Moving Product: The Wedgwood Effect
Meet the 18th Century Billionaire Who Invented Global Marketing, Influencers, and How We All Live . . . and Think.
The name Wedgwood ring a bell? It should.
If you’re British, maybe your granny had a collection of Wedgwood knickknacks, er, treasures, like the one above.
If you’re American, you may know about, or even own, Wedgwood china plates that you never know what to do with. Too expensive and fussy for everyday use, they are reserved for posh “company”. These, I guess, are the same people we read about who like to drop by unexpectedly, and require us to serve them homemade snacks. I have never met them, but they must exist, because every cookbook warns us about them.
Despite its lack of use, the Wedgwood collection at Non-Boring House may have reached the end of its useful life. The last time we were inclined to dust it off, my lovely spouse heated the plates in the microwave, forgetting they contained a bit of metal, which promptly melted. It felt like the end of an era.
My spouse, HWSNBNOTI (He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets, or Hoosen Benoti), and I may have been among the last people to include Wedgwood china on our wedding list, back in the 80s.
We only received a few pieces as actual wedding gifts, since our friends and family were strangely reluctant to buy something so expensive yet useless.
That's why we decided, on a trip to London the following year, that Hoosen would brave the notoriously rambunctious Summer Sale at Harrods department store to secure more Wedgwood plates for our collection.
I don’t know how many old ladies he elbowed aside and trampled, but Hoosen succeeded in completing our set. In those days, you could being back a suitcase you could barely lift without paying extra luggage fees to the airline, and so we brought it back to the States in triumph.
Since then, in return for Hoosen’s Olympian efforts, our Wedgwood collection has rarely made an appearance on our dining table.
None of our friends or family, you see, are good enough for it.
In the decades since, Wedgwood the company fell on hard times, as tastes changed, and people like us began to cotton on to how rarely we actually use posh china. Wedgwood’s company has been repeatedly sold to various international concerns, until, today, you can be quite sure you’re not buying quite what you think you are.
In fact, you never were.
Why Should You Care About (of all things!) Wedgwood?
First, a bit of background. When he died in 1795, Josiah Wedgwood, pottery entrepreneur, was worth £500,000, a billionaire in modern money. Not only were his products wildly popular in England, eagerly purchased by customers ranging from the Royal Family and aristocracy to humbler middle-class folk, but his name and wares were known, bought, and admired around the globe, including in the new United States.
In short, here are two reasons you might want to read this post about Wedgwood.
Business Genius: Josiah Wedgwood is still an amazing example of business savvy today, even though, had he lived, he would be approaching his 300th birthday. You could do worse than learn from him, in business terms if not in moral ones. Although, now I mention it, he was an abolitionist who joined the fight against slavery, but I don’t have room to discuss that today, sadly.
Wedgwood invented the way we think, and affects how we spend our money even today: Josiah Wedgwood not only changed how we shop, but how we think. In a crazy time when many of us are rethinking shopping and possessions in light of so many issues, ranging from our own lack of money to our grave concerns about the impact on the environment of so much stuff, it’s helpful to know that the way we shop and think wasn’t always this way, unless you're royalty, which I assume you're not. And it won’t be the same in the future (although how it will be different is anyone’s guess).
Like everything else, consumption has a history. Today, companies flatter us as savvy consumers, as people of taste and sophistication, whose tastes and opinions matter. And because we believe them, let’s be honest here, we waste a lot of time and a lot more money.
This started with Wedgwood. Being aware of this history really might make us savvy customers! At least when Jeff Bezos thanks us for loyally paying for his rocket trip, we might not just automatically thank him for thanking us.
Be prepared to be surprised. Very surprised. As you already sense, today’s subject is about a lot more than kitschy knickknacks, posh china, and a long-dead dude called Josiah. My goal is for us to look at ads, look at shops, look at web sites, look around our homes, and realize we can see it all through a different lens, if we choose to do so.
The choice, of course is yours! You're the customer! That's the way we think about everything now: education, health, and (as I have written about in my academic work) religion. When all that started is debatable, but Wedgwood certainly helped.
