Back in November and December, I was able to make it to a few urban trail runs hosted by Flying Bison Brewery. Now, I’m not a runner, but walkers are welcome too, so I’ve been to several of these. It’s one of the few things I can do with friends, while keeping a good distance from each other. (Another reason urban hiking is awesome!) For those of you who are thinking it, social distancing and masks are required at these events. This gives me a chance to urban hike around Larkinville of course, because Flying Bison is right there on Seneca Street.
With all the recent changes going on in Larkinville, I got to thinking about what used to be here. What it was like in the more recent past. But also long ago when this area was referred to as ‘the Hydraulics’.
Shortly after I published a post about the Medical Corridor, I received an email from Jerome Puma. During our email exchanges, he offered me a tour of the Larkin Gallery. Well, you know I never turn down the offer of a tour of anything Buffalo related! So, off I went to the Larkin Gallery. More about that later.
As I sit down to write about Larkinville, I realize that this will have to be a two part series. One, about the Hydraulics and the Larkin Company. And one about what is happening in Larkinville now and how the Larkin Gallery is preserving the history of the Larkin Company.
Let’s get this party started.
In 1827, Reuben B. Heacock founded the Hydraulics Business Association, bringing together several business owners from this immediate area. The Association was responsible for bringing the Hydraulic Canal to the area in that same year. It was fed by the Buffalo Creek and was later connected to the Erie Canal by way of the Main and Hamburg Canal. This is how the name ‘Hydraulics’ was coined.
This was Buffalo’s first use of industrial waterpower. By 1832, the same year Buffalo incorporated as a city, this area was flourishing as the center for business and industry. There was a saw mill, a grist mill, a shoe last mill (shoemaker), a hat factory, a pail factory, and, of course, a brewery. Always breweries, this is Buffalo after all.
There were also many smaller mom & pops who supported these businesses. These would have included ‘garage’ businesses where small parts were supplied to and repaired for machinery used by industry. There would have also been churches, general stores, bakeries and other food service, messenger services, barber shops, taverns and more. The Hydraulics also contained homes, boarding houses and apartments for the many people who lived and worked in the area.
By the early 1840’s railroads came into the neighborhood and served both the people and the companies in the area. Shortly thereafter the canal was no longer used and was filled in by 1883.
The Hydraulics would have been a bustling, thriving area of Buffalo.
The Larkin Company
It’s important to note that the Hydraulics was already well established by the time John D. Larkin and his wife’s brother, Elbert Hubbard, brought Larkin’s two year old soap company into the district in 1877. But his company grew so fast that it would become a major force in the hydraulics for the next 60 years or so. He added on to what is now the Larkin Commerce Center several times in order to accommodate the growing business. He built several other buildings in the district as well for the same reason.
The Larkin Company pioneered several business practices, including but not limited to, catalog sales and the practice of giving rewards for purchases. The “Larkin Idea” put simply was that by selling directly to customers, the cost of the middleman was avoided, including their own sales force. This made it possible to create what was referred to as ‘premiums’ or in other words, a reward for purchasing Larkin products. Hubbard originally came up with the idea of including little decorative cards and postcards with each order, as a little ‘thank you’ for the purchase. Within a few years, Larkin and Hubbard decided to stop using salesmen altogether. They began marketing directly to the customers in their homes with catalogs. The money they saved by not paying sales commissions were spent on ‘premiums’, or rewards.
In the 1890s, Hubbard left the Larkin Company and established the Roycroft Movement in East Aurora.
How Did ‘Premiums’ Work?
Here’s how it worked. When you purchased Larkin products totaling $10, you would receive a ‘premium’ of your choice. The soap and other products that Larkin sold (eventually totaling more than 900 widely varied items) were highly regarded. The company was well respected for quality. The premiums were also good, quality products. They ranged from lamps to desks to living room chairs, to phonographs, dining room furniture, china, silverware and more. In fact, The Larkin Company formed Buffalo Pottery (later Buffalo China) in order to keep up with the demand for premiums.
Larkin products were eventually everything from soap and shampoos, to food and food additives, condiments, shoe and furniture polish, oils, perfumes, painting supplies and wallpaper. Picture frames, manicure sets and nail polishes, hosiery, clothing patterns and clothes! The list is seemingly endless! It would not be difficult to spend $10 when you page through a catalog with that many items. But you might be surprised at how many items you could get for $10 back in the day!
The Larkin Company recruited women (mainly housewives) to start ‘Larkin Clubs’ made up of ten women who would get together monthly. The ten pledged to spend $1/month on Larkin Products, and the women would take turns choosing a ‘premium’ item. Some clubs were larger than 10, some smaller. The women would each receive a premium every 10 months or so, depending the number of women in the club. The ‘secretaries’ would receive a nominal commission. And the company would be assured regular customers. It was genius really. A total win win.
And of course, if you could afford it, you could place an order for a $10 purchase whenever you wanted. Like in this video below, produced by the Larkin Company.
