First of all, he had a loving family. His father, Levi, was born in England and came to Buffalo in 1834. In 1838 he married Mary Ann Durrrant, also English born, who had been living in Canada. Levi established a business as "Manufacturer of iron fence, stair railing, window shutters and house smithing in general". It was located at 13 Clinton Street, which was also the family's home (and is now the site of the Lafayette Hotel). In addition to his business, Levi joined the volunteer Eagle Hose Company.
In 1852, after developing pneumonia from inhalation of smoke during his fire fighting effort, Levi died at the age of 35. Surviving were his 33 year old wife and seven children ranging in age from 3 months to 13 years . His estate was worth about $2500 plus the mortgaged Clinton Street property. Since Mary had no way to pay the mortgage, she and the children moved out. At age seven, JDL could have been left angry, bitter , frustrated and insecure. Mary struggled to maintain the family, even working in some sort of a nursing capacity, but by 1856 JDL , now 11 years old, and his brother, Levi, were compelled to leave school and go to work to help support the family.
JDL got a job as a messenger boy for Western Union Telegraph. After several months, he became employed by Wm. H. Woodward, a milliners shop featuring high quality goods including silk, velvet, satin, ribbons and artificial flowers (and acquired a distinct liking to such fineries). Initially he was a delivery boy, but foreshadowing the career of DDM,
JDL 's biographer, Daniel Larkin, notes that JDL displayed a "quiet, steady disposition and strict attention to business:" Soon he was promoted to stockboy and then to clerk, demonstrating a "good head for figures, was keenly observant to the world around him and related sensitively to others." Dan Larkin adds that JDL was also handsome and had a good sense of humor.
When JDL's sister, Mary, married Justus Weller four years later, JDL's future took a dramatic turn. Weller had opened a soap manufacturing company at 960 Seneca Street, just beyond the N.Y. & Erie RR crossing, in the neighborhood now known as Seneca-Babcock. (and just maybe half a mile east on Seneca Street from the 64 acres of land JDL would one day purchase for his own soap company)."Jus" and Mary invited JDL to come live with them and work at the soap company. Like DDM who would later go to work for JDL at age 13, JDL entered the soap making business at age 16. Like DDM, who was embraced by the Larkin and Hubbard families in their home lives, Jus and Mary included JDL in theirs. Though he frequently saw his mother and siblings, home was at the Weller house for the next ten years.
The Wellers encouraged JDL in non -work activities. For instance, as a family they went to welcome President-Elect Abraham Lincoln , probably at the Exchange Street train station, on his way to Washington. Dan Larkin notes that the anti-slavery position taken by Lincoln led to a very enthusiastic welcome that captivated JDL. Though he was unable to participate in the Civil War because of the necessity of supporting his family, JDL nevertheless felt strongly about the issue of slavery. The Wellers did not try to curb that enthusiasm. (In 1865, while working for Weller in N.Y.C., JDL went to the funeral procession as Lincoln's train passed through that city.)
JDL wanted to return to school, a plan that was supported by the Wellers. He, in 1864, enrolled in a course at Bryant and Stratton Business School (which had opened in 1854). It may have been the same six month course that DDM took in 1882, "Writing and Double and Single Entry Bookkeeping", under the auspices of the LSC. JDL's diary describes a rather demanding schedule of work at the factory half a day and school the other half.
JDL participated in virtually all the functions of soap-making as well as selling it. At age 21 JDL negotiated a contract with Jus forming a partnership to own a new corporation, Larkin and Weller (really, JDL's name came first!) for the business of making and selling soft soap in the cities of New York, Brooklyn and elsewhere. The plan was for JDL to stay in New Jersey with Jus' sister, Jennie Preston and her husband, Thomas. From there, JDL would make and sell soap in Brooklyn and N.Y.C. On April 10, 1865 JDL proudly drew up a ledger of the new company's assets:
Wagon and frame $107.75
2 pails $7.00
1 dipper $2.75
Steam pipes $10.69
JDL's diary throughout the short history of the company reflects the disappointing sales. Never does he complain about, nor even mention the hard work he was doing all by himself, including hauling ingredients, making the soap and loading the finished products.
