By Donna Campbell Smith
Many years ago, I rescued a pretty little drop front desk from my grandfather’s basement. My grandmother apparently painted it every time she felt the urge to redecorate. I striped it down through layers of brown, white, pink and green oil-based paint to reach the beautiful oak wood beneath. On the back of the desk was a label bearing the name “Larkin Soap”. It was long after, with the magic of the internet, that I learned about the Larkin Soap Company and the points housewives could earn for buying Larkin soap to choose a premium from a catalog of furniture.
Larkin Soap Company was established in 1875 in Buffalo, New York but John D. Larkin, Elbert Hubbard, and Darin D. Martin. In the early 1900s they expanded from their soap product to other household items including furniture. They were one of the earliest companies to start selling via mail order. Next, they came up with a clever marketing idea to sell soap. They offered housewives the opportunity to make money selling Larkin soap and at the same time earn premium points that they could spend to get a variety of household furnishings.
The housewives bought boxes of 100 bars of soap and then they resold the soap to friends and neighbors a bar at a time. When they had earned enough premium points, they could choose their premium from a catalog of solid oak wood furniture. The company flourished until the Depression years when it began to lose money. The company avoided bankruptcy but went into decline from then on.
Many pieces of this furniture can still be found in homes today. I still have the ladies’ boudoir desk that I rescued from my grandfather’s basement many years go. I devalued it by replacing the hardware, but its value to me isn’t about dollars and cents. It is more about connecting me to my family history. I’m glad I rescued it from a damp, cobwebby basement. Check your grandparents attic or basement, there may be a Larkin treasure just waiting to be discovered.