A Cult of Consumerism
Years ago, I had a friend in Los Angeles who was a keen collector of Disney knickknacks. Knowing I loved Disneyland, she dragged me with her to a posh L.A. shop specializing in very expensive Disney figurines, to inspect the latest “releases”, many of them “limited edition”, and all with “certificates of authenticity.” Note all those quote marks of mine.
There, my friend carefully perused the colorful contents of the gleaming wooden and glass cases, while I tried desperately to control my smirk muscle. My friend and the slightly snotty salesman (who, quite sensibly, ignored me) talked in hushed, reverential tones as if discussing artist-made actual art, rather than mass-produced and tacky tat.
Another customer entered the store, and struck up a conversation with my friend. He practically wet himself with excitement as he asked her if she knew that the new Jiminy Cricket piece was to be released next Friday.
By this point, not being a cult member, I was suppressing hysterical laughter. Fortunately, my friend, having carefully made her selection, now completed the hideously expensive purchase with her smoking credit card, while the salesman and the other customer cooed over her fabulous taste.
I am not a nice person. I do, however, try to be a polite one (except when talking to powerful but obnoxious people), I do try (although I do, admittedly, fail) to be kind about such things as my friend's staggeringly expensive collection of Disney kitsch.
And before you hate me, Disney fans, I do love Disney parks. I only stopped going to them annually when I realized I could go more cheaply to actual Italy than to Epcot Italy. I had to leave the cult, but I won’t lie, I miss it. That said, I always thought shelling out a king's ransom for artificially “rare” collectibles was a bit silly. Now I've said this, I expect to receive emails pointing out that they're all now worth a fortune. I shall then be less than graceful in conceding to fact.
But this post isn’t about my personal qualities (or lack thereof).
It’s about the man who, long ago, made possible recent scenes like the one I just described in the Disney figurine store.
Introducing Mr. Wedgwood
Josiah Wedgwood was an actual person, and it’s thanks (I guess?) to him not only that we can choose from among millions of affordable knick-knacks to grace our homes, but also that we may purchase overpriced clothes and other items that are endorsed or even “designed” by celebrities who wouldn’t be caught dead with them, and that we may generally indulge in many, many wastes of money.
In exchange, we get the warm fuzzies of flattering ourselves that we have things in common with celebs and other rich people who (in real life) would rather eat glass than have coffee with us.
In a nutshell, Josiah Wedgwood pretty much invented mass consumerism (translation: all of us buying too much crap we don’t need and don’t really want in pursuit of status and satisfaction), this way of life that people are currently questioning (not for the first time, but most folks don't realize that).
You see, our frantic shopping did have a beginning. Things weren’t always this way. And surprisingly, this new way of acting and thinking started long ago. It happened before Victorian Brits got a close-up view of thousands of knickknacks at London's Great Exhibition in 1851 (the first World's Fair, and the seed of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, a fabulous shrine to high-class tchotchkes.) It even happened before the Industrial Revolution took off.
That’s because, more than 250 years ago, Josiah Wedgwood came up with ideas we’re still living with, centuries before the internet. These include use of social media and influencers to sell us crap we don’t need and, when it comes down to it, don’t even like all that much.
Why do we buy this stuff, then? We feel that owning it makes us more interesting, more able to impress family, friends, and acquaintances, more successful. Yet so much of it ends up at the thrift store. Funny that.
Yes, folks. It all started with a man in a wig.
The Potter and the Queen
Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III (yes, the American Revolution King) ordered a set of china from Wedgwood and Bentley to help boost Britain’s economy by supporting British artisans.
Josiah Wedgwood was delighted to present her with his new, exclusive cream-colored pottery tea set, including a dozen cups, saucers, plus teapot, matching slops bowl for used tea leaves, sugar bowl, and more, all embellished in striking but tasteful gold and green. The Queen was delighted, and ordered a coffee set to match. Then a dinner set.
If it had all ended there, it would have been a monumental lifetime achievement for a man who started life as the eleventh and youngest kid of a humble clay-slinging potter in England’s Midlands.