What his diary does describe is the fun he had with the Preston family. Together they went to church and to various outings to places like Coney Island, New Rochelle, Key Port and to Hastings where the Prestons owned property. The Prestons served in a very real way like Elbert and Bertha Hubbard served for DDM years later.
But by August JDL was physically ill and probably very discouraged. He wrote to Jus that he desired to terminate the partnership. This probably came as no surprise to Jus, who, it appears was supporting JDL's desire and enterprising spirit to be an owner in the soap industry, but who likely anticipated that the venture might be a failure. At any rate, within a few weeks Jus arrived in New Jersey with a man named 'Washington' who purchased JDL's share. JDL stayed on till 9/28 to assist with the winding up of the business, returning home with only the wagon to show for his effort. Dan Larkin comments, "JDL's first business venture was ended."
JDL continued to work for Jus, but it is clear that no pressure was being placed on him by the Wellers nor by JDL's mother as JDL tried to find himself. He pretty much set his own hours, doing all the hard work of soapmaking like bringing in ashes, collecting and boiling fleshings, framing and cutting soap and selling soaps. That October, he took turns with Jus, working in the factory one day and going hunting the next. Tuesdays were committed to JDL's participation in a singing group. Other days, depending on the season, he took time to go horseback riding, ice skating or sleigh rides. It appeared that JDL was experiencing the healing benefit of being back in Buffalo with family and friends.
His mother remarried and moved with the youngest children to the home and household of her new husband on a farm on the outskirts of what is now Orchard Park.
JDL spent a lot of time there, helping with the farm while maintaining his primary residence with the Wellers.
Dan Larkin sums up this period of JDL's life, saying there was "never a sense that anyone was putting any pressure on him to produce or to succeed. Always he is an important member of a loving, caring family, free to follow his bent and find his way. In these years, we see John vacillating between his love of the farm and the outdoors and his fascination with the world of business which offered the possibility of prosperity that he had glimpsed at the milliner's emporium but which he never really knew."
After spending some time farming at his mother's family farm in Guelph, Ontario, JDL returned to Buffalo, determined to work for his very patient brother-in-law. On April 26, 1867 he was officially hired by Jus at $25 per week and board (presumably at Jus and Mary's home). Dan Larkin says, "The die was cast...JDL was henceforth committed to a career in business."
His diaries changed in character. Instead of their being about people and events, they contained notes about manufacturing functions, specifications for tools and machinery, price lists of labels and containers, shipping costs and recipes for soap.
Together with Jus, a decision was made to move the company to a new venue, and after considering a number of other cities, they elected to create a new company in Chicago. The old company on Seneca Street was sold to Harris Mfc. Co., which was owned by Jabesh Harris, brother in law of Jus' sister, Alice.
A side note - that building was destroyed in a fire in 1888, by which time JDL had acquired and was building the complex with which we are now so familiar. The location of the Weller factory is now a large area of piles of dirt and stone and abandoned equipment just over the railroad bridge east of Smith Street, a less than welcoming sight as one enters the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood.
The new Weller company opened in 1870 in the midst of a very healthy economic climate fueled with the availability of cattle and products from the Midwest. But indeed, it was a cow that first created a near catastrophe for this fledgling company. Mrs. O'Leary's infamous cow started the fire just a few blocks away from where Jus and JDL had set up their new factory. Fortunately for them, the southwest wind drove the fire away from them. Unfortunately for Chicago, it destroyed the city. However, because of the memories literally seared into JDL's brain, all his buildings here are of concrete, steel and brick and are considered to be fireproof.
JDL became a partner in 1871. He continued to live with Jus and Mary and the company was doing well. In 1872 Jus visited his uncle, Silas Hubbard, in St. Louis, which led to an invitation by Jus to his cousin, Frances "Frank" Hubbard to visit him and his family in Chicago. Frank described that visit as follows:
"As we stood on the balcony, a small, handsome dark-eyed young man with brown side whiskers, and a very firm, white chin came running lightly up the steps...John started to speak to me, but I was bashful and dodged back through the French doors, he following me around and around until it became a game, and finally reversing, he caught me and kissed me."
Frank's sister, Mary Hubbard (who would marry attorney William Heath who later was hired by JDL and made an officer of LSC) said about JDL's character that in those early days he had a love of picnics and outdoor frolics, he was fond of music, showed joy and skill in skating and underlying all of it, exhibited profound thoughtfulness.
