Digger Odell Publications 2008

John D. Larkin was one of America's great nineteenth century entrepreneurs. It was he who had the:

When Mike showed me what he had dug from the 1890s privy, I was surprised. He had a whole collection of Larkin bottles, several of which I hadn’t seen before. How do you suppose that many Larkin bottles came to be in that one privy hole? The likely answer takes us on a walk through history with of one of America’s great merchandisers, John Durant Larkin.

Larkin, born in 1845, went to work at the age of 12 to help support the family. He first worked as a messenger for the Western Union Telegraph Company and later as a clerk for a Wholesale Milliner. By chance, his sister had married one Justus Weller who was in the soap manufacturing business in Buffalo, New York. John joined the business in 1861 and by 1865 was made partner in the firm "Larkin & Weller".


The firm moved to Chicago in 1870 and it was there that John met his future wife, Frances Hubbard, who was visiting from Buffalo. The partnership eventually soured along with Weller’s marriage and was dissolved in 1875. He then resolved to set up for himself business in Buffalo, as J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Staple and Fancy Soaps.


From the start his business went well. His first product, "Sweet Home", was marketed to street vendors. He followed shortly with "Oatmeal Toilet Soap". With his success he quickly outgrew his original quarters on Chicago Street and moved in to 20,000 sq. foot building at 667 Seneca Street.

He took on a number of employees who would prove to be invaluable to the business as it grew and entered into partnership with Elbert Hubbard. It was in fact Hubbard, whose marketing genius catapulted the company into the halls American business history. Together, they determined to attract the public by use of give away items. Over the years many different articles were given away. Beginning with small pictures in 1881 the company pursued a marketing strategy which lead them into such diverse industries as furniture making and pottery.

The strategy of gift premiums began modestly enough when in order to compete with the Babbit Company and other soap manufacturers, Larkin began including larger and more interesting souvenir picture cards than his competitors. They were included in Boxaxine from its introduction to the public and cards dated as early as 1881 can be found which were included with the purchase of "Sweet Home", his best selling product. From there Larkin and Hubbard began experimenting with and refining the practice. A handkerchief was included with his Pure White toilet soap and the public reaction was so favorable that he next included a bath towel with the purchase of his Ocean Bath soap. The overwhelming success of this innovation led to bigger and more daring schemes.

His business acumen directed him to move away from the use of a sales force to a more direct marketing strategy. His master plan was to market directly from the factory to consumers, and the money he saved from commissions, he used to offer the public better premiums. In 1891 Larkin placed his first large wholesale order, $40,000 worth of piano lamps. The next year he expanded into Morris chairs (80,000) and oak dining chairs (125,000). One of his most popular giveaways was the Chatauqua Desk. For a $10 order of soap, the customer would receive the soap and the desk, a $10 premium . His ideas quickly grabbed the attention of the public and through further refinement he began offering a great variety of both his products and his premiums. The "Combination Box" was one such refinement offered in the 1890s. In it he offered enough soap and toiletry products to last an average family one year. Quite possibly, the bottles Mike dug from the privy (shown above) might just have been one of these combination boxes.

In 1893 he began sending a semi-annual catalog to his 1.5 million customers. In these early years his premiums were stock items ordered from other companies. To meet the customer demand as the business grew, the Larkin Company found it necessary to manufacture its own goods for the most popular premiums. An increasingly complex network of subsidiaries developed. A furniture factory was set up in Buffalo to assemble pieces cut in Tennessee. Then in 1901 the "Buffalo Pottery was established to meet the demand for various types of wares offered as premiums. The Greensburg, Pennsylvania Glass Company produced all of the bottles and related glassware. Contracts were negotiated with companies like Oneida to furnish plated silverware and the Buffalo Garment Center made their men's apparel.

The product line continually expanded. Household products were added by the turn of the century and new marketing strategies replaced the old combination box. The Larkin company recruited housewives and neighborhood boys and girls to market their products door-to-door, much like Avon products are now sold. "Larkin Secretaries", as they were called, organized "Larkin Clubs" in their neighborhoods. The plan was that each month each of the ten members of the club would pledge to order $1 worth of Larkin goods. That month, one member, selected at random, would receive the $10 premium and the next month the premium would go to another member.


By 1905, the catalog was offering 116 products including soaps, toiletries, shampoo, jellies, coffee and teas, extracts, cocoa, spices, chocolate, soups, perfumes. Seven years later 550 products were being advertised. Only the Sears Catalog offered a greater variety of products. The period from 1892 to 1904 saw the rapid growth of business from sales of nearly $500,000 in 1893 to sales of over $13,000,000 in 1904. The premium lists expanded to include 675 premiums in 1904. By 1901 the Larkin Co. was big enough to have its own building at the Pan American Exposition. The basis of the business was direct "Factory to Family" sales, and the "Larkin Idea", as the plan was called, was the despair of the wholesalers and jobbers who tried in vain to stop the tide.

Tremendous amounts of Larkin advertising were produced including flyers, magazines, catalogs and brochures. "The Larkin Idea" was a promotional magazine for the club secretaries. In it, they were exposed to new products and marketing strategies and encouraged to set up Larkin Pantries, whole areas in their homes stocked with Larkin goods, what better way to generate sales from their neighbors. The company promoted home decorating with the "Larkin Look". By the end of the first two decades of the twentieth century, a home could be completely decorated with Larkin goods, from foods stuff, to furniture, to china, rugs, silverware, glassware, table lamps, curtains, clocks, buffets, school supplies, gifts, toys, jewelry, clothing, bibles, umbrellas, shoes and even the wallpaper and paint could be gotten as premiums from Larkin orders.

Branch offices were opened all over the country, in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and other places. In 1904, Larkin commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design his new Headquarters. Being Wright's first commercial building, he designed a revolutionary new office building, the largest in the world at that time. Holding 1800 employees, it was designed as a model of efficiency. Special chairs, and windows as well a a central courtyard were part of the design. There was natural lighting, a recreation ground and gardens. The volume of mail from that complex in 1906 represented one fifteenth of the postal receipts for the Buffalo post office. The building was eventually demolished in 1950.


As the popularity of the Larkin products grew, so did the benefits to the employees. There was a Larkin Drum Corp, a Larkin Women's Council, baseball teams, pool and reading rooms, employee savings plans, and even a Larkin Country Club, located on the shores of Lake Erie. As it is with all things, the company eventually reached its zenith. In the words of Harry Larkin Jr., grandson of the founder, "The rest of the world caught up with the Larkin Company." John D. Larkin died in 1926. Elbert Hubbard had retired in the 1890s, he and his wife died on the Lusitania, when it sunk. The company carried on into the 1940s but began to experience hard times in the late 30s. The company was sold in 1941 and the new owners continued a mail order business until 1962.

Larkin products, especially the furniture is very collectible today. Identifying a piece of Larkin furniture can be difficult without the identifying paper label. Early furniture pieces were stock items ordered from other manufacturers. No special system of inventory or marking was kept. Next time you're in a antique store or mall, check that oak cabinet, buffet, secretary, chair or desk and maybe on the back or bottom you'll find a paper label that lets you know it was a premium, part of the "Larkin Look" that was the "Larkin Idea".


SOURCES: My apologies to any of the below not receiving proper credit. Numerous unidentified articles were sent to me about the background of this company.

Olive Tardiff & Marcia Ray, The Larkin Idea, Spinning Wheel, March 1975.

Harry H. Larkin, Larkin-Hubbard Genealogy, unpublished.

Roy Nuhn, The Larkin Look...source unknown

The Birth of an American Enterprise, author and source unknown.