Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Larkin Company - An Early Mail-Order Business

Minnie ca. 1898
When Minnie was a little girl, she used to ride with her father when he delivered wood to the villagers in Fort Plain, in his rig pulled by his horse Maude. When they had finished delivering the supplies, sometimes they would stop at the Larkin Company store and she would buy a list of things that she wanted.

Minnie also mentions in the reminiscences recorded during her later years that her mother had a Larkin chair in the house. Her mother had a Larkin club, as it was called, which would meet monthly. At each meeting, the women would "put names in something and draw them out, and every month they would have a meeting and the person whose name was drawn would have the next month's meeting."

What was this Larkin Company that Minnie mentioned? The Larkin Soap Company was founded in 1875 in Buffalo, New York by a forward-thinking entrepreneur named John D. Larkin. He had started his career in business at the age of twelve by becoming a Western Union telegraph messenger. Larkin learned soap manufacturing while working for his brother-in-law for eight years, then set up his own business.

The Larkin Soap Company's first product was a simple bar of yellow laundry soap that was marketed under the clever name "Home Sweet Soap." This was so successful that the company soon branched out into other varieties of soap, and later to a great variety of products for the home, eventually setting up over 150 chain stores in western New York State.

The real marketing genius of the company was John Larkin's brother-in-law Bert Hubbard, who pioneered the idea of mail-order sales. As an add-on to the direct sales, by offering premiums and bonuses in return for purchases, and to the housewives who hosted the Larkin Clubs, the company was able to do away with middlemen and thus cut costs. The Larkin chair mentioned by Minnie was probably a premium acquired in this way.

The Larkin Clubs were established to enable customers to buy catalog items on the installment plan. Ten housewives would set up a group and each pledge to order a dollar's worth of Larkin products. Each month, one club member selected at random would receive the $10 bonus gift, and the next month another member, and so on.

With the variety of foodstuffs the company offered, it was no surprise that they would soon solicit recipes from across the country based on the foods produced. This was the basis for the cookbook discovered in Minnie's pantry and mentioned in last week's post.

By 1893, the company was sending a semi-annual catalog to 1.5 million customers. "From Factory to Family" was the company's motto. The product line expanded continually as well; 1912, the year Minnie was married, saw 550 products in the catalog; soon an entire home could be decorated with Larkin products, from foodstuffs to furniture, china, rugs, lamps, curtains jewelry, clothing, and tableware. No wonder Minnie wanted to stop at the Larkin store with a shopping list!


"A Brief History of the Larkin Company";, accessed 10/6/2012.

"John D. Larkin - Biography";, accessed 10/6/2012.

"The Larkin Soap Company";, accessed 10/6/2012.


  1. This is very good blog. This is real marketing genius of the company.
    thanks for sharing "mail order".

    1. Thank you Cameron, I'm glad you like the blog! I have a lot of fun researching and writing it.