For anyone given to taking an eschatological view of the current financial crisis, the demise of Wedgwood must seem particularly symbolic. After all, the Wedgwood company pretty much heralded the dawn of capitalism. Its foundation in 1759 ushered in the Industrial Revolution and its founder, Josiah Wedgwood, invented many of the techniques of industrial manufacturing and business management that are still used today.
Many of the problems faced by Wedgwood in the 18th century will still seem painfully familiar to 21st century business owners. Here's Josiah, for example, wondering in 1771 why his booming company hasn't got more cash in the bank:
"How do you think, my dear Friend, it happens that I am so very poor, or at least so very needy, as I am at the present time, when it appears by my accounts that I clear enough money by the business to do allmost anything with."
(It turned out the problem was that Wedgwood had no idea how much each of his products cost to make, with the result that he was charging too little for his fancy vases and tableware. As a result, he invented cost accounting, the practice of pricing things according to the cost of the labour and materials that go into producing them.)
I'm a big fan of Josiah Wedgwood, not because of his accounting expertise or because he helped to develop an economic model that benefits the few at the expense of the masses, but because he was an artisan first and a businessman second. If he was around today, he wouldn't be one of those talentless middle-managerial types who have to take an MBA to justify their existence. Wedgwood was a master potter in his own right, as is evident from this account of the opening day in 1769 of his brand new factory in Staffordshire, named Etruria:
'On the slopes behind the factory a great feast was laid out on trestle tables in the shade of the trees. The factory was nearly finished, covering seven acres of land, bounded by walls except on the canal. Land was marked out for Wedgwood's own house - Etruria Hall - and a village was being built for the workmen with houses for two dozen (and eventually two hundred) families. In the sunshine, surrounded by Wedgwood relations and old friends such as the Whieldons and the Brindleys, Wedgwood put on his 'slops', the old potter's smock. Sitting down at the wheel he threw six perfect copies of a black Etruscan vase, while [Wedgwood's business partner Thomas] Bentley turned the crank.'
Here's a picture of one of those 'first day' vases that Wedgwood casually threw that day on the lawn. Not bad, eh?
Image courtesy of Michael Shanks at Stanford University
In today's BBC news article about Wedgwood's demise, Robert Peston says that 'Waterford Wedgwood's collapse is a resonant event, that speaks of a noxious global squeeze on consumer spending. Almost everything that it manufactures is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. And most of us are thinking twice about shelling out on nice-to-haves.'
I can't help but think Josiah himself would have found this kind of problem trifling. He was always finding ways to market his pottery and fund new ventures, churning out tonnes of cheaply-priced everyday tableware in order to raise cash to finance the development and production of his more exotic, luxury wares. He was also very good at identifying and seizing market opportunities. Jenny Uglow notes in her multi-biographical work The Lunar Men that 'when Wedgwood heard of the new craze for women bleaching their hands with arsenic in 1772, he promoted his sale of black basalt teapots to make a good contrast at the table.'*
It's thanks to Jenny Uglow's book - from which come all the quotes in this post - that I know anything about Wedgwood at all, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It focuses on the industrialists, engineers and thinkers who made up the 'Lunar Society', a group of proto-scientists who congregated in Birmingham in the latter part of the 18th century, and who together laid the foundations for modern British science, industry and innovation. It's an epic and fascinating read which brings the likes of Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley - and their experiments, inventions and enthusiasms - vividly and brilliantly to life.
It's also because of the depth and brilliance of The Lunar Men that I'm finding Steven Johnson's new book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air, rather unsatisfying, but that's a post for another time. For the moment, I'll just mourn the passing of one of Britain's oldest companies, and wonder if it means that capitalism has indeed come full circle. And if so, what's next?
* Women: doing idiotic and dangerous things in the name of beauty since time immemorial.