and living on the campus. Bertha was finally through playing second fiddle to his husband’s mistress and divorced Hubbard. Bertha took custody of their children, but Hubbard seems to have been unfazed. He married Alice Moore in 1904.
“Know what you want to do, hold the thought firmly, and do every day what should be done, and every sunset will see you that much nearer to your goal..” --Elbert Hubbard
In 1915, during a trip to Germany, Hubbard and Alice were aboard the Lutsiana when it was sunk by a German U-Boat. According to journalist and fellow passenger, Ernest Cowper, Hubbard and Alice took the realization of their imminent demise calmly. They refused life jackets and opted not to board the lifeboats. Instead, they retreated into a cabin on the ship and closed the door to the world forever.
While the Roycroft Campus was unable to thrive without the insight and inspiration of its creator, Hubbard’s vision, philosophy and unshakable optimism live on today. Through his books and magazines, furniture, and metal work, Hubbard continues to play a part in the shape of society. Many lessons remain to be learned from Hubbard about success, failure and tenacity.