Larkin Company - Table of Contents

John D. Larkin and the Larkin Company
Excerpted (without footnotes)
from the
Nomination for The Hydraulics/Larkin Neighborhood, Section E, pp. 12-17

Jennifer Walkowski

2.1 John D. Larkin and the Larkin Company

Of all the businesses and industries which found a home in the Hydraulics neighborhood, by far the largest and most successful was the Larkin Company, makers of soaps, toiletries and a wide variety of household products. In the age before the industrial revolution of the mid-nineteenth-century, soap making originally was a small, cottage industry in the United States. Soap making became one of many industries which benefited from mass-production, thanks to new machinery and technologies.

Like many of the companies in the neighborhood, the Larkin Company took advantage of the Hydraulics area’s proximity to regional and national transportation routes, raw materials and ample labor force. Rising from humble origins in the late-nineteenth-century, by the early twentieth-century the Larkin Company grew to become one of the largest companies in the city of Buffalo and also the country.

John Durrant Larkin was born in Buffalo in 1845 at 13 Clinton Street (where the Lafayette Hotel now stands), the middle child of seven born to Mary Ann (Durrant) and Levi Larkin, founder of the Clinton Iron Works. John D. Larkin became involved in the soap industry in 1862, when he began working as a clerk in the office of the Buffalo soap works of his brother-in-law, Justus Weller. By 1865, Larkin was made a partial partner in the company, and when Weller decided to relocate the company to Chicago in 1870, Larkin was invited to relocate with the firm, becoming a full partner. Larkin spent five years in Chicago, forming personal connections and learning much about the business end of the company. His time in the growing metropolis laid the foundation for his later individual career in the soap industry.

Sometime in 1871 Larkin was introduced to Weller’s uncle, Dr. Silas Hubbard, who lived in Bloomington, Illinois. The relationship between the Hubbard family and John Larkin became a significant association, and the two families would become intertwined following this initial meeting. Dr. Hubbard’s teenage son, Elbert, was encouraged to join the soap company of Larkin & Weller as a salesman, and John Larkin would marry Elbert’s older sister, Frances (or Frank as she was nicknamed), in 1874. The happy times of the Weller, Hubbard and Larkin families would not last for long, and by 1875 Justus Weller’s marriage to Mary Larkin ended in divorce, forcing John D. Larkin to leave the Larkin and Weller company to establish a soap works of his own.

After travelling to Boston, Larkin eventually returned to his hometown of Buffalo, which provided the transportation and animal fats needed to grow a successful soap industry, especially the Hydraulics neighborhood. Larkin’s first factory was located at 196-198 Chicago Street in Buffalo’s Old First Ward area, and by 1877 the company had grown so rapidly that Larkin purchased property at 667 Seneca Street in the Hydraulics neighborhood in order to build a larger factory, adjacent to rail lines and the needed raw materials.

Larkin employed his brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, as his first salesman and a one-third partner. Hubbard travelled widely for the company in his years as a salesman or “slinger” as they were known, spending the years between 1875 and 1878 travelling between Buffalo, Chicago and Milwaukee. In 1875, Hubbard’s role in the company grew, and he hired Frank Martin from Dayton, Ohio to lead a crew of door-to-door “slingers” for the company. In 1879, Frank’s young thirteen-year-old brother Darwin D. Martin was brought to Buffalo as one of the “slinger” crew. By the late 1870s, the “J.D. Larkin & Co.” firm was well established.

During the height of its activities, the Larkin Company was a sales and marketing pioneer. The company’s initial sales strategy was a typical, door-to-door campaign which brought the soap and toiletry products direct to the consumer. In the early 1880s the company began including a small premium item, such as a handkerchief or a small chromolithograph, in each box of soap to entice customers to purchase larger quantities. The idea of including a premium was not invented by the Larkin Company, but the company was highly successful at the combination of direct-mail solicitation to the customer (rather than a shopkeeper or middle-man), and the enticement of premiums allowed the company to sell directly to the customer.