It’s a fantastic look into the history of the Larkin Company, but there are also other things to note as well. The hand wrapping of the soaps, but also how mechanized the factories actually were for their day. I’m pretty sure OSHA would have found the Larkin Company to be in violation of several regs! Haha! Also, the mail truck and other vehicles! The writing of the order in letter form seems so quaint today, but I’m sure that’s how it was done.
This video was brought to you courtesy of Jerome Puma, Director of Acquisitions at the Larkin Gallery.
The Larkin Idea was a Huge Success
By 1920, the company employed 2,000 people, and had $28.6 million in sales (worth roughly $372,500,000 in 2021). That, my friends, is a lot of bread. Absolutely incredible.
The success of the company allowed Larkin to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to build a state of the art, and a work of art, administration building on Seneca Street across from the Larkin Commerce Center. Completed in 1906, the building was noted for its many innovations, including rudimentary, but effective, air conditioning; built-in office furniture, much of which was metal and very unusual for the time; and state of the art public bathrooms.
It was built of red brick with pink mortar, featured two outdoor waterfalls, and that wrought iron! The interior was, in typical Wright fashion, stunning. It held a five-story atrium in the center and open work spaces on the outer walls of the building.
The company eventually topped out at 4,000 employees in the 1920’s. The Larkin family, along with all of the employees, celebrated the company’s 50th Anniversary in 1925.
The Beginning of the End
As early as 1915, John D. Larkin Jr. was getting more involved in the managing of company policies. William Heath (John D. Sr’s brother-in-law and Office Manager) retired in 1924. Darwin D. Martin, long-time and trusted company secretary (probably would be equal to a V.P. today) retired in 1925. It is reported that they had differences of opinions with Junior on how to move forward with the future of the Company. Just what those were, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. After these two left, several other high ranking employees who had been around for a long time followed suit.
This is never good for a company. When so much experience walks out the door, there is bound to be trouble. Not always insurmountable, but definitely a sign of trouble to come.
In 1926, John D. Larkin passed away at the age of 80. John D. Larkin Jr. took over as president. The company struggled through the stock market crash and the ensuing depression that followed.
All of this came at a time when regular folks had better access to automobiles, and retail department stores became more and more common. It was no longer necessary to order products through the mail. Customers could now walk into a store and purchase items that they could actually look at before buying, and take home with them that same day.
The Larkin company, under John D. Jr, tried several different ways to keep up with the changing times, but in 1940, a restructuring of the business took place in order to avoid bankruptcy. Harry Larkin (John D. Jr’s brother, and son of John D. Sr.) took over as president, and John D. Jr. retired that same year. The company was broken up into smaller corporations in order to salvage portions of the business for the stockholders.
What about the Administration Building?
The Frank Lloyd Wright designed building was eventually sold to a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania contractor hoping the back taxes owed on the building (amounting to just over $104,000) would offset huge profits he was making elsewhere. When the federal government denied the tax break, the building sat empty for many years.
The city took possession, and half-hearted attempts were made at selling it, but being removed from the downtown core made it a difficult sell. In the end, the Western Trading Corporation purchased the building for $5,000, promising to tear it down and infill with new builds creating a new tax base for the city.
The Administration Building was taken down in 1950. The materials were used to fill in what used to be the Ohio Basin, now Father Conway Park, between Louisiana Street and Ohio Street. New infill, creating that promised tax base, never materialized.
The video below is a stunning look at both the exterior and interior of the building we have now lost. The Video is courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
In speaking to Jerome Puma, Director of Acquisitions at the Larkin Gallery, I was surprised to learn that The Larkin Company continued to sell items until 1962, and never went bankrupt. Like most, I thought the whole thing ended in the 40s. But Buffalo Pottery continued to operate, with Harold M. Esty, Jr. (John D. Sr’s grandson) as president from 1964 – 1970. It was sold to Oneida in 1983. Good to know.
The story of the Larkin Company is obviously much more complicated than I’ve just laid out for you. But I would have to write a book, and that’s already been done. The best one I’ve seen is John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer by Daniel I. Larkin, John D’s grandson. There is a lot of history in this book about the man, his family, and the company. It reads like a novel at times, and is extremely well written. When I read it, I felt like I had traveled back in time, and you know how I love that.
All that said, I get a real feeling in this area of the city. Of days gone by, of history, of industry. Of Buffalonians going about their daily lives experiencing the joys, the struggles, the hopes and dreams for the future, just like we do today. Perhaps I get this feeling because it is once again a growing, thriving part of our city, with people staking their futures on success in this same area where The Larkin Company once made its mark on the history of Buffalo.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, Larkinville – Part 2, where we’ll discuss what’s happening in Larkinville now. Who are the people and the businesses that are already here, and we’ll take a closer look at the Larkin Gallery, located in the Larkin Commerce Building. One trip to the Gallery, and you’ll know why so many people are still fascinated with The Larkin Company, and indeed the Larkin family, today.
I’m one of them. See you next week!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in reading about where the Larkin family lived here in Buffalo. Spoiler alert: their homes were (and some still are) spectacular! Enjoy!
**Special thanks to Jerome Puma – couldn’t have done it without you!
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