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Treasures: Antique side-by-side desk/bookcase useful, but value has declined

This bookcase and desk go through life side by side. (Handout/TNS)
This bookcase and desk go through life side by side. (Handout/TNS) TNS

Hello,

My 95-year-old grandmother recently passed away and we are beginning to go through her belongings and could use your knowledge. Among a house full of items is this secretary hutch/desk that is 70 by 13 by 38 inches. Are you able to help us?

Thank you,

L. C.

Dear L. C.:

It is unfortunate, but we are unable to do evaluations of large numbers of items in this space. We have to focus on just one or two specific pieces.

To begin let us say the lamp, cup, saucer and china figures are not very valuable, with the cup and saucer less than $15, the figures less than $35 each and lamp less than $100. The sofa is hard to evaluate from the photos, but it’s probably less than $150.

All that said, the secretary hutch/desk is an antique and has a higher value. Some people call these “side-by-sides”; others call them Larkin desks. The latter is due to John D. Larkin, who founded the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1875. The company’s initial product was named Sweet Home soap.

Larkin was aided by his first salesman and brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, future author of the essay “A Message to Garcia” and one of the founders of the American arts and crafts movement. It was Hubbard’s idea to include a “premium” with Larkin’s soap.

At first the giveaways were just cards with the company logo, but they soon morphed into colorful pictures that could be traded among housewives. The idea grew until a free handkerchief came with Pure White soap and a free bath towel with Ocean Bath soap. Soon large wholesale orders came with piano lamps, Morris chairs or oak dining room chairs.

The business was so good Larkin fired all his salesmen and intermediaries and went into mail order. The company issued a catalog (destined to be second only to Sears’) with available premiums, and business was so good Larkin had to set up a furniture manufacturing factory in Buffalo that assembled parts cut in the state of Tennessee. Buffalo Pottery was established to make pottery while glass, silver-plated wares and men’s clothing were purchased from various suppliers.

Side-by-side desks were popular Larkin items, but there is no way to be sure the example owned by L. C. was made by Larkin unless there is an attached label because so many other furniture companies made similar pieces. Still side-by-side units with desk, bookcase and mirror carry the Larkin name whether the soap company actually made it or not.

The unit was probably made in the 1900-1910 timeframe and is still a useful piece of household equipment. But its popularity has greatly declined with collectors over the past decade or so. There was a time when a nice golden oak side-by-side desk/bookcase such as this one would have sold at auction for as much as $800.

Sadly, we are talking about 2005 with that number. Now, similar units are selling at auction in the $175 to $300 range, which we believe is too low and may rise again in the near future.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.

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