John D. Larkin- Table of Contents
John D. Larkin
Biography Beneath Illustrations
The Pan-Am Larkin Building
Creme Oatmeal Toilet Soap
Wright-designed Larkin Administration Building
Wright-designed Larkin Administration Building
John Durrant Larkin
John Durrant Larkin, was born in Buffalo in 1845 at 13 Clinton Street, where the Lafayette Hotel now stands. John Durrant was the middle child of Levi and Mary Ann Durrant Larkin's seven children. He was only seven when his father died. His parents were English people; and his father, Levi H. Larkin, was the founder of the Clinton Iron Works.
One of Mr. Larkin's first recollections is of the burning of the old Eagle tavern, November 14, 1849, when he was but four years old. This hostelry stood on Main street, on the ground afterward occupied by the American hotel, where occurred the disastrous fire of 1865. At the time of the earlier fire the work of fighting the destroying element was entrusted to the volunteer fire department, of which Mr. Larkin's father was a member; and the apparatus at their disposal was extremely limited. When it was discovered, therefore, that brands from the burning tavern had lodged in the belfry of the old court house on Washington street, the building seemed doomed to destruction, as no water could reach the spot. But Mr. Larkin's father succeeded in climbing the slippery shingles and smothering the fire with his coat, thus saving the building, which was then deemed a most important one.
In 1852, Mr. Larkin's father, Levi, contracted pneumonia after fighting a particularly stubborn fire. He was exhausted from his efforts, and after a brief illness, he died at the age of 35, only three months after the birth of his youngest daughter. His wife made arrangements for Levi's burial in the old North Street Cemetery (where the Masten Armory now stands). In 1853, she purchased a lot in he recently opened Forest lawn Cemetery, and Levi's body was moved there. Mary Ann was left a widow at the age of 33, with seven children to care for ranging in age from three months to thirteen years. Mary left 13 Clinton St. shortly after her husband's death.
After attending the public schools of Buffalo in childhood, Mr. Larkin began business life at the age of twelve by working as a Western Union telegraph Company messenger. Then he worked for William H. Woodward, a dealer in wholesale and retail millinery. He remained with him four years; and then, in 1862, began work in the soap manufactory of Justus Weller, his sister Mary's husband. For the next eight years he worked for Mr. Weller in Buffalo, learning thoroughly the business. From courses at Bryant and Stratton he took in 1865, he learned business bookkeeping. When Mr. Weller moved to Chicago in 1870 Mr. Larkin went with him, and the next year was admitted to partnership in the firm of J. Weller & Co. While in Chicago, Justus introduced his cousin Frances ("Frank") Hubbard to John. They married May 10, 1874 in her parents' home in Hudson, Illinois.
The next year, 1875, Mr. Larkin sold out his interest in the business to Mr. Weller, and he and his wife moved to Buffalo (living at 213 Eagle St.) and John set up his factory: "J. D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps," at 196-198 Chicago Street. His only product was a yellow laundry bar named Sweet Home Soap. The business grew so quickly that in 1877 Larkin bought two lots on Seneca Street and built the first of many factories there. By 1878, the company produced nine different soap products, ranging from "Boraxine" soap powder through a variety of laundry soaps to "Jet" harness soap, "Oatmeal" toilet soap and Glycerine.
Larkin's first salesman was his wife's brother, Elbert ("Bert") G. Hubbard, who had been working as a salesman for J. Weller & Co. in Chicago. Bert decided to follow his sister and brother-in-law (eleven years older than he) to Buffalo and work for John as a salesman. Daniel I. Larkin gives an account of Bert's success in his book about his grandfather, "John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer":
Bert was out on the road most of the period from 1875 to 1878, when he entered into a partnership with his brother-in-law. With his growing army of salesmen, he spread the news about Larkin soaps from Boston to Chicago and from Milwaukee to New Orleans. At first the method of selling, which the salesmen referred to as "soap slinging," was a simple matter of going door to door and offering a box of soap for the lay of the house to try. A few days later the "slinger" would return and collect payment for whatever the lady cared to buy. (p. 52)
In 1875, Bert hired Frank Martin as a soap salesman. Three years later, Frank was able to have his thirteen-year-old brother, Darwin, also get hired as a salesman. Larkin was in Boston on business, and checking up on the local sales force, saw the young Darwin working, and raised the lad's salary from three to five dollars.
In 1878 Hubbard was admitted to a share in the enterprise, and the firm of J. D. Larkin & Co. was organized. This style continued until February, 1892, when the business was incorporated as a stock company, called the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Co., with Mr. Larkin as president and treasurer.
