Collection ID: Mss. B76-1

Collection context


Martin, D. D. (Darwin D.), 1865-1935
The records of Darwin D. Martin Papers and Larkin Company Inc. consist of Martin's personal papers and the company's activities between 1892 and 1960.
2.5 linear feet and (5 boxes)
Collection material in English .


Scope and Content:

Includes incorporation records, correspondence, financial records, sales summaries, advertisements and catalogs, employee guides, publications and inventories of the Larkin Company, Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y.; and a scrapbook documenting the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.

Biographical / Historical:
J.D. Larkin and the Larkin Soap Company

J. D. Larkin and Company was incorporated May 1, 1875 in Buffalo, N.Y. Its founder was born John Durrant Larkin on 29 September 1845, to English immigrant parents, in Buffalo. Eleven years later, Elbert Hubbard was born. In the 1870's, Hubbard was to join Larkin as his first salesman, rising in later years to become head of the Sales department and, later, Secretary and Treasurer of the company's board of directors and a partner in the firm. J. D. Larkin also married Hubbard's sister Hannah.

In the 1870's young J. D. Larkin entered into a Chicago soap firm that in 1871 branched out for him in the firm's partnership. Eventually he set out on his own to found a soap empire. His main office and first factory were situated in Buffalo; branch operations were soon established in New York, Peoria (Ill.), Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Memphis (although branch factories such as those in Memphis were short lived due to improving freight and mail transportation). Larkin began as a soap producer and manufacturer (read also: chemist, refiner, and perfumer), forming a board of directors which, after the turn of the century, produced some of western New York's most prominent families.

W. H. and D. J. Coss joined the firm in 1875 as Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent, respectively, of the Larkin factories until their retirements in 1909. In 1876, a three-story plant was constructed for soap production at 663 Seneca St. Darwin D. Martin joined the firm in 1878 and in that same year; Elbert Hubbard became a partner in the firm. The first Larkin product was a yellow laundry soap whose price and effectiveness made the firm famous. By 1881 the J. D. Larkin & Co. organization was marketing soap powder. Inside their soap boxes they enclosed a buying incentive: paper premiums that could be redeemed for free gifts. This idea has since been applied by several cereal and detergent companies, in addition to the famous S & H Green Stamps and Brand Names Treasure Chest promotions.

In 1883 Larkin and Company began to manufacture toilet soap; from then on the Larkin letterhead would read, "Producers of Soap of every description and kind, Boraxine, Modjeska, toilet preparations, and chemically pure Glycerine." Two years later, Larkin's enterprises occupied over one acre in the city of Buffalo.

Elbert Hubbard became the company's troubleshooter and innovator, and it was mainly through his creativity that J. D. Larkin decided to initiate a mail order business. Hubbard was also responsible for the diversification of the factory-to-family idea, which reduced overhead from retailers, wholesalers, and distributors -- and increased profits. Larkin products were also sold door-to-door (much like modern-day Avon products) by housewives and school children. By 1886, Hubbard had convinced the firm to market a Larkin "Combination Box." which contained l00 bars of soap along with premiums and enclosed gifts that couldn't be bought in other stores for the original price of the soap ($6). A thirty-day period was allowed to pay for the purchase; this policy was considered outrageous in these days before installment spending and customer credit. Combination Box sales continued until 19l0. Sales of the boxes were so brisk that the traditional bound ledgers became out-moded and a system using index cards was introduced. The card ledger system, since copied by countless other companies, was a Larkin creation; Darwin D. Martin even published a booklet, Making A Card Ledger, about the genesis of the idea. After being paid, all cards (bills) were not thrown away but rather retained to become the nucleus for a customer mailing list. This last was an idea of Elbert Hubbard's.

The 1892 Board of Directors consisted of J. D. Larkin, St. (President); Elbert Hubbard (Secretary and Treasurer); and Charles H. Larkin (Vice-President). On 22 February 1892 the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company was organized with a capitalization of $500,000. In 1893 the first catalog was published, listing free premiums; soon to be published annually by 1909, the catalog became so large that it eventually had to come out semi-annually.

At the age of 35, Elbert Hubbard sold his interest in the Larkin Company for $75,000 in 1893. He retired to become a noted author and art appreciator. In 1895 he established the Roycrofters, an old-world community of artisans and craftsmen in East Aurora (now the Roycroft Inn). Hubbard and his wife died in 1915 when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship they were sailing on --the Lusitania.

With the retirement of Elbert Hubbard in 1893, several corporate changes were made. J. D. Larkin Sr. became Treasurer; his son, J. D. Larkin Jr., became Assistant Treasurer; and L. T. Mudge was eventually made corporate attorney. Business records of the period also frequently mention H. H. Larkin, H. H. Heath, H. M. Esty, W. R. Heath, D. D. Martin (made corporation Secretary), and department bosses E. A. Becket, G. C. Boulton, Mr. Wing, and Mr. Heckman. The company was reorganized in 1899 and took the official name of the Larkin Soap Company.

