Josiah Wedgwood: Man of Pottery and Principles

The 18th century was dominated by the ideas of the Enlightenment which gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and free enterprise.  It was a revolution in thought led not by politicians and soldiers, but by a handful of thinkers, scientists, artisans, and merchants. Josiah Wedgwood was a thinker, scientist, artisan, merchant all rolled into one. He became one of the founding fathers of the industrial revolution, creating a new artistic industrialism that used the division of labors, scientific experimentation, and commerce to make affordable yet quality products that democratized artistry.[1]

Josiah Wedgwood (1780) by George Stubbs

Josiah Wedgwood (1780) by George Stubbs. Enamel on a Wedgwood ceramic tablet at the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Credit: Wedgwood Museum / Daderot / Wikipedia

In his heart, Wedgwood believed that man could create a better world through self-improvement, education, and commerce.   Although he lived in England, he saw the American colonists’ struggle against taxation imposed on them and America’s potential as a capital of finance and freedom smothered under a foreign ruler. He was naturally sympathetic to their plight. Wedgwood spent the Revolutionary War trying to walk the fine line between being a patriotic British merchant and a radical dissenter.

Josiah Wedgwood was born in July of 1730 in Burslem, England to a family of potters that stretched back more than four generations.  When he was a child, he survived a bout of small pox that left his left leg too weak to work a potter’s wheel. This led him to focus his energies on design rather than the physical production of ceramics.[2]

In 1759, he set up his own pottery called Ivory Works. The pottery had swift success and became one of the largest manufacturers of Staffordshire pottery, known particularly for fine earthen and stonewares.  Demand for quality minimalistic earthenware design was high among the English at the time. Wedgewood devoted himself to glaze development, kiln technology, and marketing to fulfill demand. He perfected a cream-colored earthenware which took over 5000 glaze tests to get the color just right. He developed a new colored unglazed body known as “jasper” that allowed for the production of two-color ornamental wares to match the public’s desire for minimalistic, neo-classical styling.[3]

Wedgwood became a producer of fine ceramics and transformed pottery-making into an industry that rivaled European porcelain in elegance of shape, durability, and lightness of weight.  In 1765, shortly after opening his first London showroom, he got a huge break when he was invited to take part in a contest to design a tea set for Queen Charlotte.  It took months of experiments but his gilded tea set with green flowers won the competition.  With royal recognition, Wedgwood became a Georgian super brand, distinguished by quality while delivering artistic perfection on an industrial scale.[4]

860031

Dating from about 1765, this circular Wedgwood plate has a molded shell edge and is finely painted in deep purple with flowers and leaves. The edge is feathered in purple.

Why was America so important?

In the middle of the 18th century, a new consumer group appeared: the middling class.  This middling class was particularly prevalent in the American Colonies.  They wanted British goods like sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea and their accompanying accessories and ceramics to show off their new social status and refinement.[5]

Pre-Revolutionary War, America did not have a single pottery manufacturer to create tea accoutrements like teapots and saucers capable of matching the quality and aesthetic of Wedgwood.  Thus, America became a good client in the booming British export trade and one of Wedgwood’s most important overseas markets.  The colonies, in fact, became such a huge market that “around half of all English exports of copperware, ironware, glassware, earthenware, silk goods, printed cotton and linen goods, and flannels were shipped to colonial consumers.” Josiah took advantage of this boom and packed as many crates as possible on Liverpool ships bound for the New World.[6]

85024 cd

This miniature covered creamware Wedgwood coffeepot dates from between 1785-1800. It has a plain loop handle, straight spout, and knob finial and is painted with underglaze iron red scattered flower sprays and border stripes. The lid is dome-shaped.

