It was a trip with Marge that introduced me to FLW's masterpiece, Fallingwater. My roommate on that trip was Ruth Tauriello, by then a widow. Ruth shared with me many stories of her life with Sebastian during the years they lived in the Martin House where they did their best to deal with the challenges it
Marge was at that time writing a book about the Martin House and she asked me to help her with some of the research. One of the projects was tracking down a painting, a photo of which she had seen in a Buffalo newspaper in 1951 entitled "Why Forsaken" painted by Norma C.M. Meienknecht. The article queried why the famous masterpiece had fallen into such terrible neglect. The painting revealed a darkened house, covered in snow and surrounded by bare trees against gray skies. The famous house was then alone and forlorn, with a pathetic little "for Sale" sign protruding from the snow.
I learned more about the artist from the archives at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. From Erie County Clerk's Office records I found a deed from the sale of her home many years before that showed a California address. Miraculously, she still resided at that address. Even more miraculous, she had never sold the painting and had it with her. Graciously, she allowed Marge to use it on the cover of her book, "Rescue of a Landmark: FLW's Darwin D. Martin House," published in 1990.
That same year Marge was the Guest Curator of an exhibit called "The Larkin Way" at the Amherst Museum. She quickly put me to work helping her to track down and set up the exhibit of historical objects from the LSC and its subsidiary, Buffalo Pottery. It was there that I met another amazing person who further fertilized my interest in FLW and LSC, Jerry Puma. Jerry, of course, is my "partner" in putting together the Larkin Gallery located in our lobby. He has been known nationwide many years as the most knowledgeable person about Larkin, maintaining a web site and creating a "community" of Larkin collectors throughout the country (much to the benefit of the Gallery).
While working on the Amherst Museum exhibit with Marge, I happened to come across, in an antique store in Allegany County, the Larkin ledger which is now on display in the Gallery. It first appeared in the Amherst Museum exhibit and has been in a number of other exhibits over the years since I acquired it.
So what is this ledger? Covering the period between 1899 to 1903, it is a file system containing memos posted on peg boards relating to day-to-day issues that arose. It was a collection of notices from company management communicating instructions and other information to the employees. Notices would be posted for a time, and when taken down, would be placed in the scrapbook or "ledger", as this book was called. (Many of the pages have memos that clearly reveal tack holes in their corners.) It can be assumed that though this book relates to the mail order department functions, a similar system was used in other departments such as manufacturing. Also, it is fair to assume that similar ledgers were kept both before and after the time period covered by this one. We would love to find more of them.
You might also notice that some memos are duplicated and that the dates on the memos affixed to each page often are not precisely chronological. That is likely because more than one memo might be placed around the department, and when taken down when no longer needed, they were placed in the ledger based on the take down date.
The ledger is far too fragile to tolerate much handling. In 2010 when Jerry Puma and I helped organize a family reunion for Larkin descendants. I copied some of the more interesting memos and created a scrapbook for them. One of the scrapbooks is on top of the display case in the Gallery inviting perusal. Interestingly, the first page of this ledger has a brief memo dated Jan. 2, 1900. It was written to "Heads of Departments" (suggesting that the same memo might have been placed in other departments' ledgers). It read, "It is one of your first duties to read carefully and thoughtfully every
bulletin posted on the boards."
Just above it is a lengthy memo written by Darwin D. Martin (DDM)
dated Dec. 16, 1899, encouraging employees to make suggestions about how
jobs could be done better and to place the suggestions in a designated box.
He cited an example and added, "This would have been an excellent suggestion for the box, and would have permanently placed this clerk on record as seeking to improve our methods."
In past articles I have stressed the generosity of the LSC towards its employees, both in terms of benefits as well as recreational and social activities. The company stressed that all its employees as well as customers, were part of the Larkin Family. But along with that concept came responsibility. JDL expected the employees to be most attentive to filling every minute of their work day with tending to their duties as efficiently as possible. To this end, the memos are instructive and give us a rare glimpse of the workplace.
The ledger also gives us interesting insight into the contrasting personalities of two of the most important executives, DDM and William Heath (WH). As I point out some of the memos, note DDM's rather direct and terse language while WH is rather philosophical and even poetic in persuading employees to heed the directives.
