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Everyman’s Desk – The History of the Larkin Desk

by Fred Taylor (10/13/09).


This is the famous “Chautauqua” desk first offered by Larkin in the 1901 catalog for six certificates or as a premium for buying a $10 Combination Case of Larkin Soap products. Variations of this desk were offered into the early 1920s.

This is the famous “Chautauqua” desk first offered by Larkin in the 1901 catalog for six certificates or as a premium for buying a $10 Combination Case of Larkin Soap products. Variations of this desk were offered into the early 1920s.

The term “Larkin Desk” is a familiar one to most collectors and buyers of older and antique furniture, especially to those who favor furniture from the “Golden Oak” era around the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the phrase has become so familiar that the original meaning and source may be a little obscure.

In Buffalo, NY, a young John Larkin went to work in 1861, at age 16, for Justus Weller, who then moved to Chicago in 1870 to establish a new soap manufacturing concern. Larkin became a partner in the business at age 26, not long after the move to Chicago, but sold his interest back to Weller in 1875 to return home to Buffalo, having recently married Hannah Frances Hubbard, a native of his home town. His new small business in Buffalo was the manufacture of a laundry product called Sweet Home Soap, his one and only product. John Larkin may have had the know-how to make soap, but it was his new brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, knew how to sell it—in vast quantities. His marketing efforts were so successful that within two years Larkin had to acquire a larger manufacturing facility and soon made Hubbard his partner in the business.

Elbert Hubbard was a true pioneer in the mass marketing field. His ability with words and his creativity were responsible for the phenomenal growth experienced by J. D. Larkin and Company. His new techniques included the use of premiums enclosed with the product; at first just a small card with a homey scene on it. Housewives traded among themselves to accumulate the entire set. Sound familiar? Another technique was to sell a box of 100 pieces of soap to an individual and encourage them to resell the pieces to neighbors, while purchasing the $10 original box on the installment plan. The reseller not only made a profit, she got redeemable premium points good toward purchases from the Larkin catalog. The Larkin Company, in turn, made a profit and accumulated a huge mailing list of people who bought a disposable product, soap, and would need to buy it again. Hubbard really had an impact on his time and he would do it a second time. In 1893 he left Larkin for a trip to Europe. There he met and was impressed by William Morris (of Morris chair fame) and his artistic ideas. He returned to New York and in 1895 established the American branch of the nascent Arts and Crafts movement in Aurora, N.Y. with the founding of a colony called “The Roycrofters,” a group of artisans dedicated to simpler times and ways.

This Larkin Buffet No. 220, first offered in 1909 for 20 certificates, was one of the first curved glass pieces made by Larkin in the Buffalo factory.

This Larkin Buffet No. 220, first offered in 1909 for 20 certificates, was one of the first curved glass pieces made by Larkin in the Buffalo factory.

Meanwhile, John Larkin’s soap and premium goliath marched on. He awarded such vast quantities of household goods as premiums that he had to start manufacturing them himself. One of the more popular premiums was assorted crockery, which he had heretofore purchased from outside vendors, primarily in New Jersey. In 1901 Larkin chartered his own factory, named Buffalo Pottery, to supply him with premium crockery. Its first kiln was fired in 1903.

But perhaps the most lasting legacy of Mr. Larkin’s industriousness and Mr. Hubbard’s cleverness is in the area of home furnishings. The 1890′s were the roaring years of the emerging catalog sales industry and Larkin was right out there in front with his company motto of “Factory to Family.” And he meant it. All of this happily coincided with the long awaited adaptation of mass production techniques to furniture, generally begun after the Civil War but really coming into its own in the 1880′s.

And mass produce they did. While Sears dominated the market, there was plenty of room for Aaron Montgomery Ward and John Larkin in the furniture industry.

Through Larkin’s effort, Buffalo became one of the major mass-production locations of American furniture. And the preferred wood was oak, preferably quarter sawn and solid—no veneers allowed. The style of the great mass of production furniture was definitely questionable, but all-in-all, it had a kind of “Art Nouveau” flair to it, with swirls, flowing lines and applied decorative motifs.

This scan of page 15 from the Larkin Oak catalog of 1908 shows some of the other desks offered by Larkin, including the Chautauqua, three other drop fronts, two roll tops and a side-by-side. The current catalog is published by Walter Ayars of Echo Publishing in Summerdale, PA.

This scan of page 15 from the Larkin Oak catalog of 1908 shows some of the other desks offered by Larkin, including the Chautauqua, three other drop fronts, two roll tops and a side-by-side. The current catalog is published by Walter Ayars of Echo Publishing in Summerdale, PA.