“All the world are with the Ministers & against the poor Americans…”

There were two reasons why Josiah Wedgwood disagreed with the war against America, one was philosophical and one was financial.  Wedgwood enjoyed the American boom in ceramic exports and worried about what taxation and colonial unrest might have upon his trade.  Many businessmen with interests in America saw a threat to the market for British goods with undue taxes like the Stamp Act of 1765. They agreed with future Prime Minister Lord Pitt’s criticism “that this kingdom has not right to lay a tax on the colonies…Trade is your object with them and taxing was ill advised.  If you do not make suitable laws for them, they will make laws for you.”  Because of the strong opposition from merchants and American resistance, the Stamp act was repealed. However, that did not ease the anxieties of Wedgwood and other merchants.[7]

Wedgwood knew he had much to lose if American markets became inaccessible because of war stating, “the bulk of our particular manufacture you know is exported to foreign markets for our home consumption is very trifleing [sic] in comparison to what is send aboard, …this trade to our Colonies.” He continued, “we are apprehensive of losing in a few years.”[8]

Legislation continued to cut into Wedgwood’s trade and profits. Besides imposing an indirect tax on the colonists, the Townshend Acts of 1767 got rid of a refund on the duty that manufacturers paid, which meant it would cost more to export goods to the colonies.  In 1775, Parliament issued the New England Restraining Acts, restricting the Colonies’ trade and commerce to Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies.  This was Parliament’s response to the declaration of the Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 instigating a “non-consumption agreement” and promising “we will not import, into British America, from Great Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever.”  By the next year, diplomatic and commercial relations had broken down and, three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, American ports were officially closed to British trading ships.[9]

This all had a major effect on commerce for merchants and manufacturers like Wedgwood.   In 1770, customs and excise officers recorded over 1.2 million pieces of glass and earthenware shipped to America.  In 1775, less than 139,000 pieces had been shipped.[10]

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An oval form with a tall, off-center oval foot rim. The inside is molded with fluted sides, a deep pear, and two flanking leaves on bottom. This Wedgwood form dates from between 1810 and 1820.

Enlightenment Philosophy at Work

While war took a large chunk out of Wedgwood’s bottom line, that was not the only reason he opposed war.  He was a man of the Enlightenment and held fast to many of the philosophical principles that formed the basis for this new America.

Josiah was born and raised a Unitarian.  The seven principles of Unitarianism include the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the free and responsible search for truth, the use of democratic process, and peace, liberty, and justice for all.  Wedgwood grew up in a society that created its own culture distinct from the Anglican status quo, a culture with a strong sense of morality and responsibility. So his interests in the ideas of the Enlightenment were not too surprising.[11]

Josiah delved into the Enlightenment, reading many of the writings from the great thinkers of the time including John Locke’s Treatise on Education, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  They all talked about concepts of self-improvement, education, liberty, and inalienable rights. Wedgwood truly believed in these principles and put them into practice in his own life and business by trying to use his company and wealth for the social good.  He reinvested profits back into the company to create a better standard of living for the employees in under his care.  Schools were started for the workers’ children, additional training was made available for workers, and work place safety was improved with the elimination of harmful lead glazes and the constant search for better environmental practices.  He believed that the people mattered more than the profit.[12]

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A “Queen’s” shape Wedgwood plate from 1956 with a view of Kenmore as the center transfer-print. The six lobed rim is transfer-printed in brown with various leaves.

With the American Revolution and then the French Revolution, he saw a chance to create societies built upon Enlightenment philosophies that could flourish without an authoritarian regime and without imposition of unnecessary taxation. A society ruled by reason, truth and free enterprise.  Wedgwood’s idealism was high.  Life does not always follow abstract principles, however, and he would struggle to balance his ideals with political, financial, and social realities.[13]

He supported America’s right to self-rule and knew the colonists were a force to be reckoned with commercially. Yet, he was also a British businessman with a prominent reputation.  At home, he had to balance his principles with his need to seem patriotic.  He tried to stress to government ministers the economic devastation a war would have on Britain but he was clear in his opinion of “the absurdity, folly & wickedness of our whole proceedings with America.”[14]

Wedgwood lived to see America’s victory in the struggle for independence, passing away in January 1795.  He and his business had survived the war with their Enlightenment ideals and financial success intact.[15]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

 

[1] Wilson, A.N., The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood, BBC Two, April 19, 2013.

