The Man who gave us Madison Avenue and A Message to Garcia
Elbert Hubbard was well known as an author, publisher, lecturer, and furniture manufacturer. But a famous essay and advertising slogans are his most enduring legacy.
By Hank Nuwer
Many men lust for fame but few find it during a lifetime. Even fewer have their names celebrated after death.
The life of Elbert Hubbard—writer, thinker, and grandsire of the advertising profession—is an example of one whose fame failed to transcend his existence on the planet. During his heyday, from 1899 until his death aboard the Lusitania in 1915, Hubbard was an internationally known celebrity, his name a household word in the United States, Russia, and Japan. Today, except for one essay, which is occasionally quoted by scholars, as well as several of his epigrams rarely credited to him, Hubbard is a forgotten man.
Curiously, Elbert Hubbard was anonymous until relatively late in life. Until he was 36, he was naught but a common peddler, “slinging” soap (he owned part of J.D. Larkin & Company) door to door. This son of an eccentric country doctor and moody, unstable mother was born in Bloomington, Illinois, on June 19, 1856. All his life, Hubbard was vain about his appearance and eccentric in dress, affecting the look of a Western preacher. He favored a trademark Stetson hat and Buster Brown cravats. He wore his hair long, his shoulders clogged with curls, and kept his 5’9” frame as trim as an athlete’s by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising daily. Baseball was his passion. Not even January winds and snow stopped him from organizing games of catch.
Always a Lothario with women, Hubbard’s foppish good looks and quickness at spinning flattering lines endeared him to homemakers, and he became a man of comfortable means by the time he was 30. His firm made even more money when he persuaded his co-owner to sell soap by mail. Hubbard was able to afford a Queen Anne-style house in East Aurora, New York, in 1884 that had one acre for his racing trotters. He had married pretty but otherwise unremarkable Bertha Crawford in 1881, and he soon tired of her. In 1889, Hubbard fell in love with another woman who changed his life.
The “other” woman, a western New York high school teacher named Alice Moore, appealed to Hubbard’s vanity, because she recognized his intellect. Plain of face but blessed with passion, Moore convinced the 33-year-old Hubbard that a literary career was in his destiny. Consequently, in 1890, under the absurd pen name Aspasia Hobbs, Hubbard wrote a novel that was as uninspired as its title, The Man: A Story of Today.
But while the novel failed, Hubbard’s soap interests prospered. By 1892 he was rich enough to sell his share of the soap company, enabling him to pursue a career as a free-lance advertisement writer and magazine publisher. “I have all the money I want, and there is a better use I can make of my time,” he wrote his mother.
Hubbard began “slinging” novels with the same regularity he had heretofore sold soap. All of them were as sorry as his first effort. But while he failed as a fiction writer, he succeeded as a pitchman for his publisher, Arena Publishing Company, of Boston. His mail-order expertise helped the company’s magazine, arena, prosper. His won reward was to find his name in print with such famous Arena contributors as Stephen Crane, Clarence Darrow, and Hamlin Garland.
Hubbard’s fame as a writer, although then only miniscule, nonetheless earned him an 1894 introduction to William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, and furniture maker. Morris convinced his new disciple that it was necessary for craftsmen to create furniture by hand lest the industrial revolution burden the world with mass-produced work of poor quality.
Consequently, Hubbard returned to East Aurora and parroted Morris, establishing an organization he called the Roycroft Shop, which he dedicated to the making of furniture by hand, as well as to the printing of quality books and a magazine called The Philistine. The Roycroft emblem graced the flyleaves of books and the distinctive, heavy-duty furniture turned out by the almost cult-like following of hundreds of young people who flocked to western New York to study under Hubbard. The Roycrofters even had a softball team, which proudly wore the Roycroft insignia and played against local company teams. Unfortunately, Hubbard was a man of questionable ethics who ordered the Roycroft “handmade” books bound by machine and who had female employees perfect his signature on the “signed” copies he sold the public. He also sold far more signed and numbered copies of “limited edition” books than eh advertised that he’d printed.
The Philistine, a pocketsize “Periodical of Protest,” as it proclaimed itself, gave Hubbard the vehicle for expression that his fictive voice lacked. His sales background helped the publication prosper when he came up with the idea—soon widely imitated by other magazine publishers—of letting subscribers have an issue or two before they had paid for a subscription. Hubbard’s magazine mockingly attacked the “Chosen People,” the literary establishment he blamed for blocking his own way to fame as a novelist, such as William Dean Howells (Hubbard called him “W. Dean Howl”) and Mark Twain. By 1899, Hubbard’s Philistine became popular with the general public because of its polemic style; he decided, quite radically, to please his readers by henceforth writing every article in every issue. “If it were possible to secure anyone to write so well as myself I would not do it [write all the articles],” sniffed Hubbard. He failed to mention that all reputable writers (with the exception of Stephen Crane) refused to submit their work to him.
