The First Tycoon
By Brian Dolan. Viking. 396 pp. $24.95
Wedgwood pottery was one of the modern world's first brand names, prized first for its elegance by aristocrats who paid top prices for the company's exclusive, high-end wares, then eagerly purchased in mass-produced quantities by "the middling People" who sought to mimic refined tastes. The man who gave the name Wedgwood its cachet built one of England's earliest factories and devised marketing strategies still employed today by companies trying to cash in on -- or create -- a trend. Brian Dolan's knowledgeable biography of Josiah Wedgwood emphasizes his story's contemporary business resonances, from the subtitle using "tycoon," a word unknown to the book's 18th-century protagonist, to a quote in the epilogue from Donald Trump explaining why Wedgwood would have been "honored" to be called one.
Fortunately the author also carefully sketches the social, intellectual and economic climate of an age very different from our own, though it was changing rapidly when Josiah -- as the author calls him throughout -- was born in 1730. His family had been potters in the Staffordshire village of Burslem for more than a century, but his grandfather and father had let their small pottery works languish. They continued to make "old fashioned peasant pottery" while another branch of the family prospered by seizing on the innovations of Dutch immigrants to the area to produce glazed, finely shaped objects that were far more popular. His father died when Josiah was 9; his older brother Thomas inherited the struggling business. Josiah spent five years as an apprentice to his unimaginative sibling before striking out on his own.
Tracing Wedgwood's journeyman years, when he gained stature as a skilled potter tinkering with elements and chemicals to create attractive new glazes, Dolan does a nice job of explaining the trade's technical aspects to the lay reader. The author, who has written several previous books on 18th-century culture, links Wedgwood's faith in scientific experimentation as a path to profits with his religious background. Like almost all of the entrepreneurs who fired the Industrial Revolution, Wedgwood was a Dissenter, a member of one of the Protestant sects that believed "that God's handiwork was best understood through rational enquiry rather than . . . biblical exegesis." Excluded from elite universities and government service because of both their faith and their class, these men were open to new ways of thinking and acting; for them, self-education and self-improvement would lead to better business practices, better products, even a better society.
In Wedgwood's case, this meant taking the elegant green glaze he developed at age 28 and using it to persuade his more successful cousins to set him up in his own pottery works. Then he rode the tidal wave of enthusiasm for tableware imprinted with pictures and words by devising a smooth white glaze that made a perfect background. At 33, he married his distant cousin Sally, having become successful enough to meet her well-off father's stiff financial terms. Her substantial dowry enabled him to expand and take more risks. The biggest such gamble paid off splendidly in 1763, when he won a competition to provide Queen Charlotte with a tea service. Its elegant lines and creamy finish sparked feverish demand from the aristocracy, which beat a trail to Wedgwood's humble business and ordered more than enough "cream ware" to pay for the expensive experiments that had produced it.
Wedgwood maximized his returns on the craze by offering discounts for up-front payments from the expanding overseas market and warning his representative in London, whose patrician residents were notoriously slow to pay their bills, "I do not want these great folks to know that the Potters ever do give any credit at all." He plowed his profits into a brand-new factory built to his own design. Knowing that the fad for cream ware would pass, Wedgwood took advantage of his access to the nobility to spot cultural currents and garner publicity-making commissions. Lady Jane Cathcart, sister of the British envoy to Naples, introduced him to the pottery recently excavated from Pompeii; by the time every wealthy "neoclassical" enthusiast had to have an Etruscan vase at home, Wedgwood had created colored jasper, the perfect substance for reproducing them. Lady Cathcart's husband, the British ambassador to Russia, wangled a commission from Catherine the Great for a dining service; when Wedgwood displayed it in his London showroom (another marketing innovation), crowds gathered to ogle both the sensationally decorated objects and the aristocratic patrons.
His closest friends remained the fellow Dissenters and political liberals who were so vividly depicted in Jenny Uglow's 2002 group portrait, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Though Dolan lacks Uglow's gift for thumbnail characterizations and rich atmosphere, his biography is more focused and accessible than her thickly detailed work. Writing at more of a distance from his subject, scrutinizing Wedgwood's business practices and ideology more closely than his personality, Dolan is better positioned to assess his faults as well as his virtues.
A belief in a rational, steadily improving universe sustained Wedgwood through the childhood deaths of two of his eight offspring, the amputation (without anesthesia) of a diseased leg and an agonizing death at age 64 from an infected jaw. It also inspired the stringent management of his factory, which was "run like a military regime" by a boss who might provide housing, education, training and even health care and retirement plans (Dolan does not give details about these) but also started the workday with a bell, kept track of employees' hours and bemoaned "dilatory, drunken, Idle, worthless workmen." Dolan legitimately admires Wedgwood's achievements as a merchandiser and manufacturer but also acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution looked rather different to his labor force than it did to him. In our own time, remade with equal comprehensiveness by globalization, that's an important caveat to keep in mind. *
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."