Furniture Detective: The story behind the Larkin desk



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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, N.Y., 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 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. Elbert 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.

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 Larkin’s industriousness and Hubbard’s cleverness is in the area of home furnishings. The 1890s 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 1880s. 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.

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 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 were applied ash or maple and the back panels were commonly three layer plywood. Escutcheons were stamped brass and the 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 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. ?

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com.

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is 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). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.



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Furniture maker John Larkin relied on the marketing prowess of his brother-in-law to turn his practical desks into a household necessity. Photo courtesy Fred Taylor

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