With an abrupt shift away from his lucrative stint in the soap business, Elbert Hubbard followed his passion for writing and began a literary career in 1893. After enrolling at Harvard, Hubbard soon realized his disdain for the inaccessibility of University system and sought to raise the general level of cultural knowledge across the United States. Hubbard’s experiences at Harvard were enhanced by an 1894 trip to Europe, where he found inspiration in the philosophies of the English Arts and Crafts Movement – specifically William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.
Armed with a fresh outlook on the importance of handicraft and encouraged by the self-publishing initiative of his English muse, the wealthy Hubbard resolved to command his own printing press in East Aurora. He named the press Roycroft after seventeenth century printers. Until his death in 1915, Hubbard used his press to publish hundreds of pamphlets and volumes with a focus on art, culture, and products made by the Roycroft community.
While Hubbard is well known today for his production of the Fra and the Philistine, his first publications under the press were entitled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. Hubbard began working on the first of his Little Journeys series during his time at Harvard, but his 1894 trip to Europe provided much fodder for subsequent titles. Issued in volumes tied to an overall theme, Little Journeys explores the childhood and home life of influential people throughout history – ranging from “Famous Women” and “Eminent Orators,” to “Great Businessmen” and “Great Lovers.” Each volume included twelve examples.
Published in 1901, the eighth volume of the series focused on “Great Musicians.” Like many other examples from the Roycroft print shop, the first edition of this series possess a butcher paper cover and is sewn together. Out of the twelve composers selected for Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Musicians, the majority of them are Romantic-era composers – perhaps speaking to Hubbard’s reception of musical masters of the recent past and a preference for more “contemporary” music. Utilizing a conversational prose, Hubbard writes of each composer in a rather casual manner – prompting the reader to feel as if Hubbard himself was intimately acquainted with the likes of Richard Wagner and J.S. Bach.
Music played an important role within the lives of Roycrofters. An emphasis on the arts and return to craft fostered a positive environment for music-making and visiting musicians. As explained in a 1915 Roycroft craft catalogue, “Sweat Shop methods can never succeed in producing beautiful things. And so the management of the Roycroft Shops surrounds the workers with beauty, allows many liberties, encourages cheerfulness, and tries to promote kind thoughts, simply because it has been found that these things are transmuted into good, and come out again at the finger-tips of the workers in beautiful results. So we have…pianos a-plenty…Every week we have concerts, dances, lectures. We have a brass band, an orchestra, a choral society, a guitar and mandolin club, and a “Little German Band” that supplies the agrarians much glee.” Given this ideology of music and productivity, it isn’t difficult to contemplate the connection Hubbard felt with these great composers.