By 1885 the Larkin Company was able to completely eliminate the middle-men from its business dealings. In 1886, Larkin marketing mastermind, Elbert Hubbard, created the successful “Combination Box,” an assortment of soaps and toiletry items which was shipped on thirty-days approval, allowing customers to try and use the products or return them for a refund. The company’s selection of premium items also expanded during the 1890s to include products such as the popular “Chautauqua Lamp” first offered in 1892 and the “Chautauqua Desk” which was offered in 1893. These high-quality premium products encouraged bulk purchases of soap and other products. The “Larkin Idea” marketing strategy embodied the spirit of the Larkin Company’s direct-to-the-consumer approach; if a customer was willing to commit ten dollars (about one week’s pay for most people at the time) to a direct purchase of a year’s supply of soap then the Larkin Company agreed to share the advantage in the form of an attractive premium item. This strategy promoted a sense of “quasi-familial” intimacy between the consumer – or “Larkinite” - and the company and is the root of much of modern marketing strategies today. 

The Larkin Company also pioneered the concept of getting the average consumer involved in the sales process. Called “Larkin Clubs of Ten,” which began in the early 1890s, these clubs consisted of ten families, generally under the guidance of the females of the family, who pooled their financial resources in order to buy the expensive combination boxes and to share the premium offerings. While members drew straws to win the premium prize, by the tenth month all members obtained a premium. Some enterprising people purchased the boxes and sold them to their friends, family and neighbors, keeping the premiums for themselves. In this way, the Larkin Company replaced the typical sales force with primarily housewives and women, effectively reducing packaging, shipping and administrative costs, and because the women who ran the club acted in the place of the more typical corporate-sponsored sales staff, the Larkin Company saved on labor and other related costs. These clubs were the forerunner of Avon, Tupperware parties and other types of female consumer-sold product.

As early as 1881 the Larkin company employed nearly one hundred factory workers, and had organized into four departments of shipping clerks, mail-advertising helpers, bookkeeper and a “miscellaneous” group. Borrowing the card- ledger system of the local YMCA library, Darwin Martin created a unique bookkeeping and tracking system for the Larkin Company in 1885, recently promoted from his sales position. By September of 1885, Martin noted over 35,000 accounts in the ledger, and as business continued to prosper, he soon created and supervised both the Order and Bookkeeping Departments and hired a staff of assistants.

The combination of the business sense of John D. Larkin, the administrative skills of Darwin D. Martin and the salesmanship of Elbert Hubbard turned the Larkin Company into one of the most successful companies in Buffalo in the late nineteenth-century, as the company expanded its business into selling toiletries, furniture, lamps, home products and a myriad of other items. As the quantity and variety of the products produced by the company increased, the size and scale of the production factory also grew.

The small brick factory at 667 Seneca Street was quickly outgrown, and the Larkin Company constructed a series of simple, utilitarian buildings near the intersection of Swan and Seneca Streets between the 1880s and 1912. Beginning in 1895, the company constructed twelve new factory buildings ranging from eight to ten stories in height on an entire block of land at Seneca Street between Larkin (formerly Heacock) and Van Rensselaer Streets. While appearing to be one enormous building, the large bulk was actually divided in several smaller facilities for specialized production ranging from soap making, wrapping, storing, lumber storage, perfumes and a myriad of other functions.

A large Power House building (1902) and a railroad terminal warehouse building (1912) were among other specialized building added to the growing Larkin Company complex. Designed by the R.J. Reidpath Company of Buffalo, these steel framed brick-clad buildings were ideally suited for the needs of industrial manufacturing, but were unsuitable for the office and corporate needs of the ever-growing company. In 1903 alone the Larkin Company was receiving over 5,000 letters per day, and new members of the office staff were hired weekly to accommodate the rapidly growing administrative needs of the thriving company. Housed in the E and F Buildings of the factory, the increasing administrative aspects of the company, coupled with the constant demand for new production spaces within the factory itself, soon created the need for a new separate administration building.

