The history of Wedgwood begins with the birth of the company’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, in 1730. Two generations prior to his birth, the Wedgwood family was involved in the production of pottery. Josiah Wedgwood’s grandfather built the Churchyard Works, a member of the Staffordshire Potteries, during the late 1600’s. By the age of 6, Josiah Wedgwood began working as an apprentice at the Churchyard Works making pitchers, pots, bowls, and vases. At the age of 14, Josiah Wedgwood contracted smallpox leaving his right knee severely weakened with osteomyelitis. Josiah suffered with the weakened knee through most of his young adult life. At the age of 38, Wedgwood’s right leg had to be amputated.
Following his illness, Josiah Wedgwood found himself dissatisfied with the pottery business. In an early letter to a friend, he described his dissatisfaction by saying he was tired of learning the “art, misery, occupation, and employment of throwing and handling.” He left the Churchyard Works and retired to his grandfather’s country estate. For a brief period, Josiah Wedgwood was a partner with the Cliff Bank firm. In 1754, Wedgwood joined with the renowned Thomas Whieldon of Fenton. For a number of years, Whieldon had produced the most creative and esteemed pottery in England. While working with Whieldon, Wedgwood devoted much of his time to experimenting with clay formulas and glazing techniques. Within 3 years, Wedgwood had a desire to open his own pottery mill. Whieldon had been greatly impressed with Wedgwood’s drive and ingenuity. Consequently, Whieldon allowed Wedgwood to take with him the formulae that had resulted from his experiments at the Whieldon shop.
In 1759, Wedgwood established himself as an independent potter at the “Ivy House Works” in Burslem, England. During his first 10 years of business, Wedgwood made many advances in the refining of porcelain. One of Wedgwood’s most important creations is black basalt, a fine-grained stoneware superior to any that had been previously produced. Another creation of Wedgwood’s is that of creamware. Up to that point, the best tableware available was made from refined earthenware. Wedgwood’s creamware was revolutionary in that it introduced true fine china into the market. It was easy to produce, relatively inexpensive to make, easily decorated, and desired by royalty and commoner alike. A piece of Wedgwood’s creamware sold for a just a few shillings. A tureen, by far one of the largest and most expensive pieces of china to produce and sell, sold for only seven shillings. At the time, Wedgwood’s employees made between a 14 shillings and four pounds a week, depending on their expertise.
In 1765, King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, solicited Wedgwood to be “Potter to His and Her Majesty.” As a result of his new title, Wedgwood changed the official name of his creamware to “Queen’s Ware.” It was during this period that Wedgwood began to export his china. His primary markets were Russia, France, and North America. Concerning North America’s insatiable demand for luxury items, Wedgwood once wrote a friend saying, “for the islands of North America we cannot make anything too rich and costly.”
Wedgwood’s business continued to expand rapidly. In 1766, Wedgwood relocated his factory to the Ridge House estate located at New Castle-under-Lyme and Hanley. There, Wedgwood built his new factory and a village for his workers. His new establishment was called Etruria. Wedgwood named his factory after the master potters who occupied central Italy until it was taken by the Romans in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. The Etruscans were especially skilled at molding and crafting a black pottery called buchero onto which Hellenized figures could be affixed. Etruscan art and pottery is very much the ancient forerunner to Wedgwood’s Jasperware.
Jasperware is Josiah Wedgwood’s crowning achievement. Jasper is translucent clay that marries the basalt and Queen’s Ware formulas to produce a dense, homogeneously colored stoneware. The white body could be colored and a white porcelain relief affixed to the item. Wedgwood chose the name Jasper because he felt that his refined pieces resembled that of the cryptocrystalline quartz Jasper. The production of Jasperware in 1775 was the result of more than 10,000 experiments with various clays and glazes. In 1789, Wedgwood reproduced the famous “Portland Vase.” The excavation of the vase was ordered by Pope Urban VIII during the 1630’s. The vase reflects the art of Augustan Classical era during the early 1st century. Obsessed with “the new art” or, what is now called “neo-classicism,” Wedgwood set out to reproduce the piece for the British National Museum. Wedgwood’s reproduction of the vase was so successful that it was ordered to tour the European Continent by the Royal Academy.
Besides his unrelenting drive for perfection in ceramics, Wedgwood was also a country gentleman with liberal political views. The American Revolution began with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Wedgwood supported the movement toward democracy in the United States. In its earliest stages, Wedgwood lent support to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Revolutions. In 1787, Wedgwood acted as founding member of the Society of the Suppression of the Slave Trade. Wedgwood made several cameos using the seal of the committee in an attempt to proliferate the abolitionist movement, a movement that would not become vogue for another 50 years. The pieces remain highly collectible as they show a slave on his knees and his shackled arms are lifted up with the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?”
Josiah Wedgwood died in 1795. He left a china empire to his sons and daughters. Unfortunately, the children had grown up in immense wealth and fame. None of his children wanted to abandon their place in English society to return and manage the Etruria factory and village. The daily goings on of Wedgwood was left to Josiah’s nephew, Tom Byerly. Over the next few years, the European financial markets would take a sharp downward turn. Diplomatic relations between the United States declined to the point of war in 1812. The Napoleonic Revolutions swept through Europe and battles began for the unification of Germany and Italy’s city-states. In order for Wedgwood to survive, the factory would have to undergo a restructuring process. Wedgwood’s patterns were no longer fashionable and their lines of china were unable to compete with other manufacturers patterns. In a state of financial desperation, Wedgwood’s London showrooms were closed. Josiah’s oldest son, John, returned to the factory in 1800. In 1805, he requested the presence of his younger brother Josiah II. Under the leadership of the brothers, Wedgwood began restoring the discipline and manufacturing standards that were common under Josiah Wedgwood.
The process of rebuilding Wedgwood’s world renowned reputation was long and laborious. The factory was passed from Josiah II’s leadership to his son, Josiah III. This period of Wedgwood’s survival was one of constant struggle. Any advances that were made in the Etruria factory or marketing of Wedgwood’s product were beset by economic difficulties. Under the managerial abilities of Josiah III’s son, Frances, Wedgwood would continue struggling to hold its own amidst constant economic turmoil.
In 1930, the company’s leadership fell to Josiah Wedgwood V. Realizing the global impact of the 1929 Stock Market crash, Josiah V ordered the design of a series of patterns suitable for the contemporary table that combined quality, value, and designs characteristic of the “arts and crafts” movement. The shoddy condition of the Etruria factory required that the managing directors begin building a new factory. In 1938, the foundation for a new Wedgwood factory was laid in Barlaston, England. The construction process was interrupted by the Second World War and the factory was not completed until 1949. Following WWII, Wedgwood produced many of its most popular patterns including
Runnymede Blue .
Again, the leadership of Wedgwood realized its most prominent market would be that of North America. In 1953, Wedgwood began opening “Wedgwood Rooms” in department stores throughout the US. The marketing technique quickly advanced the custom of registering for a fine bone china before one’s wedding. In 1966, Wedgwood’s shares were introduced into the London Stock exchange. Since that time, the company has been involved in aggressive expansion. The assets of Susie Cooper, Royal Tuscan, William Adams, Franciscan, Mason’s Ironstone, Waterford, and Rosenthal have been merged with Wedgwood to form the Wedgwood group. Today, Wedgwood continues its expansion.