A Brief History of Buffalo Pottery and the Roycroft Connection
Copyright: David Simons, December, 2011
All Rights Reserved
1. The Larkin Soap Company
John Durrant Larkin, the son of English immigrants, was born in Buffalo, New York in 1845. From a fatherless family, he was only able to go to school until he was 12 after which he went to work as a messenger boy for Western Union Telegraph Company to help support the family.
At age sixteen (1861) Larkin was initiated into the soap-making business when he went to work for a man named Justus Weller who operated a local factory. By 1871, Larkin was a partner in the enterprise, an association he maintained until 1875.
Larkin, newly married, was anxious to establish a soap making business of his own. In 1875 he sold his partnership interest and almost immediately began making soap in a two story building on Chicago Street in Buffalo. The business, known as John D. Larkin Company marketed its product, a variety of yellow laundry soap, under the name Sweet Home Soap. The soap was sold by peddlers from handcarts in the streets of Buffalo. Since it was both cheaper and of better quality than its competitors’ products, it quickly found a ready market among merchants and the general public. To facilitate sales, the Larkin Company would at a merchant’s request, package the soap with the merchant’s name on the label thereby making it appear to be the merchant’s own special brand.
Surrounded by men of exceedingly good business ability, including one Elbert Hubbard whose genius was in descriptive writing and sales promotion, the company grew by leaps and bounds. Within a year, the business needed larger quarters and a new three story plant was built on Seneca St.
With the plant expansion came new products. In 1879 a washing fluid called Sweet Home was added. In 1881 a new soap powder called Boraxine was introduced. With it came more innovation in marketing. To each box of soap powder a chromo picture was inserted as a premium. Giving premiums, per se, was not a new idea—providing coupons that could be accumulated and exchanged for premiums was a widespread late 19th Century practice. However, it was the inclusion of the premium right in the box that was the Larkin innovation. Henceforth, all new products introduced by the company included a premium as a buying incentive.
Over the years, the company introduced more products and more marketing ideas. Its goal was to sell directly to the consumer—with no dealers at all, wholesale or retail, and no traveling salesmen or brokers. The aim was to completely eliminate the middleman and sell staples on a large scale directly to the buying public. Thus the profits that would have been realized by the middleman would be transferred to the buyer in the form of premiums. A customer who bought ten dollars’ worth of soap at retail price would be entitled to a premium of equal value. For ten dollars, a twenty dollar value would be received.
In 1886, Hubbard’s fertile mind conceived another new method of merchandising; the “Combination Box” which sold for six dollars. It contained 100 cakes of Sweet Home Soap, and as premiums, an assortment of other soaps and various useful household items. In addition, the buyer would be allowed 30 days to pay the six dollars. The plan created such a problem in handling sales accounts that the traditional bound ledger had to be abandoned for another new idea, the index card ledger. Thus the Larkin Company is credited with being the first in the world to make such a ledger whose cards, after the account was paid, were used to make the nucleus of a giant mailing list.
By 1889, the “Combination Box” cost ten dollars and the premium given was either a Chautauqua desk or a Chautauqua lamp, which also had a value of ten dollars. If cash was paid in advance, a gift for the lady of the house was included. All boxes were sent on a 30 day trial basis. If a customer was dissatisfied, the unopened packages could be returned and payment made only for the items used. Boxes ordered around Christmas always included extra gifts.
Another method for selling was the “Larkin Club”. Ten housewives could form a club, each contributing one dollar monthly. This purchased one “Combination Box”, and the women drew lots to see who would receive the premium. In reality, the club was a means of buying the Box on the installment plan, although installment buying was frowned upon by the social mores of the times. Still, the club plan was the center of the distribution of the Larkin mail-order business and one of the biggest factors in the success of the company.
In 1893, the company published its first catalogue to inform its customers of an enlarged choice of premiums. The premium catalog of 1905 listed almost 900 items from which a customer could choose. By 1909 1.5 million catalogs were mailed out twice a year. The volume was so large that the Post Office maintained a branch right in the Larkin facilities.
Elbert Hubbard, the genius behind many of Larkin’s marketing schemes retired at age 35 to devote himself to more artistic pursuits. In 1895 after trying several things, he returned to New York and set up a colony of artisans called The Roycrofters. The colony patterned after the philosophy of William Morris aimed at reviving old handicrafts, particularly those associated with printing, bookbinding, leather craft, metal working and wood working.
Hubbard also became known as a writer, best remembered perhaps for his A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 and which sold 40 million copies.
Hubbard and his wife were lost when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915.
Hubbard’s departure had little effect on the growth and success of the Larkin Company. There was continued expansion almost yearly from 1877. The plant grew from a little over an acre in 1877 to more than 16 acres by 1901 and to more than 50 acres by 1907.
In 1903, Larkin consolidated the administrative duties of his company to one location and commissioned then-controversial architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a building. The new Administration building gained widespread fame in both the U.S. and Europe where it was often pictured in books on architecture.
For its time, it was one of the largest private office buildings in the world with working space for 1800 clerks and typists and all of the company’s executives and their secretaries.
For the company’s 25th anniversary, John Larkin installed a gigantic $90,000 pipe organ that would provide background music for the employees to work by. This was one of the dozen largest organs in the United States at the time. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1950.
Gradually over the years the company added perfumes and pharmaceuticals to its original soap and glycerin lines. By 1900, all these products were being produced in the factories and Larkin had become a very diverse manufacturing enterprise. By 1906, paints and varnishes were being manufactured and then furniture. Added next to the list were textiles including such garments as house dresses, aprons, and children’s clothing. Then came a bakery to supply all the bread, cakes and pastry sold in the company’s retail stores.
In 1901, the Larkin Company founded the Buffalo Pottery Company to produce dishes and other ceramic articles, both to be used for premiums and for general sale.
(To be continued -- see the next installment "The Buffalo Pottery")
First written by David Simons, June 1996, rev. November 2011
Sources: The Book of Buffalo Pottery, Seymour and Violet Altman, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1987.
Maine Antique Digest, March, 1997
Collectors News, March 1998
Colonial Homes, June, 1996, pp. 20