Wright-designed Administration Building

Although the factory site in the Hydraulics was selected based on the area’s proximity to several major railroad routes, the noisy, dirty and polluted industrial neighborhood was not ideal for a significant office building to be constructed. The typical office worker at the time was female, and the Larkin Company felt they would not be enticed to work in this area of the city. The new administrative building was also seen as a sort of figurehead for the company as well. John D. Larkin selected Frank Lloyd Wright as the architect for the new building on the recommendation of Darwin Martin (who by this time had become Treasurer) and Larkin’s brother-in-law, William Heath, who was the company’s head of the legal department. Designed and constructed between 1903 and 1904, the new Larkin Administration Building at 680 Seneca Street, just north of the company’s largest factory building.

In response to the industrial atmosphere around it, the building was the height of modern technology, creating a sealed, healthy indoor environment, and pioneered several hygienic features in large office buildings. Clean, fresh air was circulated in the sealed building through a rudimentary type of air conditioning system which turned the blocky corner piers of the building into a massive circulation system. A large interior courtyard infused the interior with natural light and allowed for additional air circulation. In order to prevent the clutter common in large offices, Wright custom designed built-in metal office furniture, file cabinets, desks and even wall-hung toilets. The Administration Building also featured an elegant restaurant and conservatory where the female office workers could unwind and be entertained. Everything about the building was designed to be clean, efficient, pristine and modern in order to accommodate a staff of over 1800 people.  Upon its completion in 1906, the Larkin Administration Building was hailed as a triumph of modern architecture and office building design by European and American architects, critics and historians alike.

The Larkin Administration Building also was notable for its removal of the administrative and management functions from its previous location in the midst of the production floor. Previous to this era, management staff and facilities of a majority of American factories and industrial buildings were typically located right in the heart of the production floor, keeping management in touch with the labor force and the manufacturing process. The Larkin Administration Building created a separated building designated solely to the management and office tasks of the business, perhaps spurred by the labor strikes and turmoil of this period in American history. While the result created an emblematic building which was specifically designed to house and economize the clerical functions of the company, the construction of the Larkin Administration Building effectively severed the deep-rooted connection between management and the labor force.


The Larkin Company continued to be successful well into the 1920s. By 1925 the company manufactured a majority of the over nine-hundred catalog items in its expansive factory complex which covered over sixteen-and-a-half acres on Seneca Street in the Hydraulics. In addition to their own soaps, cleansers, cosmetics, perfume, pharmaceuticals and food, they offered consumers everything from clothing and furniture to utensils and radios.

With its primary corporate headquarters centered in Buffalo, the company had branches across the East Coast in Boston, Chicago, Peoria, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City. The company had expanded into many aspects of daily consumer life, including the 154 Larkin chain stores in Western New York and Peoria, Illinois and the Larkin-branded fuel stations which pumped gas in Buffalo, Rochester and Erie, Pennsylvania. Over 4,000 employees proudly called themselves “Larkinites.” By the 1920s, the Larkin Company had expanded their range of products to cover nearly every aspect of daily life.  

2.2    The Decline of the Larkin Company and the Demolition of the Administration Building

The Larkin Company was once one of the largest and most recognizable companies in the country. Soon after the company reached its largest and most influential phase in the 1920s, the company began suffering from both internal and external pressures. Many of the issues and obstacles faced by Buffalo, and specifically the Hydraulics neighborhood, in the mid-twentieth-century also led to the demise of the Larkin Company empire by the 1950s.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Buffalo’s position as one of the most vital Great Lakes port and railroad city began to weaken. This was due in part to the increasing number of cross-country highways being constructed in the period and the rise of the trucking industry. Also, the creation of new shipping lanes including the Welland Canal through Ontario, Canada (significantly expanded between 1912 and 1932) also helped traffic circumvent the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area. Both of these conditions helped to undermine Buffalo’s historic geographical advantage at the confluence of the Great Lakes and the East Coast.

