At the Roycroft

Elbert Hubbard to H.R. Norvell undated

Elbert Hubbard to H.R. Norvell undated

About 1904, my grandfather , Hamilton Redfield Norvell and his family moved to South Wales, New York. He had taken a new position as one of the chief printers at the Roycroft in East Aurora.   Hamilton came from a family of newspaper men and printers:  his father Colonel Freeman Norvell had briefly owned the Detroit Free Press and his grandfather John Norvell was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Elbert Hubbard founded his Roycroft Campus in 1895,  after a trip to England.   He hoped to  produce all handmade household items  by a community of artists who worked with their “heads, hearts and hands.”  He felt that mass-production lacked the  human touch. He modeled his vision, loosely upon the medieval guild-like organizations that had been established in England  and Hubbard began to actively seek out skilled craftsmen.

At first he sought printers and book designers for the print shop, which is where Norvell now worked, but, as one success or need led to another, he branched out to include painters, sculptors, furniture makers, metal smiths, photographers, potters, leather-workers, and writers. England’s artists incorporated dramatic, intricate, gothic -style designs into wallpaper, textiles and furniture, while American artists focused on the inherent beauty of the materials; they used the grain of the wood or the sheen of polished copper. This love of natural material is obvious in every Roycroft piece, from book covers to the Campus buildings.  In this Hubbard became an important intrepreter of  the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Side view of the Roycroft Printshop

Side view of the Roycroft Printshop

The Campus grew from the Roycroft Print Shop.   By 1902, the Roycroft community was teeming with productive activity.   By 1910, it contained more than eighteen buildings and 500 artisans and workers.   Hubbard began as early as 1897 to host conventions and other public events at the Roycroft. The campus was often host to such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, John D. Larkin,  and others who set the tone for architecture and furniture in America.

Roycroft print shop

Hamilton R Norvell on far left in photo

It is not clear how long Norvell was there, but he left by 1914 when he worked for the state of New York.

At the same time, his daughter Mary Irene Norvell worked for Elbert Hubbard as his secretary.

In 1960 she wrote in her memoirs:

“I was 16 years old and decided I would have to go to work. I had no training, but I was smart and quick. I applied for work at the Roycroft, a printing and crafting establishment in East Aurora. For $3.00 a week I addressed envelopes; meanwhile I practiced typewriting and shorthand. One day the boss, Elbert Hubbard came into the office. I was the only one there and was practicing typewriting. He was a striking, formidable man and scared me. He stopped by my desk and said, “Can you take dictation?” I answered truthfully that I couldn’t. Then he said, “Can you type?” He proceeded to pace back and forth talking and I typed it out on the typewriter. It was easy because he took long pauses and just paced so I could catch up. An hour later he finished and He told me, “From now on I want you to take all my dictation.” This great honor overwhelmed me, but my wages remained the same. I was flattered, but I needed the money for my family. “

Elbert Hubbard and his wife would later die on the Lusitania sinking in 1915.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, American Newpapers, Arts and Crafts movement, Detroit, Elbert Hubbard, Family History, Genealogy, Lusitania, New York, New York State History, Niagara Falls, Norvell Family History, Philadelphia, Roycroft and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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