Josiah's dad and his staff had made cheap and poor quality stuff for a strictly local market, sold by hawkers, who were poor men carrying packs along rutted dirt roads to nearby towns.
Josiah, being a potter’s son, started to make pottery as soon as he could walk, and by the age of nine, was showing real talent. But an episode of smallpox weakened one of his legs, making it impossible to operate the pedal of a potter’s wheel unaided. He began focusing, instead, on designs. He was a talented and creative potter who became a businessman, not an empty suit.
As it happened, his sales to the Queen were only the start. Josiah Wedgwood was hugely ambitious for his wares.
Selling to Queen Charlotte was all very well, but he couldn’t just depend on her orders, profitable though these were. He knew that what the Royal family owned, others desired. He began to cultivate other royals, starting with the King, who ordered his own sets of china.
Wedgwood knew, too, that it also wasn’t enough to keep coming up with new designs and techniques, like creamware, no matter how innovative. Other potters were quickly copying almost everything he did. Did competing mean going down in quality? Or lowering prices?
The answer, in short, is no. Wedgwood decided to keep prices and quality high. So how would he enlarge his market share?
Wedgwood identified his goal as early as 1767. He had to cultivate a large and loyal market of people who would insist on Wedgwood, no matter what. I’m going to show you, in his words, how he planned to accomplish that.
Don’t be put off by the 18th century English. I’m going to translate it for you, so you don't have to read this unless you want to!
Here we go. First, the original:
WEDGWOOD: The demand for this Creamcolour, alias Queensware . . . still increases. It is really amazing how rapidly the use of it has spread over the whole Globe, & how universally it is liked. How much of this general use, & estimation, is owing to the mode of its introduction & how much to its real utility & beauty? are questions in which we may be a good deal interested for the government of our future Conduct. The reasons are too obvious to be dwelt upon. For instance, if a Royal, or Noble introduction be as necessary to the sale of an Article of Luxury, as real Elegance and beauty, then the Manufacturer, if he consults his own interest will bestow as much pains, & expence too, if necessary, in gaining the former of these advantages as he would in bestowing the latter.
WEDGWOOD ACCORDING TO ANNETTE:
We STILL have more and more demand for Queensware! Amazing, isn’t it? It’s all over the world, and everywhere you look, everyone likes it. Unbelievable! But here's my question: Is it popular because it’s beautiful and useful? Or because of how we market it through influencers? Going forward, obviously, we have to figure this out. If it’s the influencers, we need to focus on them as least as much as on how pretty and good-quality our products are.
Twelve years later, in 1779, Wedgwood wrote:
Fashion is infinitely superior to merit . . .you have only to make choice of proper sponcers.
In other words:
Fashion matters much more than quality. If we want to sell our stuff, it’s obvious that it’s all about recruiting the best influencers.
Wedgwood would make sure his pottery was fashionable. He needed influencers who would create a demand for his products, specifically, not for knock offs produced by plagiarizing potters.
And what better influencer than the Queen, who was sure to show off her Wedgwood products to the friends she lunched and took tea with?
The bottom line: It worked. People didn’t buy Wedgwood products for their beauty and usefulness, even if they thought that’s what they were doing. They actually wanted to own luxury goods from the same company that supplied luxury goods to the rich and famous, and especially the Queen, even if they couldn't afford exactly the same products.
Wedgwood didn’t just sit around waiting for this to happen. He started running ads in newspapers proclaiming that his company enjoyed Royal Patronage. Then he opened a showroom (not shop, showroom) in London, the undisputed center of fashionable tastes, and posh shopping.
Today, in the 2lst century, if you go shopping at a super-posh place, like Beverly Hills’s Rodeo Drive, good luck. Many stores won’t even unlock the door for you unless they are sure you’re not riff-raff. This has certainly led to lots of racist incidents (most infamously, Oprah got turned away), followed by groveling apologies from the stores. Classism, however, is an accepted part of the business plan of these retail establishments, with their laser-sharp focus on richies: No matter what our color, you and I are simply not going to be allowed in. Yes, I did try once, on Rodeo Drive in the 90s.
I can thank Wedgwood for that little humiliation.
When you arrive at one of the first Wedgwood showrooms in 18th century London, you had better be a person of quality, not the General Public, or you will be refused admission, or asked to leave. You had better arrive in a carriage, not on foot, and be wearing expensive clothes. You must be a gentleman or a lady (that’s a posh woman, not the generic word for woman it later became) with the correct manners. This means, at first, the only people admitted are the aristocracy (people with grand titles) and gentry (landowning posh people who own land and are friends and relations of the aristos). Wedgwood’s showroom isn’t the usual cramped and cluttered little shop, with all the good stuff shoved onto shelves behind the counter. It is bright, airy, and inviting.
But do not wander about shopping unattended. If the clerks are busy with other customers, they will invite you to take a seat, and hand you a catalog to browse.
When a salesman does escort you through the collection, you see items on neat shelves, and china laid out attractively on dining tables at place settings.
If you are still into rococo designs, a taste that’s increasingly out of fashion but still popular, the salesman will discreetly pull back a curtain to show you the gaudier stuff that Wedgwood makes. The curtain is there to hide these products from the most hip customers, who think rococo is vulgar and ghastly, not words that Wedgwood wishes applied to his stuff.
Everything else in the showroom—plates, cups, vases, you name it—is classical Roman in design and decoration. Eighteenth century British imaginations were captured by Herculaneum, which had been buried by the same volcanic eruption in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii, and the riches that archaeologists had started uncovering there in 1738.
Add to this that there was a fashion in the 18th century for young British gentlemen (including the sons of wealthy tobacco and rice planters in Virginia and South Carolina) to finish their education with a tour of continental Europe, with Rome as a highlight, and Wedgwood had a readymade market of rich people eager for all things Roman.
He jumped on it.
Pure, white, classical! That was what posh people wanted. By the way, nobody realized in the 18th century that the Romans had painted all their statues in bright colors, which had washed off in the nearly 2000 years since. So the plain look was what was now fashionable.
Fashion was what Wedgwood was all about.
The richies’ carriages often blocked the streets around Wedgwood’s London showrooms. His wares were, in short, a huge hit. If the Queen owned Wedgwood, then other upper-class people must have Wedgwood, too.
Wedgwood’s first smash hit was knock-offs of the creamware sets he delivered to the Queen, and shamelessly branded as Queensware.
Face it: If Josiah Wedgwood had had any shame about marketing, we wouldn’t have heard of him.
But how did Wedgwood get started with Roman designs? Wedgwood desperately wanted to copy a fabulous antique vase in the possession of the Duchess of Portland, a stunning example of ancient Roman glassmaking:
However, the Duchess of Portland refused to let Wedgwood or anyone else see her treasured vase, which she kept for the sole enjoyment of herself and her besties.
Then, conveniently for Wedgwood, the Duchess died. The Duke of Portland turned out to be far more cooperative than his late wife. So Wedgwood was able to copy the vase, in his own patented and secret jasperware technique:
He put it on display in one of his London showrooms. Alongside the display, he sold copies of his copy.
To make sure everyone in search of classical art thought “Wedgwood”, he named his factory Etruria, after a country in ancient Italy, except it was in the less exotic and rainy English Midlands. With that, Wedgwood firmly established himself as the leading supplier of the new fashion for classical art.
Still, he wasn’t satisfied. There are still only so many royalty and aristos to buy Wedgwood products. Josiah Wedgwood wanted far, far more people to buy his stuff. And to make that happen, he was prepared to take full advantage of the new global age in which he lived.
Global Market: Selling the World on Wedgwood
From the start, Wedgwood thought of selling internationally. This is impressively ambitious, because he was a lower middle-class lad (in today’s terms) who grew up in a part of the world with, as we would say today, poor infrastructure.
