By Barbara Brady Brown
As a docent for the last 10 years at the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, I have had the privilege of attending numerous field trips and workshops provided by an organization known as MECOB. That’s the Museum Education Consortium of Buffalo, whose mission is “to provide inspirational and challenging educational opportunities in art, architecture, history and the natural and physical sciences for the residents of, and visitors to Western New York.”
The recipients of this mission also include the docents from 13 different cultural organizations in Buffalo.
Visitors to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex enjoy a short video introducing them to the lives of Wright and Martin prior to the tour. In Darwin Martin’s background, his association with the Larkin Soap Co. and its founder, John D. Larkin, is explored. Having watched this clip hundreds of times, I had not pursued a deeper appreciation of the importance of John D. Larkin, the company he founded, and its impact in Buffalo’s history.
That deficit was recently corrected by two events: the fall field trip sponsored by MECOB to the Larkin Center of Commerce, now a privately owned entity, and a long overdue reading of Daniel Larkin’s detailed history of his grandfather’s life and business ventures in Buffalo, with emphasis on the Larkin Soap Co.
During the MECOB tour, three well-versed docents educated the group about the marvels and history of this Buffalo-based enterprise. Founded in 1875, after learning the rudiments of soap making from his brother-in-law, John Larkin oversaw the building of more than 1 million square feet of space, becoming one of the largest mail order houses in the country. It was the Amazon of its day, eventually selling products directly to customers with the slogan “Factory to Family” and cutting out the middleman.
We viewed a modest recreation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Piers that graced the entrance to the Larkin Administration Building, and learned that portions of this iconic building remain underneath the parking lot that has, sadly, replaced it.
Our last stop on the tour was to learn about, and share our amazement at, many of the hundreds of products that were manufactured on the site. Many of them are now displayed in the Larkin Gallery along with some of the premiums that were added to encourage and entice sales.
That face-to-face experience provided by the field trip inspired me to tackle Daniel I. Larkin’s book, “John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer.” Published in 1998, it is a detailed and loving history that includes the humble beginnings that shaped his grandfather’s world views.
Like Darwin Martin, whom he had hired as a 12-year-old soap slinger in the early days of the company, he had gone to work as a young boy to help support his widowed mother and siblings. Relying on extensive research that included family documents, letters, scrap albums and photographs, Mr. Larkin presents a comprehensive portrait of his grandfather, the businesses he founded and so carefully nurtured, the family he and his wife raised, and the qualities he embodied.
This hard-working gentleman, who referred to his creation as “the works,” was known for his friendliness and kindness. Concerned about the welfare of his employees, which numbered 2,000 in 1925, he provided opportunities for recreation that included athletic teams, picnics, and even a piano in the office to break the monotony of work.
These recent events have expanded my knowledge and appreciation of Buffalo, its early history and John D. Larkin’s contributions. The area known as Larkinville has a rich history indeed.
Barbara Brady Brown, of Buffalo, has been immersing herself in local history.