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Buffalo Pottery And The Larkin Company

Author: Brice Garrett

( Article orginally published February 1963 )

The genesis of the Buffalo Pottery lies in a cake of Larkin's Creme Oatmeal Soap. John Durrant Larkin (1845-1926) created the soap, and his brother-in-law and partner, Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), created the merchandising schemes that led to the establishment of the pottery. Larkin and Hubbard, both natives of Buffalo, New York, had worked for a Chicago soap factory, and in 1875 returned to Buffalo to manufacture soap there-prudently agreeing, in those days of free enterprise, not to market their products west of Detroit so long as their former employers did not invade the market east of that city. In 1878, Hubbard became a partner in the business, J. D. Larkin & Co., with a one-third interest. In 1892, the company was reorganized as the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company, in which Hubbard held a halfinterest, and of which he was secretary.

Larkin was in charge of manufacturing, and Hubbard was responsible for merchandising. In 1885, he introduced the idea of by-passing the middleman, and began selling direct to the consumer. The price to the consumer was the same, but he received what represented the middleman's profit in the form of premiums. The idea caught on at once, and soon the Larkin company was buying huge stocks of premium merchandise.

Among the earliest premiums offered was a set of six "solid silver" teaspoons--solid, yes, but of German silver, with not a speck of silver metal in them. The teaspoons were given with a package selling for $6 and containing laundry and toilet soaps, washing compounds, and perfume. When a new premium was off ered-a "Chautauqua Lamp," a tall brass kerosene lamp with a silk shade--the price was raised to $10, for which the consumer received the same amount of soap. Next, a "Chautauqua Desk" was given (or sold) as a premium.

About 1890, Hubbard introduced what he called the Club Plan-a system of selling soap products to groups, usually women's clubs. Again the products were bought at retail prices, but premium merchandise was offered, and generous credit terms were extended to such groups. This new marketing idea was so successful that Hubbard was able to retire from the firm, on January 7, 1893.

After a trip abroad, where he fell under the spell of William Morris, the English exponent of the art-and-crafts movement, he set up a colony of craftsmen called the Roycrofters in his home in suburban East Aurora, and devoted the rest of his life (which ended on the Lusitania in 1915) to publicizing the doctrines of Morris. Hubbard had an immense influence on popular taste in this country at the turn of the century. It is partly due to his activities that today's vocational and adult schools throughout the country teach weaving, caning, ceramics, and other crafts. And to the student of ceramics, it is not mere coincidence that the pottery founded by the Larkin company manufactured "art" pottery, nor is the fact that the general manager of the pottery lived in East Aurora without significance.

The Larkin Company expanded rapidly; by 1914 the main plant contained 64 acres of floor space, and as early as 1911 was employing 2,500 people. Of interest to students of architecture is the fact that the Larkins in 1904 commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design an office building. Completed in 1907, it was one of his earliest such commissions, and an important step in the development of his architectural style. The structure was demolished in 1950. At the same time he designed a home for Darwin D. Martin, who had succeeded Hubbard as secretary of the company in 1893.

The success of Hubbard's soap-merchandising schemes was so tremendous that the Larkin Company gradually began the manufacture of its own premium merchandise. One of the first factories established to produce such articles was the Buffalo Pottery which the Larkin Company built at Seneca and Hayes Streets, in Buffalo, in 1901-02. The pottery was wholly owned by the parent company. It operated 9 kilns from the beginning, and by 1911 employed 250 people. John D. Larkin himself was president of the pottery company until his death, but the person actually in charge of production, with the title of manager, was Louis H. Bown.

It was Bown who in 1908 introduced Deldare ware, which will be covered in a subsequent article in Spinning Wheel. Bown remained with the Buffalo Pottery until the mid-1930s, eventually becoming vice-president. Robert E. Gould succeeded him as general manager and was, in 1960, president of the Buffalo Pottery Company. Control, however, remains in the hands of the Larkins; in 1960, Harry H. Larkin, son of the founder, was vice-president and treasurer, and two other Larkins were directors. Today the pottery is still operating, at the same location, with the same number of employees, but production is limited to hotel china. The Buffalo Pottery's first production were semi-vitreous china. The ware was of such quality that it soon entered the regular wholesale trade channels, and by 1908 the pottery had selling agencies in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. By 1911, Buffalo pottery was being exported to 27 countries. During the 1914-18 war, the company turned to the manufacture of hotel china. After the war, semi-vitreous ware and Deldare made a brief come-back, but were abandoned in the 1920s.

One of the principal outlets for the products of the pottery continued to be the premium-based business of the parent company. The catalogs of the Larkin Company for 1911 and 1913-14, from which the illustrations here are taken, offered no less than a dozen different patterns in dinner sets of Buffalo pottery as premiums to be had with certificates of purchase of Larkin products. In addition to patterns pictured, were a Gold Band pattern set, and one called Minerva, with sprays of pink roses. Most were decorated undergiaze, and all but Seneca and Blue Willow bore gilding.

The factory was very good at underglaze blue-printing, a decorating technique never common on American pottery, and a fine piece of Buffalo Willow pattern is equal in quality to most of that made in England, home of blue-printing. Other patterns based on this technique include a Dr. Syntax series, and various commemorative patterns-the 50th Anniversary of Wanamaker's, views of public buildings, etc.

Buffalo pottery was most often clearly marked, the usual device being the obvious-a buffalo, with the name BUFFALO POTTERY, printed. Frequently the year of manufacture is added; the writer has examined pieces of Willow pattern dated as early as 1907 and as late as 1917. On wares deco rated with overglaze or underglaze painting, the signature or initials of the decorator were frequently added.

Below: Larkin office building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright



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