The roads in the English Midlands of his youth were dirt trails, and they were the only way to London, where the money was concentrated, and rich people shopped. No surprise, then, that Wedgwood, focused on goods aimed at an upper-class London market, was a keen advocate of Turnpike Trusts. These were private companies that built quality toll roads: Travelers, including cart drivers (think truckers) handed a set fee to a man or woman the company employed who lived in a cottage next to the toll gate, and would then let you through.
Wedgwood also pushed for canals, new artificial rivers that provided a safer journey than bumpy roads for his delicate china, carried aboard narrow barges that traveled slowly but surely toward the capital.
Sailing ships would then be the next step of the journey for goods he exported from London to other countries. This wasn’t a problem since London was THE port of the new global economy, emerging with the slave trade.
Wedgwood’s biggest challenge? Creating international demand for his products. How do you attract customers in Turkey? Russia? Italy? America? Even France, which had its own pottery industry hiding behind tariff walls?
Wedgwood didn’t ignore or give up on problems like this which would have defeated most of us. He was a solutions-based guy.
He started big. He sent a massive, highly expensive set of china plates to Catherine the Great, Queen of Russia. He took a big loss on the price he charged, but this sale created huge new advertising opportunities, at home and abroad.
The so-called “frog service” he sent to Catherine not only featured a cute little frog handpainted on every piece, but also a different handpainted image of a large mansion on every plate. These were portraits of ostentatious English country houses (I guess Catherine was a huge Anglophile). And before Wedgwood sent the whole lot to Russia, he displayed pieces from the set at his showroom, and invited the rich people whose homes were featured on the set to come to London and have a look. They did. And they bought more Wedgwood stuff.
But he could hardly send every foreign ruler a luxurious product, made at a loss. How could he influence other foreigners, though? He had no connections in foreign lands.
Or did he?
Diplomats, folks. British ambassadors were posh people, related to other posh people. They knew who Wedgwood was. They owned some of his products. They traveled to and from London. And they could be very influential among the foreign posh people in the countries where they were stationed.
Here’s one good example of how Wedgwood reached out, in a letter to the British ambassador in Vienna.
First, here’s what Wedgwood wrote to the ambassador (I’ll follow up with a translation, but I don’t know if I can capture the original buttkissing tone…)
Encouraged by the many instances of your Excellency’s condescension in giving my manufactures the honour of your patronage, and for which, I beg leave to assure you, Sir, I feel the most lively gratitude, I take the liberty to inclose to your Excellency specimens of a new production, or rather a new application of my Cameos of two colours to the purposes of buttons for Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ dresses. each button in a set having a different subject, principally from the antique. They have not yet been made public in this Kingdom. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales only being in possession of a set of them. If these little things should appear to your Excellency likely to place the ingenuity of the manufacturers of this Kingdom in a favourable point of view to Foreigners, I shall not doubt your Excellency will do me the honor to take them under your patronage in the circle of your friends and I flatter myself, Sir, you will have the goodness to pardon the liberty which I thus most humbly presume to take. I have the honor to be, Sir, your Excellency’s most obliged and most obedient humble servant, Jos. Wedgwood.
Mwah! Mwah! Okay, let me have a go at translating this for you:
I hope you don’t mind me writing to remind you that your support means the absolute world to me, and to everyone here at Wedgwood and Bentley. We’re beyond excited that you endorse our products, because nobody’s taste is more respected than yours. I mean it. I’m so grateful. As a small token of my appreciation, I hope you also don’t mind that I’ve enclosed a small sample of our latest luxury line. I’m hoping to get your opinion first.
As you see, this is a set of clothing buttons, each decorated with my exclusive cameos, and each different. Most of the subjects are classical, because, as you know, that’s the most cutting-edge fashion out there. This is a unique product.
In fact, we haven’t yet released this curated artisanal button set. The only person who has a set is the Prince of Wales. They’re only a small thing, but if you think, in your highly respected opinion, that these are a fantastic example of British design and craftsmanship to show to Europeans, I hope you will let your friends over there in on the secret, maybe put them on your personal Instagram.
Hope you don’t mind me reminding you that I treasure your support and opinion, and also my reaching out to find out what you think. Again, your endorsement and feedback are just so incredibly important to me personally, and to all of us here at Etruria.
Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be flattered. You are flattered. We’re all flattered. That’s why, in 2021, we’re flattering each other to death. I'm so excited! Aren't you?
But Wedgwood couldn't just rely on buttering up ambassadors and other British influencers to crack open European markets, and especially not in places like Italy and Germany. That's because Italy and Germany did not exist in the 18th century.
Let me explain. Germany, as we know it, was invented in 1870. Where you see Germany today, there was a patchwork of little tiny countries ruled by minor kings and princes. Trying to reach them all with ambassadors would have taken forever.
Meanwhile, Wedgwood had another problem.
At this time, his Etruria factory had overproduced some of his popular lines. He had a lot of dead stock in warehouses: A glut of once-popular items for which he had exhausted demand in Britain. Everyone who wanted one, and could afford one, now owned one. Popularity, the fashion, of these products was wearing off.
Wedgwood realized that this dead stock could be sold overseas, where foreigners had no idea it wasn't the latest thing, if he could somehow persuade rich foreigners who had never heard of Wedgwood that it was.
So Wedgwood decided to take £20, 000 worth (that’s millions today) of old stock piled up in his warehouses, package it into a thousand parcels of free gifts, and send them to minor royalty in Europe. This was a desperate move to kill two birds with one stone.
He flooded Germany with parcels.
End result? Wedgwood sold a crap ton of plates and knickknacks in Germany, and in many other countries, and established forever the importance of getting celebrity endorsements with freebies, cultivating influencers, and insincere ass kissing.
He also learned to give overseas customers what they wanted. In the 1760s, the American colonies were his biggest overseas market. In 1766, Wedgwood wrote to his business partner Bentley to suggest they send to America plates featuring the image of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who had recently died, and who had sided with Americans in their complaints over the Stamp Act, which made him very popular. Fun Fact: Chatham County in Georgia, home of Savannah, is named for him.
Wedgwood’s interest in the American market didn’t end with the Revolution: The company was still shipping patriotic American stuff well into the 20th century, including plates commemorating the bicentennial of the United States in 1976.
But by the 1780s, Wedgwood’s biggest export market was continental Europe. Pictures of Popes appeared on plates sent to Italy. Saints were popular in Spain. And so on.
Wedgwood Travels Downmarket
As word of Wedgwood’s cachet, and the actual goods, spread outward across the world, it also spread downward in British society, just as Wedgwood had hoped. He didn’t want to cheapen his brand by lowering his prices or his quality. But now, thanks to the patronage of royal, aristocratic, and gentry influencers, the middle classes had become interested in Wedgewood’s wares. The wives of merchants, lawyers, and affluent farmers may have caught sight of Wedgwood products in the homes of local squires, or seen ads, but they had Wedgwood on their retail radar.
Middle-class interest in Wedgwood also began developing because the English middle classes suddenly needed tea sets. Tea drinking, pioneered by the upper classes, was increasingly popular and affordable to middle-class people.
When people served tea at home, they needed cups and saucers. Teapots. Sugar bowls. And no ordinary china would do for these middle-class folks: They wanted to impress the friends and neighbors they invited round to share refreshments. They wanted to flaunt tea sets that everyone knew were associated with the upper classes, or, if they were American, with the English upper classes. The brand they knew: Wedgwood.
Wedgwood stamped all his stuff with his trademark, so everyone would know it was the real thing. It didn’t matter how good a knockoff looked: If it didn’t come with this stamp of authenticity, it was no good.
When middle class people were welcomed to Wedgwood showrooms, they didn’t get quite the same treatment as the upper classes. They might be shown the stuff for which posh people's demand had tapped out, the stuff in danger of going out of fashion, and with which the warehouses were still overstocked.
If even the overstocks were out of their price range, middle class customers might be discreetly shown to the scratch and dent/factory outlet room (yes, Wedgwood invented all that), which was the one area of the showroom that was self-service. Yes, two hundred years before American supermarkets like the Piggly Wiggly “pioneered” self-service shopping, Wedgwood had beaten them to it.
