John D. Larkin was born in Buffalo in 1845 where the Lafayette Hotel now stands. He attended public school in Buffalo and at the age of twelve he became a messenger working for the Western Union Telegraph Company. In 1862 John Larkin began working in the soap factory of his brother-in-law, Justus Weller and in 1865 he learned bookkeeping by taking courses at Bryant and Stratton. In 1875 Larkin set up his first soap factory with only one product, a yellow laundry bar named “Sweet Home Soap”. The business grew so quickly that in 1877 he purchased two lots on Seneca Street and set up a number of factories that were soon producing nine different types of soap.
"World’s Largest Manufactory of Soaps, Perfumes, Toilet Preparations and Pure Food Specialties. The entire Product goes direct from Factory to Family without tribute to Middlemen."
Larkin’s first salesman was his wife’s brother, Elbert G. Hubbard, and in 1878 Hubbard hired Darwin Martin who ultimately introduced John Larkin to Frank Lloyd Wright. Under Hubbard’s urging, the Larkin Company pioneered the idea of mail-order merchandising. The idea was hugely successful; by offering premiums and bonuses in return for sales, the company was able to dispense with a sales force.
In the early 1900’s the continued success and growth of The Larkin Company resulted in the need for an administration building which Frank Lloyd Wright designed. The Larkin Administration Building accommodated the 1800 corresponding secretaries, clerks and executives. The Larkins needed a clean and comfortable building in order to attract first-rate employees (mainly women) to an otherwise industrial section of the city.
By 1910 the company was receiving nearly ten thousand letters of request per day and could hardly keep pace with orders. Larkin’s innovations extended to his treatment of his valued employees. The long list of employee amenities included daily exercise, savings accounts, educational services, men’s and women’s clubs and even free coffee. A dental clinic, doctor’s oÿce and public library branch were all on-site. An early air conditioning system provided fresh air and Larkin installed a $90,000 pipe organ for the enjoyment of his employees.
The Larkin Company became one of the world’s first and largest mail order retailers and the company’s, motto “Factory to Family” introduced new and innovative ways of marketing.