In 1894 the Combination Box costing $6 was phased out in favor of a $10 version that proved more efficient and profitable to both the customer and the producer; it featured freight payments pre-paid by Larkin. About this time, the mail order business was considerably expanded: the company encouraged the proliferation of "Larkin Clubs" of ten housewives, each contributing one dollar each month to result in the purchase of one Combination Box and a prize lottery (thus increasing the acceptability of buying on an installment plan). Premium lists by this time included lamps, desks, chairs, stoves, furnishings for bedrooms, dining rooms and libraries.

By 1900 the Larkin Soap Company was credited as one of the largest of its kind in the world. In 1900-1901 fittingly sponsored the construction of a building at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

1901 also saw the establishment of a noted Larkin subsidiary, Buffalo Pottery, with an initial capitalization of $50,000. Filling institutional pottery orders, editions for the Larkin premiums and special runs of commemorative china, Buffalo Pottery is still a viable industry in western New York today.

By 1901 the Larkin Soap Company enterprises occupied some 16 acres. In 1904 it was reorganized and renamed the Larkin Company. At the company's height in 1904, it opened its noted Administration Building at 680 Seneca St., designed (in both structure and interior furnishings) by Frank Lloyd Wright in his first commercial venture. The building's offices housed over 1,800 clerks and typists. Larkin real estate holdings grew from 29 acres in 1904 to 50 acres in 1907 to 64 acres in 1914.

The Larkin Company is perhaps best noted for its innovations in personnel management. It offered employees a company gymnasium and a choral society; it purchased a $90,000 pipe organ to play background music for its workers in the Administration Building; it sponsored concerts; and it gave an annual company picnic at the J. D. Larkin St. homestead in Evans Center, N.Y. (The estate later became a retreat for nuns, named D'Youville on the Lake, though some Larkin family members still live on it or adjacent to it on Evans Center Road.)

Besides publishing an employee magazine called Ourselves, which contained company notices, announcements of awards, news and local events, the company in 1919 instituted a cooperative employee ownership plan which allowed employees to share in company profits according to salary, service, and war record. Employees were also given discounts on Larkin products.

In 1921, the company was reorganized to become the Larkin Company, Incorporated. In 1926, J. D. Larkin Sr. died and his son J. D. Larkin Jr. assumed the company's directorship. Around this time, the listed number of Larkin premiums and offers continued to rise but Larkin sales began to drop. Some described the quality of Larkin premium goods as questionable and inferior for gift-giving. (Nevertheless, premium products today show exceptionally high quality and are of great value.) The Larkin Company declined gradually until the majority of the business was sold in 1942. The new owners kept the Larkin mail order business alive in the Larkin Warehouse on Seneca St. until 1962.

In 1950 the acclaimed Larkin Administration Building, having been un-occupied for eight years and severely vandalized as a result, was razed. In 1967 the Larkin Warehouse -- the very last of the Larkin empire that had been comparable to those of Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck -- was liquidated. (The warehouse is currently the property of an interest known as Graphic Controls.)

The importance of the Larkin Company to the industrial and economic development of western New York cannot be overestimated; providing thousands of local jobs and making, a special effort to buy their raw materials and other supplies from Buffalo businesses, the Larkin Company is gone but not forgotten. Few native Buffalonians haven't known a friend or relative who once worked for the Larkin's, or haven't come across a now familiar heirloom: a (once) free premium for a soap purchase.

Darwin D. Martin

Darwin D. Martin worked at the Larkin Company from 1878 to 1925, serving as secretary of the corporation and member of the board of directors. He is noted for his invention of the card ledger system. The Larkin Co. manufactured soap and other household products; it was the first firm to give premiums and was an early user of mail order door-to-door sales, and the installment system. Elbert Hubbard was a partner until 1893.

Date Event
1875-1878: John D. Larkin
1878-1892: J. D. Larkin & Co. (E. Hubbard was partner)
1892-1899: The Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company, Inc.
1899-1904: The Larkin Soap Company, Inc.
1904-1921: The Larkin Company (incorporated in West Virginia)
1921- The Larkin Company, Inc. (Incorporated in New York State)
Acquisition information:
Martin, Darwin R. (deceased); gift; 1976/10/20; 76-40

This collection is arranged in eight series:

  • I. Darwin D. Martin Correspondence
  • II. Stocks
  • III. Sales Reports and Financial Data
  • IV. Personnel
  • V. Advertising
  • VI. Administrative Procedures
  • VII. Larkin Company Publications
  • VII. Darwin D. Martin - Personal.

Rules or conventions:
Finding aid prepared using local best practices.

Indexed Terms



1 Museum Court
Bufalo, NY 14216, United States
716-873-9644 ex