Monday, June 25, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Success



QUESTION: My grandmother has what she calls a “Larkin” desk. It doesn’t look like a normal desk but more like a tall oak bookshelf with a drop-down writing surface. She remembers her parents acquiring it around 1911.  Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: One of the most popular items from the Larkin Company was the drop-front combination bookcase/desk, also known as the Chautauqua desk. This desk became a common piece in homes at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1875, John D. Larkin opened a soap factory in Buffalo, New York, where he made two products— a yellow laundry soap he marketed as Sweet Home Soap and a toilet soap he called Crème Oatmeal. He sold both products using wholesalers and retailers. Larking originally sold his Sweet Home Soap to street vendors, who in turn sold it to customers along their routes. By 1878, he had expanded his product line to nine types of soap products.

His brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, the eventual founder of the Roycroft Arts and Crafts Community, came up with what he called "The Larkin Idea"—door-to-door sales to private residences. To establish brand identity, Hubbard, inserted a color picture with the company's logo into every box of soap as an incentive for customers to buy more soap. Housewives accumulated and traded these picture cards, and eventually the cards became more elaborate. This concept of offering a gift directly to customers was a new approach to marketing. And by the 1890's, Larkin’s premiums had become an overwhelming success and a vital part of the company’s   marketing plan.

The premiums Larkin offered included handkerchiefs with toilet soap, towels with soap powder, or one-cent coins. Eventually, Larkin inserted certificates into the packaged products which could be redeemed by mail at the company’s Buffalo headquarters. A $10 order of soap resulted in the awarding of a premium with a retail value of the same $10. By 1891 he placed his first wholesale order of items to be given as premiums, $40,000 worth of piano lamps. The next year he acquired 80,000 Morris chairs and 100,000 oak dining chairs—all to be given away with the purchase of soap.

Larkin and Hubbard knew the key to mass merchandising was to eliminate the sales force and sell directly to the consumer via direct-mail catalog. Larkin realized he would be better off if he made not only the products he sold, but also the premiums he distributed. His pitch was that since he manufactured the products he sold, unlike Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and sold them directly to the consumer, he was eliminating the "middleman" and giving the customer better value for the money. The Larkin Company motto became "Factory to Family." By the end of the 19th century, catalogs jammed people’s mailboxes.

The plan worked. Both his product line and his premium line expanded. By 1893, the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company was sending semiannual catalogs to 1.5 million customers.

His first venture was the furniture assembly plant in Buffalo that made furniture from parts cut and milled in Tennessee. Here for the first time was a major catalog distributor who actually made the furniture they shipped. Furniture was one of the company’s primary premiums. Since Larkin was appealing to the mass market, he made sure to offer furniture premiums that appealed to ordinary people and not the wealthy.

His most famous premium was his oak drop-front desk with open bottom storage, first appearing in the 1901 catalog, that the company gave as a premium for a $10 purchase of soap. Constructed of either cold or quarter sewn oak plank, assembled with nail and glue construction, with a golden finish, each desk featured applied ash or maple molding and trim and back panels of three-layer plywood. Better desks also had stamped-brass escutcheons and brass hinges on the drop panel. Cheaper ones had iron-butt hinges. A somewhat oval French beveled mirror finished off each piece. Variations included a glass front case with a drop-front desk attached to the side, two glass front cases with a desk in the middle, or simply a drop-front desk with a small open bookcase below the drop and candle stands above it, with a mirror in the high splashboard. This small desk reflected the taste and style of the Golden Oak period of American furniture in a form modest enough fit into any middle-class home.

This type of desk became "Everyman's" desk and was a common item in most homes of the period. It became a trendy decorating item and remained so for many years. People began to associate Larkin's name to the form, even though his wasn’t the only company to manufacture them, and so evolved what has become known as the "Larkin Desk." Today, Larkin desks sell on eBay for around $400 and sometimes higher.

John Larkin and Elbert Hubbard not only provided the means for a growing American population to stay clean at a reasonable cost, but they also helped them furnish their homes for free.

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