Remarkably, since Hubbard had such a flimsy literary background, the Philistine became a tremendous financial success, eventually reaching 225,000 subscribers. The publisher’s advertising genius helped him attract advertisements from such unlikely sources as a bicycle company, a typewriter company, two railroad corporations, and the Emerson College of Oratory. He also prominently advertised the bogus “handmade” books he authored for the Roycrofters, including one version of The Song of Songs to defend free love at a time when he fathered children simultaneously with Bertha and Alice. It wasn’t until 1902 that Bertha finally divorced him, leaving her ex free to marry his beloved Alice.
Hubbard’s most admirable characteristic was his voracious appetite for work. He daily tried to promote his image as an American sage by coining witty epigrams, some of which survive to this day, although rarely are they attributed to him. “If you want to get the work done, select the busy man,” he wrote. Another of his pearls said, “Get your happiness out of your work—or you’ll never know what happiness is.”
Hubbard’s most enduring fame, however, came as a result of unprecedented response to a Philistine essay published in March 1899 and known as “A Message to Garcia,” which he had scribbled in but an hour’s time. The essay was a defense of capitalists who had too long endured the services of lazy, incompetent hirelings—as Hubbard believed he had. It was inspired by an occasion, he said, “when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radioactive.”
The point of “A Message to Garcia” was that a hero is a man who accepts an order without questioning why. Hubbard noted that during the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Andre Rowan overcame all obstacles to deliver a message—its contents unknown to him—from President William McKinley to General Calixto Garcia, leader of the Cuban insurrectionists.
Hubbard became famous overnight when the New York Central Railroad, as well as the governments of Russia and Japan, reprinted his essay for distribution. The author estimated that “A Message to Garcia” was reprinted 40 million times in his lifetime.
In addition to fame from this essay and his other writing, Hubbard became the best-known free-lance writer of ad copy in his day. As would Will Rogers and Irvin Cobb decades later, Hubbard singed his advertisements, making them easy to attribute to him. Among his many clients he numbered such national advertisers as Armour, Burroughs Adding Machines, Gillette Safety Razor, and Heinz’ Fifty-Seven Varieties. By today’s standards, his ad copy seems trite. A play on “Pax Vobiscum,” Latin for “peace be with you,” become “Box Vobiscum” for Wrigley’s Chewing Gum. “Buy it by the box,” urged Hubbard.
To increase his income, of course, Hubbard persuaded all these national companies to hawk their wares in The Philistine, too. Always playing the role of artist, Hubbard claimed that the secret of writing ad copy was “to let a smile go into the ink bottle.” He believed, like Shakespeare, that brevity was the soul of wit. “Say it and stop,” he advised.
Curiously, the author had lambasted advertisements as “out daily rot” in a Philistine essay before he found that he could make his fortune penning witty lines. But now he became their best-known defender. “The man who is afraid of advertising is either a nincompoop, or has something to hide,” he wrote in The Philistine. Hubbard went so far as to pose his muscular son, Sanford, bare-chested, on boxes of Grape Nuts breakfast cereal.
Like Mark Twain, Hubbard increases his fame by taking to the lecture circuit. His old soft-sop manner, which he now used to promote everything from feminism and women’s rights to sexual happiness, made him popular with women everywhere. Great crowds hung on his words. Not surprisingly, intellectuals and journalists despised him. The Indianapolis News damned him as “the idol of silly, sentimental women,” and the New York Sun said he was “eminently crude and outrageously vulgar.”
At the height of his notoriety, Hubbard announced that he intended to set up an appointment with the German Kaiser to try to prevent a world war. He and Alice—by this time herself widely known for her feminist writings published by the Roycrofters—booked passage on the Lusitania, a British liner, despite German warnings to U.S. citizens to stay out of European waters. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania, and 128 U.S. citizens perished, including the Hubbards. Elbert’s death made front-page headlines and, ironically, caused many isolationists to become infected with war fever. “There was no more forceful writer in America than Hubbard,” read one newspaper editorial. The world of promotion and promoters has lost a jaunty and an engaging figure,” read another.
Without Hubbard, the Roycroft enterprises stumbled for many years. The Philistine folded in July 1915. By 1938, the Roycrofters had managed to dissipate the couple’s $433,000 estate, and declared bankruptcy. But if one of Hubbard’s epigrams can be believed, he would not have fretted too much has he known how briefly his candle of fame would flicker. “Do not take fame too seriously,” he advised followers. “You will never get out of life alive, anyway.”
Editor’s note: My family comes from East Aurora and Alden, New York. Each visit back, I make a point of dining at the Roycroft Inn.