Once branded on everything from groceries to gasoline, the Larkin name spelled “comfort, economy and happiness,” from factory to family.
Back in the days when every neighborhood included a corner grocery store and often a gathering of commercial establishments, the Larkin Economy Stores were well known in Peoria. Today, the single largest reminder is the name “Larkin” atop the building at 408 SW Washington Street. Directly behind it, on Water Street at Harrison, the company’s former warehouse is now better known as 401 Water, its eight stories filled with offices, shops and condominium apartments. The company’s one-time gas station stands to the south on Washington Street and is currently vacant, having last housed Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Most of its grocery stores disappeared years ago.
The Highest Home Ambitions
What started in 1875 as a soap company in Buffalo, New York, grew to be a mail-order operation, then added a grocery chain and a collection of gas stations in key cities. In 1925, when the Larkin Company celebrated 50 golden years, Peoria was home to 27 Larkin Economy Stores located throughout the city, with an additional 13 stores in the surrounding communities, including Chillicothe, Pekin, Tremont and Farmington. The warehouse in Peoria served 12 western and southwestern states, receiving and shipping thousands of orders and employing hundreds more.
The Larkin Store on Washington Street was a department store, showcasing merchandise that “spelled comfort, economy and happiness” from factory to family. The company proclaimed itself “one of America’s outstanding outlets of goods to supply the daily needs and highest home ambitions of America.” The neighborhood stores also sold groceries, meats and bakery products, all carrying the Larkin name and reputation: “to save all costs for customers that add no value to their purchases.”
Peoria’s Warehouse District, now being prepared for redevelopment, grew out of the city’s central location and recognition as a transportation hub. In the 1920s, Water Street was considered Peoria’s broad commercial avenue, with the river serving as the main highway. Railroads followed the same path, with 100 trains chugging through Peoria each day, moving passengers and freight. The Larkin warehouse had its own siding and loading platform on site, and train cars could actually enter the building.
Sales & Marketing Pioneers
- From its inception, Larkin was an innovator in sales and marketing, taking its products directly to the consumer via door-to-door campaigns and direct mail solicitations. It also achieved success with giveaways of small premium items to entice larger purchases, as well as its “Combination Box” samplers, which allowed customers to try the products and return them if they were not satisfied.
- The “Larkin Clubs of Ten” allowed families to pool their resources to purchase these “Combination Boxes” and share the premium items, while others purchased and resold them while keeping the premiums. “In this way, the Larkin Company replaced the typical sales force with primarily housewives and women, effectively reducing packaging, shipping and administrative costs… These clubs were the forerunner of Avon, Tupperware parties and other types of female consumer-sold products.”
- Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1906, the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York, “was the height of modern technology, creating a sealed, healthy indoor environment, and pioneered several hygienic features in large office buildings.” A primitive air-conditioning system circulated fresh air throughout the building, while a large interior courtyard brought in natural light. True to form, Wright designed custom, built-in furniture for the building, from file cabinets and desks to wall-hung toilets. “Everything about the building was designed to be clean, efficient, pristine and modern.”
- The decline of the company was due to a myriad of factors, including poor management, the rise of chain stores, the effects of the Great Depression, the increasing popularity of the automobile, and a variety of changes in consumer culture.
Source: buffaloah.com, featuring excerpts from the nomination for inclusion in the State & National Registers of Historic Places by Jennifer Walkowski.
Founded by John D. Larkin, the company began as a family operation. The selection of Peoria for its major facility outside of Buffalo no doubt reflected Larkin’s ties to central Illinois. His wife, the former Frances Hubbard, grew up near Bloomington, as did her brother, Elbert, who joined as a “commercial traveler,” on the road selling soap. “Bert” Hubbard organized buying clubs across the country where leaders ordered product in bulk and sold to club members. Buyers could earn Larkin premiums and bonuses, which the company began to produce in-house. Ultimately, it manufactured furniture, dishes, housewares, paint and even clothing, and began selling through mail-order catalogs.
On April 1, 1902, Larkin established a branch office on South Adams Street and showrooms in Peoria. The following year, the office moved to 509-511 S. Water Street, and in 1905, construction began on the eight-story brick building at 111 Harrison. Completed the following year, it was enlarged in 1911 by the addition on Water Street, which made Peoria the company’s largest branch. Larkin boasted of mailing 1.5 million copies of its catalog in 1925, as well as five million more folders and letters, in addition to parcel post package mail. Most of the company’s 900 catalog items were manufactured in factories covering 16.5 acres in Buffalo. The Peoria warehouse was the single largest patron of the Peoria post office, and it bustled with orders.
Larkin’s Peoria showroom at 408 S. Washington Street included elaborate displays of home interiors, promising the same high-quality merchandise and excellent service as in Larkin’s other departments. Its corporate culture promoted a family atmosphere, with company picnics and excursions, an orchestra and chorus, and an Old Guard Association, which in 1925 included 150 members who’d served with the Peoria operation for at least 15 years.
In 1923, the company opened a gas station in Peoria and began selling “Larkin Hammerless Gasoline.” Two years later, it was considered one of the best equipped and busiest stations in the city. Its slogan: “Once a Tankfull, Always Thankful.” The location, strategically situated near a railroad siding, allowed tank cars to be unloaded nearby. However, company documents show the Peoria station lost money between the years 1923 and 1925, as well as 1934 and 1937, and soon, Larkin was out of the gasoline business.
Demise of a Retail Giant
In 1926, John Larkin passed away. Many of his early associates had already left the company, including his brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, who founded Roycroft, an artists’ colony, and became a well-known writer, artist, publisher and philosopher. The business began to decline under new management, and of course, the effects of the Depression. What had grown to become a 65-store chain of grocery and general merchandise stores here was sold in 1937 to Kroger Grocery & Baking Company. By 1941, Larkin had also closed its gas stations and the Peoria retail store. Its corporate headquarters in Buffalo, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first large commercial building, was eventually given to the City of Buffalo and ultimately demolished in 1950.
Hiram Walker purchased the 174,000-square-foot warehouse in Peoria and used it for storage before selling it in the mid-1960s to Foster-Gallagher, another significant mail-order company that was once located here. In 1985, the building closed, and it was given to the city. Built to be fireproof and structurally solid, it was nonetheless decaying, until Ironfront LLC, a partnership of Kert Huber and David Golwitzer, bought and renovated it in 1999.
The former Larkin’s Department Store at 408 SW Washington Street is currently being rehabbed for an office client, while its one-time warehouse on Peoria’s riverfront showcases the potential for the many solid and architecturally attractive buildings in Peoria’s Warehouse District. iBi
Photos courtesy of Peoria Historical Society, Special Collections Center, Bradley University Library