A Buffalo Story: Memories of the Larkin Soap Company

John D. Larkin was born on Clinton Street in Buffalo in 1845 to Levi and Mary Ann Durrant Larkin. He was one of seven children. When his father died at the age of 35 in 1859, Larkin had to leave school and go to work to raise money to support his family. 

John Larkin was a very enterprising young man. At the age of twelve, he obtained employment. After working for a variety of businesses, he was employed by his brother-in-law, Justus Weller, in his soap company. He learned everything that he possibly could about the soap industry while working for his brother in law. He even followed his brother in law to Chicago in 1870. Before long, John Larkin was a partner in Justus Weller’s business. John Larkin’s brother-in-law did him another favor. Justus Weller introduced John Larkin to his cousin, Frances Hubbard. John Larkin and Frances Hubbard were married in 1874 in Hudson, Illinois.

John Larkin’s wife was the sister of Elbert Hubbard. After a while, John Larkin sold his interest in Hubbard and Larkin. He moved to Buffalo and started his own soap company. It became very famous and, to this day, there are many artifacts remaining of Buffalo’s time of being the soap capital of the universe. Jerome Puma (pictured above) is a collector of these artifacts. He has made it into a second career. He buys and sells anything connected to the Larkins and the Larkin Soap Company. He also does consulting work on this topic and he gives presentations, such as the one that he gave at the Grand Island Historical Society on June 5th. He is so enthusiastic a collector that the Larkin family issued a proclamation in 2010, adopting him as a family member for “collection of all things Larkin and festooning his residence” with said objects. He was also described as a “lecturer in his own time.”
As you can see, there are many things related to the Larkins.

Before the soap companies came into existence, women made soap at home. They used beef fat and tallow for the project. It was a messy and a smelly business. The soap companies changed all of that by selling sweet smelling soap. One of the more famous soaps that they sold was Boraxine. By 1875, this soap was sold to retailers.

The soaps were sold by people called “soap slingers.” They went door to door selling soap. One of the soap slingers was Darwin Martin. He started working for the Larkin Soap Company when he was twelve years old. By the time that he was sixteen, he had been made head bookkeeper. Five years later, he was a highly paid executive of the company. Elbert Hubbard wrote about Darwin Martin’s meteoric rise to success. Elbert Hubbard himself had an interesting life. He had worked for John Darwin for some time. Then he quit to go to further his education at Harvard University. He was not a good student. He returned to Western New York and founded the Roycroft Community.

The administration building for Larkin Soap Company was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In the building’s heyday, 1,500 women worked in the stenographers pool. It was quite some building. It housed the fifth largest pipe organ in the world. People who delivered the messages traveled around the building on roller skates. It was considered to be a wonder of architecture. In 1950, the building was torn down and replaced with a parking lot. No one today knows why that happened.

Frank Lloyd Wright also designed Darwin Martin’s home (the Darwin Martin house) in Buffalo near Delaware Park and Darwin Martin’s summer home (Greycliff or the Isabelle Martin house) in Derby, New York.

The Larkin Soap Company grew and diversified. It made products, such as foot powder, perfume, and coffee.  It started other companies, too, such as Buffalo Pottery, which later became known as Buffalo China. It was a profitable and famous company. In 1919, the King and Queen of Belgium came to visit. The calendars that the Larkin Soap Company produced were considered to be works of art.

At one point, the Larkin Soap Company was bigger than Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward in terms of catalogue sales. Eventually, however, the demand for the products that the Larkin Soap Company sold declined. In later years, there was also issues with poor management.

Today, collectors, such as Jerry Puma, are able to collect the many things that survived the decline of the Larkin Soap Company.

The Larkin Soap Company was a big part of Buffalo when it was truly thriving, when people traveled in street cars to their jobs. The destruction of Buffalo’s street car system is another story for another time.

3 thoughts on “A Buffalo Story: Memories of the Larkin Soap Company”

  1. Francene Stanley

    I hadn't heard of this soap product. I grew up in Australia and now live in England. However, the family and company went through many changes over the years in those early days in Buffalo. I remember the smell of the old lyal soap in the 40s. I used to wash nappies in it, because it was said to be pure. Just imagine, lathering up each nappy with a soap bar.

  2. What a lovely story. I loved the term soap slingers, it conjures up something quite funny. Shame that the company declined, I guess so many do when they don't go with the times or have poor management.

  3. I've heard of Larkin soap many times and remember running into products at antique auctions in the mid-west, too. I think their packaging was often very pretty. I'd never heard of "soap slingers" before! So interesting!

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