One of the most popular items in Larkin’s inventory was the drop front combination bookcase/desk. 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.

These desks were all solid oak plank, assembled with nail and glue construction; no fancy joinery here. In fact, in some cases the desks were so easy to assemble that they were shipped flat and assembled on site at the buyer’s house. Molding and trim was applied ash or maple and the back panels were commonly three-layer plywood. Escutcheons were stamped brass and the better desks had brass hinges on the drop. Cheaper ones had iron butt hinges.

No matter the quality and style, or lack thereof, this type of desk became “everyman’s” desk and was a very common item in almost all homes of the period. It was THE hot decorating item for many years and Mr. Larkin’s name was commonly attached to the form, whether it came from his factory or not. Thus we have the “Larkin Desk.”

So many of these desks were manufactured that they are readily available today at relatively reasonable prices. Collectors should look for sturdy, simply built units made of well-grained oak, preferably quarter sawn. Avoid pieces with broken mirrors, missing drop fronts, replaced hardware or signs of excessive restoration such as “hot stripping.” In many cases the original plywood backs have deteriorated and been replaced. The cheapest oak plywood is red oak and a replacement back is easy to spot since the desks are invariably made of white oak. In other words, this is one of the rare, desirable items from our past where enough of them exist that you can be picky in your selection. So be picky.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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29 Responses to “Everyman’s Desk – The History of the Larkin Desk”

  1. My name is jennifer overby i have and house full of antique i would like to sell for estate. If you could please give me and call at 919-685-6748 Thank you

  2. Mimi Sobel says:

    Fred,
    I remember my grandmother talking about the Larkin soap when I was a little girl. Thank you for sharing information so that I can learn more about this company. I enjoy your articles very much.

    Mimi Sobel

  3. Michael Gibbons says:

    I remember my using the Larkin soap to wash our mouths when we were sassy with her. What fond memories and I’ll never forget the flavor.

  4. maryb says:

    Yikes Michael – that doesn’t sound like a fond memory to me!!!

  5. Richard Le Maire says:

    Memories.
    My grandmother was a Larkin Lady i.e. she was a housewife who worked for Larkin all over the country. They were the ones who made a few bucks “on the side” like today’s Avon Ladies. They had catalogues and would either go house to house or have the prospective “buyer” come to theirs–not many phones in those days.
    She would take the coupons, right up the order and send it in to Larkin.
    I recognized the Chataqua desk had in her living room.
    And I remember other Larkin furniture being auctioned off at country auctions growing into my adult years.
    Nice Memories
    Richard

  6. Sharon says:

    The legacy of the Larkin Company lives on in Buffalo, NY. The community is near completion of a $50 Million plus renovation of the Darwin Martin house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Darwin Martin was the Chief Financial Officer for the Larkin Company. Mr. Wright also designed the corporate headquarters, known as the Larkin building, but sadly it was demolished and is now a parking lot.

  7. Terry says:

    I have a number of the Larkin 75th anniversary tokens made of bronze. I even have one about 3″ in diamater. My grandfather gave them to me as a youngster in the 1950′s.

  8. KathyM says:

    This was an especially fun article. Thanks!

  9. Emma says:

    I think I have a Chautauqua Larkin desk just like the one in the picture. It has the original plywood back and original mirror. It was given to me as a gift years ago. How would I find out how much it is worth? I don’t own any other antiques so I don’t know much about the process. Any advise you can give would be appreciated!

  10. Fred taylor says:

    Emma – Larkin Chautauqua desks, like almost everything else, have suffered in the current market. Here are four examples that sold at auction in the last two years ranging from $125 to $310.

    http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/2969128
    $310 1/07

    http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/3583720
    $200 5/07

    http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/4713970
    $125 1/08

    http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/5550360
    $200 8/08

    Most sell in the $200 range.

    Fred Taylor
    Worthologist

  11. Nancy says:

    My father (b. 1910 or 1911 – d.1981)remembered Larkin soap. My maternal grandmother had a Larkin desk that I loved. I let it go to another person after she died as I didn’t have room for it at the time.

  12. Nancy says:

    Whoops! I forgot to specify that the desk my Grandmother (b. 1880? – d. 1971) had was the Chautauqua style desk. Nancy

  13. Toni says:

    Did they also get dining tables for soap coupons?
    That’s the story in our family about the beautiful quarter sawn oak dining table that is in my Dining Room now. I’ve never seen one like it. The center pedestal does not separate when the table is extended. 2 legs at each end of the table drop down for support when the table is extended.
    The pedestal has 4 legs that have what looks like spoon carving. As children,we 4 cousins would each sit on one of those curvy legs and hide from Grandma. We still love it.