[2] “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust, rct.uk/collection/people/josiah-wedgwood-1730-95#/type/subject; Pirie, Madsen. “Josiah Wedgwood, An Industrial Revolution Pioneer.” Adam Smith Institute, The Adam Smith Institute, 12 July 2019, adamsmith.org/blog/josiah-wedgewood-an-industrial-revolution-pioneer

[3] Perry, Mike. “WEDGWOOD (JOSIAH WEDGWOOD & SONS LTD),” Pottery Histories potteryhistories.com/page99.html; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood; “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust.

[4] “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[5] Berg, Maxine. “Men and Women of the Middling Classes: Acquisitiveness and Self-Respect.” Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Oxford University Press, 2007, 199-246; Dolan, Brian. Wedgwood: The First Tycoon. New York City, Viking, 2004, 74-75; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[6] Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood; Dolan, 250, 75.

[7] Dolan, 160-161.

[8] Dolan, 161.

[9] Dolan, 160, 254.

[10] Dolan, 254.

[11] “The Seven Principles.” Our Faith, Unitarian Universalist Association, 2020, uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[12] Dolan, 253, 266.

[13] Dolan, 314.

[14] Dolan, 255.

[15] Dolan, 323.

Drink Your Vegetables: A Special 18th Century Wedgwood Ware

Fads come and go. Such is life.  Eighteenth century colonists were not immune to flash-in-the-pan trends.  However, given that information traveled a bit slower before the digital age, in the 18th century a ‘quick trend’ may have lasted 10 or 20 years, instead of 10 or 20 months.  Such is the case with ‘vegetable ware’, a refined earthenware molded to look like produce.  Imagine being the envy of all your colonial neighbors if you served them tea out of an elaborate ceramic cauliflower, pineapple, melon, or cabbage.  As evidenced by the archaeological record, Mary Washington, George’ mother, was similarly taken with the prospect of displaying her very own veggie-themed teaware.

The advent of vegetable ware seems to coincide with the development of bright green and yellow pottery glazes by a young and upcoming potter named Josiah Wedgwood in 1760.  He used these new flashy glazes for a number of applications, including coloring teaware molded to resemble produce.  While some combinations of ceramics and decorations had previously enjoyed decades or even centuries of popularity in the past, the demand for the initially popular vegetable ware seemed to drop off after only ten years, around 1770. At that time, Wedgewood indicated he was glad to send a shipment of overstocked vegetable ware to the colonies – a popular dumping ground for out of fashion or slightly damaged English goods.

vegetable-ware-tea-canisters-1

Ceramic vegetable ware tea canisters made at the Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in England between 1754 and 1764. Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Mary seemed to prefer the pineapple form and owned at least one item, if not more, of this fruit-shaped tea equipage.  Her preference for the tropical fruit design was not unique.  In the 18th century, the pineapple was an incredibly sought after luxury item loaded with symbolism.  Today, many of us, especially along the East Coast, associate the pineapple with welcoming guests into our home and as a decoration for the holidays. Colonial Americans considered it a Christian symbol as well as a display of status. They readily incorporated it into the architecture of their houses, decorated room interiors with the motif, and served food and beverages out of pineapple-shaped objects.  These were all cheaper options than displaying an actual pineapple, which was well outside the price range of the average colonial American. In fact, there are accounts of people actually renting a real pineapple for a party rather than purchasing one outright.  Rented fruit!  Let that sink in for a second.

Returning to Mary’s ceramic pineapple, which is represented archaeologically by a dozen or so sherds.  It is almost certainly some type of tea equipage, although we are not exactly

vegetable-ware-sherds

Vegetable ware sherds excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

sure which tea vessel it may be.  The pineapple color and texture are unmistakable but we’ve yet to identify the specific object.  A number of forms have been ruled out. It is not a tea or coffee pot because it appears to be relatively squat with a straight or very gently sloping body and a wide rim.  What’s especially odd about this particular vegetable ware vessel is that the rim is unglazed.  This would seem to suggest that it sported a lid of some kind or perhaps endured a defect during firing.  Hopefully more of the vessel will come to light, we’ll be able to answer the question, and proudly display pineapple teaware in the newly recreated Washington house!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist