Articles At A Glance
Factory to Home Selling
THE LARKIN IDEA
By: Roy Nuhn
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, March 2007
The soap wars of the 19th century were fought not on any battlefield, but from the advertising office. Since soap is basically a generic product, tremendous attention was devoted early to educating the consumer into believing that there was a difference and that a special benefit was theirs for buying a particular brand name. Most companies tried to establish this difference by adding scents or coloring, but the majority preferred to offer a vast variety of premium gifts.
The greatest practitioner of giving customers "something extra" was the Larkin Company in Buffalo, New York, which tirelessly honed the concept into an art form. And in doing so, progressed far beyond being a mere soap maker into being an important producer of all types of cleaning, laundry, polishing, toilet, food, clothing, and sundry goods.
Their fantastic premiums, consisting of furniture, clocks, clothing and musical instruments, were in many ways a microcosm of the Sears "Wish Book." Of course, what interests collectors most about Larkin, bedsides the furniture and decorative pieces, is the vast amount of booklets, pamphlets, magazines, circulars, trade cards, premium catalogs, postcards and advertising materials. This ephemera is also the most reasonably priced and easiest to find of all Larkin memorabilia.
As with all things, it began with a man and an idea. John Durrant Larkin was born in Buffalo on September 28, 1845. At the age of 16 the need to help support his family took him out of school and into the work world at a small local soap factory. A quick learner and an adept worker, young Larkin steadily progressed upward and eventually became a full working partner when the firm moved to larger quarters in Chicago. There he met and married a girl from Buffalo and a mutual longing for the old home town caused them to return to Buffalo in 1875.
There Larkin set about establishing his own soap company and becoming allied with his brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard (of Roycrofter fame), a cracker jack salesman and superb advertising copywriter.
The first product out of Larkin's small factory was Sweet Home, a yellow laundry soap - "the finest best seasoned and most economical soap to be had" - which was sold to retailers, most of them pushcart vendors who sold door to door. In 1879 came Sweet Home Washing Fluid and then, in 1881, an oatmeal Boraxine, advertised as "cheaper than soap."
To compete with the Babbit Company and other manufacturers who were inserting tiny picture cards with each bar of soap, Larkin offered better and more interesting trade cards of superior artistry. Each case of 12 came with a beautiful souvenir card, usually picturing children or lovely women.
These started appearing inside one product, Boraxine, from the moment it hit the store shelves and they will be found with copyright dates of 1881 onward. Their Sweet Home soap may well be the source of the largest number of Larkin cards, since it was their best seller.
Premium gifts were the next step forward and with Larkin's newest product, Pure White toilet soap, they experimented by including a handkerchief in each package of 12 bars selling for a quarter. Overwhelming favorable public response was instantaneous and soon another item, Ocean Bath soap, was being marketed, this time with a bath towel inside a twelve-pack. This, too, was a hit with the public and the company began planning bigger and bigger schemes. Another innovation was to make soap available to retailers as a house brand with its own name and advertising on the wrapping.
At the turn of the century, Larkin's products included many soaps and other related merchandise such as cold cream and tooth powder. They soon began marketing food, household goods, and a host of other products to the housewives of this country.
The idea of free gifts caught the public's imagination and business boomed. In 1899 the company gave birth to their ultimate brainstorm - that of having "secretaries" (housewives on the lookout for ways to pick up merchandise for their homes) organize clubs of 10 members. As secretary, she would receive a special premium for running the club. Each member put in $1 per week and took turns ordering $10 combination packets, which, of course, came with free premiums.
Previously in 1895, they had introduced the "Club-of-Ten Plan," whereby 10 ladies gathered together for a social event, purchased $1.00 worth of products each and then drew straws for the premium. The secretary club plan was also a logical extension of the push Larkin was always giving to the idea of the family's children going out and peddling the goods to neighbors and relatives and thus earning a premium for his or her family.
The firm's heyday was from 1890 to 1912 and during this time numerous Larkin magazines, including the famous "Larkin Idea," which was a promotional publication aimed at the thousands of club secretaries around the country; brochures; flyers; and finally, in 1893, a catalog which went to one and one-half million women every six months; were published. Today, all of these publications make fascinating and interesting collectibles.
The firm found it necessary to begin manufacturing its own premiums, operating, for instance, the famed Buffalo Pottery Co. to satisfy the unprecedented demand for their merchandise. Much of this output, however, bypassed the premium catalogs and was sold elsewhere.
After the end of World War I, in 1918, there came a dramatic change in the buying habits of the American housewife, thanks in large part to the mobility offered by the automobile. Larkin began to experience a continued decline in sales and importance. They were a 20th-century company still operating with 19th-century ideas - ideas that were strikingly successful in their time, but which had by now become out of date. They struggled mightily from 1940 on, but finally, in 1962, had to go out of business.
Among the huge amount of paper ephemera published by the firm, the least expensive - but still a bit difficult to find nowadays - are the trade cards and advertising booklets. These are items which came as part of the product, its packaging, or the promotion of it.
Thanks to Larkin's massive outpouring of ephemera, collectors of today find it easy put together a good representation of the company and it's many products.
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