Many of the memos deal with conditions in the complex effecting health. One of my favorites, addressing the dusty conditions of the buildings (before the FLW-designed Administration Building to which this department was moved in 1906, affording that staff great relief from dirt and pollution), was signed simply "Larkin Soap Co.":
"Everyone knows that breathing air in which millions of particles of dust are floating, is injurious to health. In spite of all ordinary precautions by means of a good janitor service,
there is in this office the condition described, as best disclosed by every sunbeam. It is due to the constant moving about of many people. We hope to devise methods of communication and for transmitting papers which will decrease largely the walking about, but we ask for the co-operation of every young woman in the office in obviating the dust nuisance. "After Jan. 1
st, we request that all skirts worn shall be not less than four inches from the floor. "Rules for dress seem arbitrary, but all will appreciate that this rule has substantial foundation of common sense, and its observance will contribute to the personal comfort, the convenience and the health of all, and will mark you as considerate of your fellows - a quality not to be underestimated."
The skirt issue was dealt with again on March 22, 1900. It noted that since the prior memo, the LSC had "spent a lot of money to improve the ventilation and light... thereby adding to the health and comfort of all." But the memo went on to bemoan the fact that not all women had complied. "In again asking those to comply with the spirit of the request...On and after April 2
nd, it is expected that the young women will each so arrange her wardrobe that in passing about the office her skirts will generously clear the floor." An undated newspaper article followed, telling of a microscopic inspection of a long skirt by a bacteriologist revealed 200,000 germs including dyptheria, pneumonia, typhoid and consumption.
The memos and article were apparently effective; a photo from 1907, a year when skirt lengths were still generally full length, shows the female employees leaving the Administration Building, all with shortened dresses. Photo from Shane Stephenson's newly released book, "Images of America: The Larkin Company," p. 58.
Another health-related memo written by DDM on Jan. 2, 1900 pointed out that
sitting for long periods of time with feet improperly positioned leads to discomfort
and fatigue which diverts attention from accomplishing work. Employees were urged by DDM to pick out foot stools of a height and slant comfortable for them.
On March 3, 1901 DDM instructed the employees to "never stand in office
chairs which have casters. It isn't good for the leather upholstered chairs. If the
caster slips, it won't be good for you."
Employee benefits are frequently the subject of memos. . For instance, the company had a "credit union" sort of thing wherein employees could deposit money. Periodically the ledger has information about interest earned in those savings accounts.
Employees could shop at the company store during their lunch hour. They were permitted to purchase items for use in their own homes, and received a discount if they paid in cash. Schedules were established for small groups to go to the store at a time so that all shoppers could be accommodated during the allotted lunch period time.
On Oct. 31, 1900 a memo announced that the :"Sweet Home Inn" lunch room
was now opened as of Nov. 1 - men only and bring your own lunch! If you were a man and an employee, by Jan.23, 1903 you could purchase six lunches for $1.00 or a single lunch for 20 cents at the newly opened "Larkin Luncheon House" at 680 Seneca St.
There has long been controversy over whether the LSC or the Barcolounger Company was the first to offer as a benefit a 'coffee break.' Howard Stanger, a professor at Canisius College, who has done much research into the business history of the rise and decline of the LSC, says that both companies began the coffee break sometime in 1901. It is of note that E.J. Barcolo and JDL were good friends. In fact, Barcolo was one of the pall bearer's at JDL's funeral in 1926. I believe that the ledger provides proof that the coffee break began prior to 1901 at LSC. A memo dated Jan. 13, 1900 suggests an even earlier date when it revised the procedure for retrieving the coffee. "Hereafter, coffee for lunch will be placed on tables... with the necessary cups, spoons and sugar." Employees of certain sections were instructed to go to specific tables so as not to overcrowd them. A later memo indicates that the date of the earlier publication of the coffee break procedure may have been Dec. 1, 1899.
Managing the coffee break, however, was an ongoing source of angst, however. Management struggled with how to handle it efficiently. A surly memo was posted dated Feb. 24, 1900 threatening, " The coffee privilege will be discontinued without further notice unless all cups are returned to the four coffee tables. Cups have been left in every part of the office by those who do not appreciate the privilege." By March 2, 1900 another angry memo was issued by LSC: "The rush to obtain coffee is annoying to the management and very unseemly as well...The management is glad to supply coffee but it insists upon proper behavior on the part of employees enjoying the privilege." The
Memo then went on to set forth new procedures to make the process more efficient.
