A Brief History of the Larkin Soap Company Premiums
John Larkin Soaps
John D. Larkin founded a soap factory in Buffalo, New York, in 1875. His factory produced two products, Sweet Home Soap, a yellow laundry soap, and Crème Oatmeal, a toilet soap. The soaps were sold through wholesalers and retailers.
A New Sales Approach
In 1881 Larkin started selling his soap through door-to-door sales to residential customers. Small color picture cards imprinted with the Larkin custom logo was enclosed in every box of soap. By the 1890s, premiums were central to the Larkin approach to sales. Early Larkin premiums included handkerchiefs, towels and one-cent coins. Later Larkin included certificates which could be collected and redeemed through the company’s Buffalo headquarters.
Today, the small picture cards are collectible in their own right. The images are often of sweet smiling children engaged in play. Dogs and kittens are frequent companions of the children.
Larkin began to sell his company products through mail-order only, and by 1906 the Larkin catalog items numbered in the hundreds. Toothpaste, scouring paste, fabric dye, coffee, tea, spices, extracts, baking powder, toilet articles, paint, furniture, peanut butter are examples of items that could be purchased through the catalogue.
By 19122 the catalogue included more than 500 products, including furniture.
The establishing of the “Larkin Club”, whose members were called, “Larkinites” allowed customer to buy items on the installment plan. Ten customers could form a Larkin Club. Each club member contributed one-dollar per month. One Club member, the Secretary, would buy a Combination Box of soap and then distribute the products and premiums to Club members. The Club Secretary was eligible for special premiums based on the sales volume of the club.
The Chautauqua desk is the most recognized piece of furniture offered in the 1901 Larkin catalogue. The desk was made of solid oak with a golden polished finish, applied carving, a bevelled mirror, and had a drop front with an open bottom for storage. Simpler versions of the desk eliminated the mirror and had less elaborate carvings. The desk was given as a premium for a $10 purchase of soap.
Larkin was the first major catalog distributor who actually made the furniture offered as premiums. The Buffalo Pottery factory was founded to meet more premium needs.
Much of the furniture produced by Larkin was unmarked and requires documentation to authenticate it origins. The picture cards or advertising cards display the Larkin Company custom logo and are there readily identifiable.
John Larkin died in 1926 and the company was closed in 1941. The City of Buffalo demolished the Larkin Company headquarters in the 1950s due to owed taxes. The building had been designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright.