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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

story:Rational manufacture

scene:Wedgwood & Boulton

Wedgwood and BoultonImages with this text:
Interior view of the Wedgwood & Byerley showrooms, York Street, London, taken from Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1809. The room boasts a waste number of different vases.
Wedgwood and Boulton
Two men exemplified the start of rational manufacturing methods: Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. Their groundbreaking work set new production standards, setting the pace for the rest of industry to follow.
Images with this text:
Matthew Boulton (1728-1809). Engraving by A. Cardon from an original oil painting of 1801 by Sir William Beechey.
Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood I (1730-1795), self-proclaimed 'vase-maker general to the universe', signed 'Geo Stubbs. 1780'.
Josiah Wedgwood
Josiah Wedgwood was one of a new, prominent breed of men who pursued business through enlightened thinking. Although of limited formal education, he displayed an unswerving faith in reason and believed that all problems in ceramics manufacture would 'yield to experiment'.
The founding of Wedgwood's Etruria manufactory in 1769 saw him applying a high degree of work specialisation. Manufacturing was divided between 'useful' and 'ornamental' wares. Products passed from one specialist worker to another, each completing a small part of the overall production process. This improved quality and the dexterity of the craftsmen and also saved time.
Wedgwood divided work between design and production. He employed the best artists he could find to create bold designs based on a wide range of historical influences (in particular from ancient Greece and Rome, which were immensely popular).
Wedgwood's working methods are summed up in the relationship with his business partner, Thomas Bentley. Bentley was classically trained and an excellent linguist. With his finger on the pulse of fashion he laid down the rules of taste while Wedgwood took care of the manufacturing process. This combination of aesthetic and practical skill made Wedgwood a pioneer of both rational manufacture and new marketing techniques.
Images with this text:
Hand coloured line drawing of the Etruria manufactory, opened in 1769. Wedgwood exploited many new techniques at Etruria. It was the first Staffordshire factory to use a Watt rotative steam engine - even before steam was adopted in the Lancashire cotton mills.
Two of the 'First Day's vases', made by Wedgwood himself to celebrate the opening of his new Etruria factory on June 13, 1769.
Thomas Bentley (1731-1780), Wedgwood's business partner. Oil on canvas portrait after an original by JF Rigaud, c.1780.
Marketing
Wedgwood sought to make ceramics desirable and fashionable. His marketing strategy aimed to create a desire among the middle classes for the expensive goods the upper classes already owned:
'The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired by the Middling Class of People, which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in number to the great, and though a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make the vases esteemed Ornament for Palaces, that reason no longer exists. Their character is established, and the middling People would probably buy quantitys of them at a reduced price.'
In the early days, Josiah Wedgwood worked closely with his wife Sarah, whom he called Sally. He once wrote to his partner, Thomas Bentley: 'I speak from experience in Female taste, without which I should have made but a poor figure amongst my Potts, not one of which, of any consequence, is finished without the Approbation of my Sally'.
Sally's opinions were a great asset to Wedgwood, alerting him to women's growing commercial power. Shopping was becoming a fashionable pastime and Wedgwood reacted accordingly.
When he heard of fashionable women bleaching their hands with arsenic in 1772, he rushed out a range of black basalt teapots to make a good contrast on the table. His London showrooms had an extra-large room for his visiting 'Ladys', who 'sometimes come in very large shoals together, & one party are often obliged to wait 'til another have done their business'. More time queuing for the loo meant less time perusing his products.
Images with this text:
Interior view of the Wedgwood & Byerley showrooms, York Street, London, taken from Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1809.
Portrait of Sarah Wedgwood by Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA. Oil on canvas, 1782-3.
Black basalt teapot by Wedgwood. This teapot in a classic form has been in constant production since the early 19th century.
Matthew Boulton
Matthew Boulton's Soho Manufactory at Birmingham became a byword for excellence in manufacture. Originally built in 1762, by 1765 it was large enough to hold four hundred workers.
Boulton earned himself a reputation in what was then called the 'toy' trade for producing buttons, snuff boxes, candelabra, ormolu vases, Wedgwood cameos mounted in buckles, and a wide range of other items. These came in no less than 600 different styles.
The Manufactory was regarded as one of the industrial wonders of the world and attracted streams of visitors. Boulton boasted: 'Last week we had Prince Poniatowski, nephew of the King of Poland, and the French, Danish, Sardinian and Dutch ambassadors; this week we have had Count Orloff and the five celebrated brothers who are such favourites with the Empress of Russia; and only yesterday I had the Viceroy of Ireland who dined with me. Scarcely a day passes without a visit from some distinguished personage.'
Images with this text:
Engraving of the Soho Manufactory, 1830.
Wedgwood jasperware plaque of Joseph Priestley with gilt frame, late 18th century. Boulton included ornate cut steel frames for Wedgwood cameos among the output of their Soho Manufactory.
Manufacture
So much money was invested on machinery for working metals, stone, glass, enamel and tortoiseshell that the principal building for Boulton's Soho Manufactory cost five times the original estimate. James Keir recalled in 1809 that, 'It was always in Mr Boulton's mind to convert such trades as were usually carried on by individuals into great manufactures by the help of machinery, which might enable the articles to be made with greater precision and cheaper than those commonly sold.'
Boulton succeeded in centralising a diverse range of activities under one roof but the Soho Manufactory was by no means a production line. Each workshop operated independently under its own foreman and the best Boulton could hope for was to coordinate production so that it proceeded stage by stage round each workshop in turn.
While less regimented than Etruria, the Soho Manufactory and its machinery nonetheless became an enduring showpiece of the advantages of rational manufacture.
Images with this text:
Matthew Boulton's coining press, 1790. Alarmed by the amount of counterfeit currency in circulation Boulton devoted years of work to perfecting the mechanised mint. It used eight presses driven by steam power to produce 1200 tons of accurately minted coins per year.
Aquatint showing coining presses in use in the Tower Mint, London, 1809. These fly-presses were very labour-intensive and the Mint had only a relatively small staff. Consequently the Mint concentrated on valuable gold and silver coins resulting in a chronic shortage of copper small change.
Impact
The Wedgwood and Boulton factories at Etruria and Soho were landmarks in the transition of industry (and the decorative arts) from a handicraft basis to factory mass production based on sophisticated industrial design.
Images with this text:
Drawing of the original engine-turning lathe at the Etruria Factory, published in 1920. Josiah Wedgwood first introduced the lathe into ceramic factory production in 1763.

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