Clearly disgusted, a notice was posted dated Nov. 13,1900. "We have been asked why the company does not furnish spoons with the coffee. This is why: On Dec. 1, 1899
one hundred eighty spoons were put into the coffee equipment. Today the office owns six tea spoons. We do not furnish spoons because the spoons are all gone." Signed, LSC.
In January, 1901 management complained about the "unseemly scramble to obtain coffee each day," and revised the procedure once again for getting the coffee. Finally, on March 7, 1901, DDM issued instructions that required "each group of six people must register and will be given a number reflecting the order they may come to get the pitcher" of coffee.
Another benefit offered by LSC was in coordination with the Buffalo Public Library which established a satellite branch at the LSC, but its problems were a frequent cause of admonitions. DDM raged, "This office is in disgrace at the Buffalo Library because on returning books to the library it was found that there were 34 volumes short. Four volumes of these have been recovered. RETURN them!" (March 20, 1901). On April 18, 1901 DDM attached a note from 'Miss Morrison' who had just found a library book at her house and was very embarrassed.
Efficiency is a frequent topic in the ledger. The efficiency expert at LSC was considered to be William Heath. His admonitions tended to plead, reason, persuade and otherwise motivate employees to "behave." A good example is his memo of Sept. 1, 1902 when he dealt with the wasting of pencils. He pleaded, " Pencils cost money. Most firms insist that a pencil shall last a clerk a given length of time. The LSC buys good pencils and is not stingy of them. The clerks are duty bound not to be wasteful." WH urges staff to sharpen them when they become dull, not get new ones. He goes on to say, " This is a good place to begin habits of economy that will be of value to you all your lives." DDM would probably have simply said, "Bring back your pencil worn to the nub and we will then replace it."
Several times in the ledger DDM returns to the theme of employees making suggestion for improvement of procedures by leaving messages in the suggestion box. Noting the company's ever increasing business success, on Jan. 27, 1900, he wrote
that its magnitude creates "a burden of responsibility greater than a few can carry and do justice to our enterprise." He urged the employees to think how unnecessary work will thereby be eliminated. The goal was to be a well managed business with a person doing all the work he enjoys.
DDM initiated a policy for employees to file error reports. Each clerk was charged with the duty to "impersonally and impartially" report all errors. "No personal
injury is intended by the impartial reporting of errors." He underscored that anyone making negative comments or abusive statements tending to create "the delusion that the error record is a hostile institution" would be sufficient cause for discharge. Clearly, the error report system was intended to constructively improve work and should not be viewed as punitive. (Feb. 9, 1900). A memo dated Dec. 8, 1900 offers a reward of a dollar or two for each error an employee finds in a catalog about to be published.
Many memos deal with specific office procedures. Throughout the ledger there are notices related to how to format letters, instructions for filing, and how to fill out forms including the customer information index card which DDM had created in order to
eliminate large, heavy ledgers of orders and shipment information. A copy of a sample
customer information card is attached to a memo explaining it dated May 11, 1900.
An office manual was developed in 1900; a draft of it was made available to the employees and a memo was posted inviting employees to make recommendations for changes. (Oct. 2, 1900)
Attendance and tardiness issues permeate the ledger. Monthly tardy lists were posted and included a person even if he or she were only a few minutes late. There could be no 'cheating' by being at your desk but not working. For example, on Feb. 17,1900
the LSC issued a notice that "Rubbers must be left at the coat and umbrella rack. Rubbers must not be taken to the desks. This rule is forced upon us by those employees who insist upon using the co's. time to put their rubbers on."
Since late street cars often caused employees to be tardy, WH offered to intervene with the trolley company if the employees would document the lateness
occurrences. (Nov. 30, 1901)
Employees with good records of timeliness were given awards including a full day on Thanksgiving off instead of having to work till noon. (Nov. 22 and 27, 1901)
One of the oldest employees of the company was George Barton, DDM's brother-in-law.
He won recognition for having never been late. (May 2, 1901).