  14. Rene' Jaworski says:

    I wanted to tell you that I found your article, pictures and comments most helpful! I found a fantastic set of, what I thought were shelves, sadly sitting on the side of the road here in Detroit, MI. I scooped it up, brought it home and proceeded to strip the paint and sand it down. While I was working on my treasure, I discovered a seal on the back. The seal is complete but shaded,however, I managed to make out “J.D.Larkin Soap Buffalo, NY”. So I went to work researching the name. After reading your article and doing some further research – I realized what I have is an old American Oak Larkin Drop Front Desk! The drop front is missing and the mirror and scroll work are gone but it is solid oak, sturdy and will be wonderful after restoration!
    I am curious, does anyone know where I might find parts or pieces to complete the drop front? There are small holes in the wood where I bet the brackets connected. How exciting! Thank you for your help! What a treasure I found in the trash!

  15. Curt Kentner says:

    I have seen examples of the drop front with both chains and metal hinges. Is one of these the way they were always made or is either way accurate?

  16. bill willis says:

    Dear Sir: I have an old Larkin side by side bookcase/desk and the lock key has been misplaced. Please give me some direction as to how I may obtain a key. Thank you. Bill

  17. Suzanne Van Pelt says:

    I have purchased what I believe is a Larkin desk. There are two shelves below the drop leaf. At the top of the shelf just below the drop leaf is a metal rod which is original to the desk. What was that rod’s function? We would love to know!

  18. Matthew Babson says:

    I found a Larkin desk in an old barn today. It appears to be a Chautauqua desk as in the top picture. It has a dark finish and appears to be quarter sawn oak. It is missing the drop front and the mirror. Do you know of any source for either of these items?

    Thank you for providing this history.

  19. Patrick Sheehan says:

    What a great article! My brother had a Larkin drop-front desk that was painted an ugly bright red and he finally refinished into a beautiful piece. When my dad found another Larkin drop front for sale at $25, I jumped at the chance to get my own. It was painted a horrid olive green. Years after we had from moved western NY across the country to Oregon, my wife finally bit the bullet and had it refinished. It languished as a mere ornament in a corner of our tiny home for years until just recently when she wondered aloud how she could relocate it to a spot where she could actually use it as a desk. We made a switcheroo with a bookcase and it was finally living up to its potential in a matter of minutes. At that point we decided to get the skinny on Larkins and were amazed to see a duplicate of our beauty in the top photo of this article. It was more fun to realize that we grew up near Buffalo and the Roycroft colony in Aurora (which we had previously toured with my dear Aunt Janet Peters, our resident antique expert. Thanks for solving the Larkin mystery with such wonderful connections.

  20. Debbie O'Neill says:

    I have a Larkin slant front oak desk that belonged to my Great Grandfather. We just about abandoned the oak desk when we moved from our Nebraska farmhouse into town in the 1960s. I was 13 and I asked my dad to take me back to the empty farmhouse so I could bring the desk to town and refinish it. I love this sturdy desk and I really do use it everyday. My uncle once told me that when he was a child, they were not allowed to open Grand Daddy’s desk, it had all his important papers. Funny thing is that I just now realized it is a Larkin desk by the instruction sheet glued to the back of the desk on how to uncrate the desk. It also instructs you to polish the desk with Larkin polish to remove dust from travel. Signed Larkin Co. Also, there appears to be “No. 272″ lightly marked on the back upper left corner.

  21. Liz says:

    When I was growing up, my parents were antique collectors. One of my favorite pieces in their collection was a Larkin Chautauqua desk. It was in pretty rough shape when the acquired it and my father’s hobby was to restore their furniture pieces. While working on the desk, he removed the backing of the mirror. We were quite surprised to find a complete section of the New York Globe newspaper dated December 31, 1899 used as padding for the mirror.

    Sadly, the desk is no longer in the family, but the style remains a favorite of mine and I would love to have another. Thanks for the great article that filled in the pieces for me about the history of the Larkin Company and what I grew up knowing as the Larkin Soap Desk.

  22. Linda Dean says:

    I believe I have a Larkin Chautaugua sewing desk and would be interest to know it’s worth as I want to sell it. Any help will be appreciated! Thanks!

  23. David Neville says:

    I have the Larkin buffet no mirror. Do you know how I could one?

  24. i buy a piece i think is a larkin. no mirror but looks like a larkin. it has a design on it oval circle with raised dots all thru it. with like oak leaves on a branch or a vine can you help me with this piece

  25. Don says:

    I enjoyed reading the Larkin history.
    Only correction I have is that Elbert Hubbard’s
    activities were located in EAST Aurora NY, which is
    about 100 miles WEST of Aurora, NY

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