JDL and Frank were married on May 10, 1874 and finally JDL moved out of the Weller house. It was probably none too soon for other reasons. Mary Weller was becoming increasingly depressed and tensions had arisen between her and JDL. Also, the relationship between Jus and JDL was deteriorating. Weller had maintained a branch of the business in Lockport but decided that it must be closed. He sent JDL to close it, necessitating his leaving his new wife behind. When he returned to Chicago, he found that not only had his wife returned to her family home 100 miles away, but also Jus and Mary had also taken off with her, leaving instructions for JDL to take charge of the company in Chicago. He was extremely disappointed.
By February, 1875 JDL had begun to seriously question Jus' judgment. He learned that, unbeknownst to JDL, the company was losing money. Jus had not been keeping track of accounts as he should have been. Though Jus promised to be more attentive to business, JDL's confidence in him was irreversibly shaken. They negotiated an agreement whereby JDL would move east and establish his own soap business, so long as the marketing territory was fairly divided.
On March 4, 1875, JDL and Frank's first child, Charles, was born. On March 13 the articles of dissolution of the Larkin and Weller partnership were signed.
By April 9, 1875, JDL had executed a lease of a 3000 sq. ft. factory building at 196 Chicago Street in Buffalo for $500 per year. Frank's 19 year old brother, Elbert Hubbard, who had been a salesman for the partnership, moved to Buffalo to work for JDL.
What happened to Jus after the break up with JDL? He moved the business to Detroit but his business still failed: he blamed it on the success of the LSC. He went to Florida for a time and then dropped out of sight. He died in Detroit on January 14, 1901, alienated from Mary and also, it appears, from their two daughters who sought help for their mother from time to time from JDL.
While Jus and Mary were certainly primary players in JDL's success as a mentally healthy, secure and confidant adult, both changed over time. Mary was to become severely depressed and irrational, necessitating confinement. Levi, also, was never able to hold a job for long and wandered aimlessly though his life, also being psychiatrically hospitalized for a time. JDL's mother, Mary Ann, was a remarkable mother given her circumstances.. She cared for JDL's brother, William, was was severely crippled and died in 1904. Sister, Hannah, married and later died at age 34.. Brother, Alvin, died at age 26; Harriet died at age 3.
Ultimately, one must conclude that the major influences were the Weller's and JDL's mother. Also, his father presented as a hard-working, good family man and a hero, whose exploits for the fire department were at least on one occasion, observed by JDL. Perhaps being unpressured, and allowed to mature at his own rate, but with lots of positive feedback along the way, is the secret.
In addition to Mary Heath's assessment of JDL quoted earlier, Elbert Hubbard had written to his sister, Mary Heath, " I came to Buffalo with a man eleven years my senior. He was born in Buffalo of English parents, had learned to make soap, keep books and do business. He was an active, energetic, simple, unpretentious man, with a firm hold on the Scottish virtues of industry, economy and truthfulness - he did not have much money, but he knew what he wanted to do and did it." Mary Heath related the statement in her book, "The Elbert Hubbard I Knew."
Dan Larkin, who clearly loved his grandfather and even worked for LSC awhile, wrote in the biography of JDL, "Beneath John's sense of fun, there lies always the simple sincerity, the unwavering good sense and quiet devotion to whatever course he chose to take in life.'
Mildred Schlei wrote her Master's Thesis on the Larkin Company in 1932. She concludes her second chapter about JDL saying, "He was a man of strong character, high ideals and constructive ability, and achieved notable success in business. As Emerson has said, 'An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man" so the Larkin Company today (i.e. in 1932) is the shadow of its founder and builder, John D. Larkin.
I have yet to find anything in my research that suggests that JDL was anything but an extraordinary man of great character and integrity.
It is not my intent to deify this remarkable man, but to attempt to understand what made him like he was. It would make a wonderful potion to add to the collection of Larkin products!
NOTE: Most of the material for this article was procured from Daniel Larkin's biography of JDL: "John D. Larkin: A Business Pioneer", 1998; Patrick Mahoney's,
"Frank Lloyd Wright's Scholarly Clients: William and Mary Heath, 2015 and "The Larkin Company - A History" by Mildred B. Schlei, Masters Degree Thesis for Univ. of Buffalo, Feb. 1932.