Thanksgiving in 1901 was a big issue. Employees were expected to work till noon, but there was such an outcry that the company relented and gave them all the whole day off, not only the ones with good timeliness records. Nov. 27, 1901 h
owever, there must be no absences nor tardiness on Friday.
The year before apparently there was a lot of lateness and absenteeism around
Thanksgiving. Forty-eight clerks had not been paid for the Thanksgiving Day holiday a
nd they were quite upset. The LSC noted in a memo dated Dec. 4, 1900, that the provision in the employees' manual that says, "Absence in a week which is shortened by a holiday: pay for the holiday is allowed only to those who devote every working hour of the week to the office.: " The memo went on to underscore that pay for holidays is not a legal right of employees. When pay is granted, therefore, under certain conditions, it is not unreasonable to ask that these conditions be complied with."
Apparently the trolley had been late during Thanksgiving week and employees felt it unfair that they should lose pay for Thanksgiving at no fault of their own. DDM responded on Dec. 10, 1900: "When you employ them (i.e. the trolley), they are your servant. You are responsible for the shortcomings of your servant; our company isn't."
WH entered the argument saying, "LSC doesn't want any employee's money, does not want any rules, does not want any penalties. It does want willing service from happy, enthusiastic, capable people. Promptness is one of the essential qualities of such."
DDM then responded with a compromise: "Those tardy not exceeding ten minutes, nor oftener than once a month who were among the 48 will be paid for Thanksgiving."
That one was expected to work while on the job was made clear when a poster was placed on the memo board stating that "All conversation is
absolutely forbidden during business hours, except such as pertains directly to the business." (Oct. 15, 1900).
The employee's manual, said DDM on May 4, 1901, provides, "Upon the sounding of the gong all clerks must immediately be seated at their employment." He added that this rule had not been very closely observed of late.
On Nov. 3, 1900 WH posted a full page essay on 'character.' "Character is the greatest word in the English Language; it means more than good reputation." He then launches into a recitation of the Greek origin of the word. WH discusses how the company, at the behest of the employees, made a change in the tardiness rule, and to the company's great dismay, it was rewarded with an even greater amount of tardiness. He
asks, "Is it possible the company overestimated the character of the office?" and notes that "The character of the office is the average character of the employees." He adds
that "Punctuality in an individual is by no means everything but it is one of the 'assemblage of qualities' that makes good character."
DDM would have probably said, "you abused the privilege; the old rules will be
On the issue of an employee taking more than the allowed one week vacation. WH said on July 15, 1902, "If a girl (cringe - he said it; not me) adds a week to her limit of vacation, we shall probably be so used to getting along without her by the time she returns that we will not need her again."
A few other interesting tidbits were memorialized in the ledger. The Company offered a $10 reward for information leading to the identification of a thief who stole 14 cents worth of postage stamps. )Jan. 12, 1901)
On July 17, 1901 a price list was posted in the ledger from May, 1899 that was embellished with an etching of the then existing Larkin factory buildings. The document notes that the factories cover ten acres. It is described as "the only great soap works in the world devoted to successful cooperation with consumers. Our entire product goes directly from Factory to Family without tribute to middlemen." This may be the first
usage of that motto after a competition open to the employees to create language that would describe "The Larkin Idea.." A memo on March 13, 1901 from DDM named
employee, Miss Dale, as the winner with the phrase, "Save all cost which adds no value."
A Nov. 28, 1902 memo recites that "Since March, 1895 after the recovery from the Panic of 1897, there has been no time when buildings were not being erected, or apparatus and machines installed to extend our plant. For the seven years indicated, our floor area has increased from 2 to 18 acres.
DDM notes in a memo dated Dec. 2,1901 that JDL had been appointed a member of a Committee in Erie County to raise money to contribute to a the cost of a national memorial to be built in Canton, Ohio in honor of Pres. William McKinley, who had been assassinated in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition.
And on Nov. 28, 1902, having perhaps finally quelled the unrest over the Thanksgiving holiday, JDL hand wrote a memo posted on the peg board that read:
"It gave me great pleasure on Thanksgiving day, to receive the kind words from and the signatures of those who make their home with us here, a part of each day. I thank
you all." He had not signed any of the other memos in the ledger, apparently leaving the unpleasant job of dealing with employee issues to DDM and WH. He preserved his image as the paternal, caring head of the Larkin family household.