In 1878, Madame Helena Modjeska brought her famous Shakespearean troupe to The Academy, and Larkin saw a performance. In 1886, "Factory to to family" became the hallmark slogan for the company. it was also the year that the company introduced the first Modjeska toilet soap , to be followed by Modjeska perfume, tooth powder and sachet.
By 1880, "soap slinging" was giving way to custom sales to general stores and other merchants who would buy the products in large quantities Bert informed Frank Martin that he was being moved to the middle west. Frank asked that his younger brother, Darwin, be hired in Buffalo. In Martin's own words, he "became the first and at that time the only hired office-worker of J. D. Larkin & Co.; until then all office-work was done by Mr. Larkin himself at a standup bookkeeper's desk."
Bert pioneered the idea of mail-order merchandising. The idea was hugely successful. By offering premiums and bonuses in return for sales, the company was able to dispense with a sales force. In offering premiums to stimulate sales, the company needed a variety of premiums, and it was more profitable to produce them in-house. Buffalo Pottery, precursor to Buffalo China, was founded in this way.
(His fortune made, Hubbard retired in 1893 to East Aurora, where he styled himself as Fra Elbertus, sage of the Roycrofters.)
For information and photos of the Larkin
Building at the Pan Am, see Susan Eck's
Frank Lloyd Wright
By 1902, Larkin needed an architect to design a building to consolidate offices scattered throughout all of his factories. His two key executives suggested Frank Lloyd Wright. Darwin Martin, the company's first bookkeeper, who had risen to position of Treasurer . Larkin's brother-in-law, William Heath, had been with the firm since 1898 as head of the legal department. Thus, Frank Lloyd Wright got his first commercial commission. (Wright designed houses for both Martin and Heath, as well as for other Larkin employees.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building, 680 Seneca Street, in 1904 to accommodate the 1800 corresponding secretaries, clerks, and executives. The Larkins needed a clean and comfortable building in order to attract first-rate (chiefly female) employees to an otherwise industrial section of the city. Wright's numerous innovations contributed significantly to this objective. Inside was a beautiful work setting, filled with natural light and fresh air. Clean air was distributed throughout the sealed interior of the building from a rudimentary air-conditioning system in the basement. Metal office furniture, built-in file cabinets, wall-hung toilets, and a gracious restaurant and conservatory all contributed to the ambiance of the building and were featured as part of daily factory tours.
Today the Larkin Administration Building is universally regarded as a landmark in the development of modern architecture. Completed in 1906, it was an imposing, modern structure of brick and sandstone. Its unadorned exterior surfaces were shaped according to the individualized functions they enclosed. For instance, the paired forward towers contained stairways and air-intake shafts for the air cleaning system. The articulation of the side elevations was a direct expression of the structural framework of the building.
Unfortunately, the building was torn down in 1950.
More Company Growth
By 1910 the
company was receiving nearly ten thousand letters of request per day, and could hardly keep pace with orders. By 1925 Larkin Co. manufactured most of the 900 catalog items in factories covering sixteen-and-a-half acres on Seneca Street. In addition to their own soaps, cleansers, cosmetics, perfume, pharmaceuticals and food, they offered everything from furniture and clothing to utensils and radios. With its main headquarters in Buffalo, the company had branches in Boston, Chicago, Peoria, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City. There were 154 Larkin chain stores in Western New York and Peoria, Illinois. Larkin stations pumped gas in Buffalo, Rochester and Erie, Pennsylvania. Over 4,000 employees proudly called themselves Larkinites. Across the country, consumers in Larkin Clubs could buy virtually all their needs from the company.
Larkin's innovations extended to his treatment of his valued employees. The long list of amenities included daily exercise, savings accounts, educational services, men's and women's clubs -- even free coffee. A dental clinic, doctor's office and public library branch were all on-site. An early air conditioning system provided fresh air. Larkin installed a $90,000 pipe organ for the enjoyment of his employees.
The company continued to operate successfully for some years after John Larkin's death in 1926. It ceased operation in 1967.
Special thanks to Daniel I. Larkin, John Larkin's grandson and author of "John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer," pub. by Western New York Wares, 1998, for sharing his time and knowledge in an interview.
Sources of text:
- "John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer," by Daniel I. Larkin. Pub. by Western New York Wares, 1998
- "Buffalo Architecture: A Guide," by Francis R. Kowsky, et. al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981
- "The Larkin Idea: Factory to Family," by Mary Beth Parrinello. Junior League of Buffalo/Buffalo News 1999 Decorators' Show House brochure (1999 Decorators' Show House)
- "Men of New York," Vol. I, Buffalo: George E. Matthews & Co., 1898
- "A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County: Second Looks," by Scott Eberle and Joseph A. Grande. Pub by the Donning Co. in 1993.
- Martin Wachadlo, consultant