Consumer culture also began to change during the interwar period as well. The popularity of mail-order catalog business, which had been the backbone of the Larkin Company’s sales strategy from its inception in the 1870s, began to wane as chain stores proliferated across the nation’s small towns, allowing the consumer to view, sample and directly purchase their goods. The increasing popularity of the automobile allowed for greater mobility of small town residents, who could come into the urban centers to visit stores which offered cut-price items with which the fixed-price Larkin products could not compete. In addition to these factors, women, who had been the primary Larkin sales force through the turn of the century, now had increasing opportunities in business and industry after World War I and were no longer drawn by the additional meager incomes which the Larkin “Clubs of Ten” could bring.

The Larkin Company attempted to change with the times and stay afloat in the changing business climate of the post-war era. The first of over several hundred “Larkin Economy Stores” opened in 1918 as a means to compete with the chain stores. The company itself reorganized, selling off subsidiary manufacturers and closing some of the branch offices in the 1920s.

In additional to these external pressures, internal problems also became more serious in this period. John D. Larkin regarded the company as a family-run operation, to be continued by his sons and sons-in-law. Larkin’s oldest son, Charles joined the company in the 1890s, but he lacked a passion for his father’s company and retired in 1920. Other family members were made executives in the early 1900s, including John D. Larkin, Jr., who in 1915 began taking an active role in company policy making, setting the stage for his eventual takeover in 1926. William Heath, Larkin Office Manager since 1902, abruptly retired from the Larkin Company in 1924, and Darwin Martin soon followed, retiring in 1925 after butting heads with John D. Larkin, Jr.

The loss of these critical members of the Larkin Company core lead to a wave of other sudden retirements, including three key members of the Secretary’s Department. The increasing prominence of John D. Larkin, Jr. in the Larkin Company brought about the retirement of most of the men who had built the company in its earliest mail-order days. Following the death of Larkin Sr. in 1926, his son John D. Larkin, Jr. controlled the fate of the struggling company.

Mirroring his disregard for the loyal and experienced executive core of the Larkin Company, Larkin, Jr. had little regard for the stately architecture of his father’s Administration Building. Despite the on-site protests of Frank Lloyd Wright, the younger John Larkin authorized the cutting of large windows into the fifth story of the building. The Larkin Auditorium building, which had played a role entertaining the throngs of Larkin Company employees for many years, was demolished in the 1936 to make way for a parking lot.

He relocated the mail-order business from the symbolic place of honor on the main floor of the light court to the fifth floor, dryly renaming it the “Buying Department.” Various other departments were relocated and rearranged in the various factory buildings, often with detrimental effects on workflow and productivity.

During John D. Larkin, Jr.’s tenure as President of the Larkin Company, between 1926 and 1940, the company struggled with increasing indebtedness. The younger Larkin continued to push for maintaining the large, diverse premium catalog despite the changing marketplace and in the face of new competition. During this period the Larkin Company faced shrinking sales revenues and the increased strain of the Great Depression. By 1939 the situation was so dire that the company’s Board of Directors was forced to take action to avoid bankruptcy.

As part of a restructuring deal, the board separated the Larkin Co. Inc. (the company’s official name at the time) from the company’s real estate holdings, selling off properties whenever possible in order to help pay off the debt. In the same year Harry Larkin replaced John D. Larkin, Jr. as president, and Larkin, Jr. soon resigned from the Board of Directors as well. This same year saw the sale of the Larkin Administration Building to the Larkin Co. Inc., which moved the Larkin department store into the first three floors of the building. The much smaller mail-order department was housed in the fourth and fifth floors.

These moves taken by the Larkin Company were unsuccessful in preventing the collapse of the company, however, and in 1941 additional corporations were created in order to allow stock-holders to salvage portions of the business. By 1943, a creditor’s committee was formed, most of the company’s assets were liquidated, and the creditors were all paid off. As a result, the Larkin Company was left with no assets other than the Administration Building, on which they owed $85,000 in back taxes.

