Larkin Furniture-A Short History
LARKIN FURNITURE—A SHORT HISTORY
Roger W. Cooper, January 2012
Compiled And Derived From Various Sources
Including The Internet And The Antique Trader Publication
The term Larkin furniture refers to furniture that was given away as a 'free' premium by the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, NY. The company was in business from approximately 1876 to 1941.
Larkin products, such as the furniture, are very collectible today. Early furniture pieces were stock items ordered from other manufacturers. No special system of inventory or marking of the product was kept. Some Larkin furniture items can be unequivocally identified by an attached brown paper label (often approximately 1.75" x 3") that indicate it was a premium item or that it was manufactured (after about 1895) at one of the Larkin factories. However, in most instances, these tags were removed by the consumer or are now illegible if the item was painted or refinished at some point. Many Larkin furniture items such as chairs, oak cabinets, buffets, secretaries, folding bookshelves, and drop down desks have pressed wood designs or decorative pieces of applied wood. Sometimes, size can also be used to help to identify Larkin furniture. In general, many pieces of Larkin furniture (especially desks with drop down fronts, folding bookshelves, secretaries, and some china cabinets) tend to have the general dimensions of approximately 8-12" deep x 24-30" wide x 48-60" high) and also have one, or more, open shelves.
John Durant Larkin joined the Weller Soap Company in Buffalo, New York in 1861 and by 1865 was made a partner in the firm "Larkin and Weller". The firm moved to Chicago in 1870 but was dissolved in 1875. Larkin then moved back to Buffalo, NY and started a new business as J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Staple and Fancy Soaps. Later, the name was shortened to the Larkin Soap Company. The business went well and grew quickly. One of his first employees, Elbert Hubbard, later became a full partner and it was his marketing genius that catapulted the company into American business history. Together they determined to attract the public by the 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 that led them into such diverse industries as furniture making and pottery.
The strategy of gift premiums began when, in order to compete with the Babbit Company and other soap manufacturers, Larkin began including larger and more interesting souvenir pictures than his competitors. From there Larkin and Hubbard began experimenting and refining the practice. They tried including handkerchiefs with a soap product and then a bath towel with another soap product. Both were overwhelming successes and led to bigger schemes. One scheme was to move away from the use of a sales force to a more direct marketing strategy. The master plan was to market directly from the factory to consumers. The money that was saved from commissions was 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 the most popular giveaways was the Chautauqua Desk (Fig. 1) that was first offered in their 1901 catalog. A Chautauqua Desk usually consists of two open shelves at the top with or without a mirror behind either, or both, of the open shelves. Below the upper open shelves was a slanted wood door that could be opened and pulled down to form a desk surface (Fig. 2). Behind the desk door is an inset with variously sized pigeonholes for paper, ink, pens and other writing supplies. Below the desk were, usually, two open shelves where books and other items could be placed. For a $10 order of soap, the customer would receive the soap and the Chautauqua Desk, a $10 premium.
Figure 1. A Larkin Chautauqua Desk with the typical two open shelves above and below the closed desktop. Note the mirror between the two upper shelves and the applied wood carving at the top. Dimensions of desk: 11.5” deep x 30”wide x 60” high
Figure 2. The same Larkin Chautauqua Desk with the desk open. Note the desk inset with nine pigeonholes for paper and other stationary- or writing-related material. In this case, they are used to display various cut glass items.
There were also other styles and types of desks available. Some had 2-3 drawers below the slanted wood desk door as well as 1-2 open shelves above the closed slanted desktop piece. Many of these desks were generally similar in size to the Chautauqua Desk. Another popular premium, or give away, item included various styles and types of folding bookshelf units (Figs. 3 and 4).
Figure 3. Oak Larkin fold-up bookshelf with 3 shelves and pressed wood design on each of the shelf front skirts and shelf backs. Dimensions of bookshelf unit: 9” deep x 24” wide x 45” high.
Figure 4. The same oak Larkin bookshelf unit when folded. Dimensions of folded bookshelf unit: 3” deep x 24” wide x 48” high.
Many of the various ideas and products quickly grabbed the attention of the public and through further refinement Larkin began offering a wide variety of both products and premiums. In 1893 a semi-annual catalog was sent to 1.5 million customers. In these early years the premiums were stock items ordered from other companies (see above). However, 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 assembly factory was set up in Buffalo to assemble wood pieces cut in Tennessee. Then in 1901 the ‘Buffalo’ Pottery Company was established to meet the demand for various types of pottery and dishes 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.
There was rapid growth of the company between 1892 and 1904 from sales of $500,000 in 1893 to sales of over $13,000,000 in 1904. The premium lists expanded to include 675 premiums in 1904. By 1905, the company was offering 116 products in their catalog. Seven years later 550 catalog products were being advertised. By 1920 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. The company reached its zenith in the period between 1910 and 1930. It began to experience hard times in the 1930's and was sold in 1941. John D. Larkin died in 1926. Elbert Hubbard, the marketing genius behind Larkin, retired in the 1890's. He and his wife died on the 'Lusitania' when it was sunk on May 7, 1915 by a German submarine. An event that eventually led to the entry of the United States into World War I.