Middle-class tastes, like middle-class budgets, were also different from those of the rich. Middle-class people were more prudish than the aristocracy, which is kind of a problem when you consider that classical art, the creative focus of much of Wedgwood’s catalog, was full of naked people.
Ancient Romans, in fact, had happily depicted very imaginative sex in their art, and they were especially fond of penises. In the gleeful words of classicist Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University, as she waved her arms around while filming a documentary in Pompeii a few years ago, “Willies! Willies everywhere!”
Wedgwood, a respectable man of the 18th century, hadn’t put sex scenes on his wares, but there were, er, willies, as you can see in his copy of the Portland Vase.
So, to protect his delicate middle-class customers, Wedgwood’s potters began strategically adding fig leaves to the male figures depicted on his pottery, and when even that wasn’t enough, they draped the men as well as the women in clothing.
Wedgwood wasn't a modern CEO. He didn’t sit in the corner office, holding pointless meetings and pretending to be busy having ideas while actually staring into space. He didn’t zoom around in rocket ships or, the 18th century equivalent (horseracing, I guess), just to show he could.
He did the actual thinky work, and the practical work, too.
He had an idea for traveling salesmen: Not just poor guys with packs, but men who were much more upmarket, in good clothes, who could be trusted to deal politely with merchants.
Arming himself with catalogs and pattern books, Wedgwood hit the road in person to try out his plan, becoming the company’s pilot travelling salesman. Satisfied with the results of his experiment, he hired and trained salesmen. He even put together a training manual for them.
Wedgwood was all set for the European Union, two hundred years early. He hired clerks fluent in Italian, Dutch, French, and German to correspond with overseas merchants and customers. To get round tariffs, he likely took free trade initiatives (hiring smugglers).
He placed ads in newspapers, although he was nervous that his fancy wares would be advertised next to ads for cockfights and prostitutes.
He preferred “puff pieces” (they're still called that today), especially if they didn’t seem like puff pieces. These were and are newspaper articles that pretend to be unbiased reviews, but actually push products like mad.
In all this, Wedgwood brilliantly balanced a reputation for being fashionable, and increasingly, a mass appeal.
By the 1950s, long after Josiah Wedgwood's death, my Granny, daughter of a ploughman turned railway signal box operator, could afford items of Wedgwood's Jasperware. She believed that her knickknacks signalled her newfound postwar poshness. She kept them proudly on display, and dusted within an inch of their lives.
And, of course, by then, top-notch Wedgwood stuff was all over royal palaces and all the top museums, so how could she have been wrong? Indeed, I fell for Wedgwood, too. There, I admit it. I have some Wedgwood knickknacks, and I already told you about the plates. News Flash: It didn't work to elevate my station. Posh people instinctively realize that I'm an overeducated pleb. And Wedgwood has finally become unfashionable. But it had a good run, didn't it?
So what changed? How did I figure out that Wedgwood sold me on image, not substance, when it was just so easy to believe I had good taste? Their stuff was sold in Harrods, after all. It had to be posh. And it was. Just not the stuff I bought.
What happened is that I read the scholarly article on which this piece was based, in graduate school in the 1980s. Education has saved me money, folks. It gave me a reality check. I still love knick-knacks, but I’m more inclined these days to think twice about what I buy.
Cheers then to Cambridge University historian Neil McKendrick, who wrote Josiah Wedgwood and the Commercialization of the Potteries, the simply fantastic essay which I have tried to interpret for you, at least in part, in my own way. It appeared as Chapter 3 in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (1982), edited by McKendrick with fellow British historians John Brewer and J.H. Plumb. If I have misrepresented the parts of his argument I tackle, I hope Mr. McKendrick will fire off an email and let me know. But I hope he'll be pleased to read that his essay is one of the works of history that most influenced and enchanted me, and 18th century consumerism has never been far from my mind in classroom and study ever after. And no, that’s not flattery.
Random fun fact: Josiah Wedgwood was the grandfather of Charles “Evolution” Darwin, and also the grandfather of Darwin's wife Sarah: They were first cousins.
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