First Roycroft Copper: Crude, But Desirable
When in 1895 Elbert Hubbard founded the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, NY, he was primarily interested in publishing his first magazine, The Philistine, and a series of booklets under the title of Little Journeys. Strong sales and advertising revenues enabled him to expand from his drafty barn to what is now known as the Roycroft Campus, where he built workshops and hired craftsmen and craftswomen for his new furniture, leatherworking, blacksmith and metalsmithing departments.
One of the first two items produced in what would become known as the Roycroft Copper Shop appeared in the 1906 catalog labeled as a “Hand-Wrought Copper Paper Knife.” Today it is better known as a letter opener. It featured a flat blade and round handle, although slightly different variations on this form have also been discovered.
The second was a “Hand-Wrought Copper Pin Tray” (similar to a shallow, business card tray) that measured 4 inches x 6.5 inches. The tray can be identified by its irregular, scalloped edges and the early ‘typewriter’ shopmark – aptly named because the letter ‘R’ looks like the typeface on typewriters of that era. In the few examples that have been found, the almost crude shopmark is generally on the face of the pin tray rather than the underside.
A study of the 1906 catalog reveals that the Roycroft metalsmiths had been concentrating on wrought iron andirons and a few ceiling lights, plus hardware for the furniture made next door. Compared to their later, more sophisticated work, these first two copper desk items have been described as “clumsy” and “crude.” The letter opener and pin tray appear to have been early experiments in desk accessories for which the Roycroft Copper Shop would soon be world-famous. Roycroft collectors consider them extremely rare and very desirable. In excellent condition, they each can bring $750-$1000@ today.
By 1909, the Copper Shop had expanded its line and the designs had become more sophisticated, reflecting the arrival of gifted designer Dard Hunter. Although Hunter left Roycroft around 1910, that same year another talented designer, Karl Kipp, moved over to the Copper Shop. Under Kipp’s supervision and utilizing designs by both Hunter and Kipp, the Roycrofters entered into their more mature phase in 1910, leaving the pin tray and letter opener behind as symbols of their earliest work.
Special thanks to Doug McFarland (firstname.lastname@example.org) for supplying these Roycroft photographs.