Abstract: Larkin Clubs of Ten: Cooperative Buying Clubs, Small-Town Consumption, and the Larkin Company

Howard R. Stanger

Abstract

The Larkin Company began as a modest soap company in Buffalo, New York, in 1875. Until 1885, it sold soaps through the normal channels of the time. In 1885, taking advantage of Buffalo's rail networks and the success of mail-order in the hinterlands, Larkin embarked on a new selling strategy called "The Larkin Idea," whose motto, "From Factory-to-Family," reflected its direct sales approach that kept prices low. Innovations in the use of premiums also stimulated sales. By the late 1880s, the company retired its sales force and relied exclusively on mail-order. Around 1895 it institutionalized a network of cooperative buying clubs called the Clubs of Ten. A "secretary"—mostly married women from small towns—organized nine other women to pool their limited financial resources to buy Larkin soaps in bulk. Each member received a premium, while the secretary earned additional gifts. These families could furnish their homes in middle-class fashion with the company's premium offerings. Club members were incorporated into Larkin's unique "family-based" corporate culture that also included employees, managers and executives. This progressive company also hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a radically designed administration building in 1903. Larkin's success as a hybrid manufacturing/mail-order concern helped it weather the Panic of 1893. After reaching its peak in 1919, it experienced a slow decline owing to a number of internal and external factors. Entry into retail, in 1919, did not help. The Depression mortally wounded the company. Although the club structure continued into the 1940s, the company was a shell of its former self. The paper concludes with Larkin Company's important legacy to business history—the precursor to the post-World War II party plans made popular by Avon and Tupperware.