Quick History: Wedgwood

Retrospect

When we think of Wedgwood china, we think of tradition, conservative design and white gloves. But the origins of the company are a lot more interesting than your typical luncheon. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) developed the company from a family business to a global brand, and along the way developed innovative methods of producing and selling goods that we take for granted today. He was also a prominent abolitionist, and Charles Darwin's grandfather. Let's take a look at Wedgwood, one of the founding fathers of post-industrial capitalism.

Josiah Wedgwood was born in England in 1730 to a family of potters. A childhood bout with smallpox left his leg too weak to work the potters' wheel, so Wedgwood turned his attention to designing instead of creating pottery. Maybe it was this inability to participate in actually making the pottery, that allowed Wedgwood to reconsider the materials and processes of the potter's profession.

Ultimately, Wedgwood's accomplishment was to create a mid-level market of earthenware ceramics, one that was higher-quality and more stylish than the tableware of the lower classes without the prohibitive cost of porcelain from the royal manufactures. He did this not for some lofty goal of bringing "good design" to the middle classes, but simply to make as much money as he could at his family profession.

To reach the middle-class market and keep prices low, Wedgwood sold his goods through advance order, via traveling salesmen, a few showrooms, and printed catalogs. This way, Wedgwood knew exactly which pieces to produce, avoiding waste.

He also offered customization options: a customer could get the same shape plate but with different kinds of designs transfer-printed onto them. These were totally new ideas at the time that greatly appealed to a population that aspired to the tastes of their kings, but could not afford to buy "fancy" royal china. Ironically, once Wedgwood's business took off, he became popular among those tastemaking royalty, like Catherine the Great of Russia (image 4) and Queen Charlotte, George III's consort. After delivering the Queen's order, Wedgwood got her permission to call his goods "Queensware," a genius marketing move that made him the first person to essentially license a celebrity's name, harnessing aspirational purchasing in his own favor.

Since Wedgwood was selling by advance order, he had to deliver a product that looked exactly like the model the customer had selected. He had to eliminate inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his production. Through years of experimentation he developed creamware, cream-colored earthenware that did not rely on glaze (which was highly unreliable) for its color. Wedgwood still had some designs painted by hand onto his wares, but developed a process to transfer-print enamel, further reducing inconsistencies. Although an early kind of assembly line had already been developed to some extent, Wedgwood took division of labor to new levels, separating the work into small units performed by different workers so as to attain maximum efficiency and consistency. These practices kept costs down while bringing quality up.

An important way Wedgwood reduced costs was by producing simple shapes. Instead of the asymmetrical, irregular shapes of the mid-18th century Rococo era (image 3), Wedgwood's new goods had plainer silhouettes, with gentle waves and sober lines. These could be stamped out of a mold rather than sculpted by hand, again, reducing inconsistencies and speeding up production. This is an example of how Wedgwood was 'in the right place at the right time' to be such a success, since the changes he made coincided with a widespread shift in taste toward Neoclassical sobriety, and away from the exuberant Rococo.

As Wedgwood's wares became increasingly popular across the continent, his name became synonymous with this new Neoclassical style. In the mid-18th century, excavations in Greek and Roman sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum were uncovering vast troves of ancient goods that captured the imaginations of artists and consumers alike. When Wedgwood built a new factory complex, he named it Etruria, after the land of the ancient Etruscan civilzation in Italy.

In 1778, Sir William Hamilton bought an ancient Roman cameo glass vase that became known as the Portland Vase. He brought it back to England where it became a famous artifact. Wedgwood borrowed the vase from Hamilton in order to work on producing a copy. Over the course of years, he developed a new stoneware material called jasperware, and successfully reproduced the Portland vase in 1789 (image 1). This became the medium for Wedgwood's most famous products, his blue-and-white cameo ware that formed Classical-inspired vases, tableware and decorative plaques (images 5 & 6).

Wedgwood was not only a brilliant businessman and canny marketer, he was also a fervent abolitionist. One of his most important pieces was his anti-slavery medallion, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" (image 7). Because the medallion was made of fashionable black-and-white cameo ware, it became a popular accessory for women and therefore a highly effective strategy for marketing the cause.

Wedgwood's sons ran the company after his death, and it remained a successful company for two more centuries. Its more recent output has not necessarily reflected the company's history of innovation, beyond the now-classic Pennine oven-to-table ware of the 1960's (image 9). The brand name is still powerful, conveying a sense of tradition, though not the radicalism of Josiah Wedgwood himself.


A random side note about Josiah Wedgwood is that he was Charles Darwin's grandfather. Moreover, Darwin married his first cousin, also Wedgwood's grandchild. In fact, the vast wealth that Wedgwood accumulated in his business and passed along to his descendants is what allowed Darwin to pursue his scientific dreams and journeys.

Sources: My main source for information about Wedgwood's innovative business practices is Adrian Forty's book Objects of Desire: Design and Society since 1750, in which he describes Wedgwood as one of "the first industrial designers." The website of the Wedgwood Museum in the UK also has some good information and wonderful images.

Shopping: Wedgwood products are still for sale, ranging from jasperware Christmas ornaments to a Vera Wang line of tableware. Check out the Wedgwood online store, as well as other retailers like Bloomingdale's and Michael C. Fina for more.

Images: 1-5, 8 & 9 The Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, England; 6 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 7 Harper's; 10 Michael C. Fina.

Originally published 11.11.10 - JL