The Larkin Company and the Administration Building was purchased in 1943 by a contractor from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, under the belief that the taxes owed would help offset large profits he was realizing from laying a transcontinental pipeline. When the Federal Government denied the tax break, he abandoned the building, which stood unheated and unmaintained. In 1945 the City of Buffalo took over the Administration Building in a $104,616 tax foreclosure proceeding. The specificity of the design of the Administration Building with its central court and open plan, coupled with the fact it had no in-house heating facility, made its reuse difficult.

The building’s location in the Hydraulics neighborhood, removed from the downtown core, was also seen as an impediment to reuse. In 1946 an offer of $26,000 for the decaying building was made by an anonymous buyer, but the Common Council sought a national advertising campaign as a way to increase the attention on the sale of the building. This plan never materialized, however, once a potential housing project for the building was studied and ultimately deemed unfeasible. Further attempts to stimulate a high selling price for the Administration Building failed, and it continued to decompose. According to accounts everything from lighting fixtures, knobs, plumbing and even the copper roofs had been stripped from the building. The iron fencing of the low brick wall which surrounded the building was removed for a wartime scrap collection.

The last attempt to reuse and save the festering Administration Building was made by councilman Joseph F. Dudzick on April 18th, 1949. Dudzick cried out against the treatment of such a world-renowned building, and announced plans to include the building in the program for city improvements. Ultimately, Dudzick’s attempts to save the building also failed.

On August 20th, 1949 the Western Trading Corporation offered the Common Council $5,000 to demolish the Larkin Administration Building and replace it with new developments which were claimed to provide the city with more tax income. While the sale of the building was met with some public outcry, the sale and impending demolition of the building was seen as a relief to some area residents.

Demolition of the building began in February of 1950, undertaken by the firm of Morris & Reimann. Due to the complex nature of the building’s construction, the Administration Building was taken apart almost by hand. In May 1951 the Western Trading Corporation had plans to build a trucking terminal on the site, but by November they proposed to the Common Council relocating their facility. Their relocation was approved, thus the Larkin Administration Building was demolished to make way for what amounted to a paved parking lot.

Frank Lloyd Wright, upon hearing of the demolition of one of his earliest and most significant buildings, reportedly stated that the building had “served its purpose and deserved a decent burial.”  He had been aware of the disfiguring alterations which the building had suffered under John D. Larkin, Jr. as well as its final decay in the 1940s. In his autobiography he commented, “They [the Larkins] never realized the place their building took in the thought of the world – for they never hesitated to make senseless changes in it in after years.”  Today, all that remains of the once-glorious triumph of modern office design is a portion of the brick and sandstone wall which surrounded the site, located near the Swan Street subway.

The creation of the Larkin Administration Building and its ultimate demise and demolition in many ways mirrored the situation of the Hydraulics neighborhood as a whole. The building’s construction at the dawn of the twentieth-century was an era of great prosperity and success in the thriving industrial and commercial neighborhood. The Larkin Company itself had been a product of all the features which had given rise and made the Hydraulics area a successful place to do business including its proximity to the nationwide network of rail lines, access to raw materials and the availability of a vast immigrant labor pool.

Ultimately, the decay and demolition of the landmark building paralleled the downturn the Hydraulics neighborhood took in the mid-twentieth century, facing population and business loss and the demolition of much of the urban architectural fabric of the neighborhood. Much of the original architectural fabric of the Hydraulics neighborhood has been either altered beyond recognition or demolished all together. Those rare buildings which do remain intact are remnants of the past history of the Hydraulics and survive to tell the neighborhood’s story. Today, both the glorious Larkin Administration Building and the thriving Hydraulics neighborhood are faded memories, relayed solely by the few remaining buildings which bear evidence of the past.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2011
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