Tuesday, January 06, 2009

History of Wedgwood

2009 marks the 250th anniversary of Wedgwoods, the British pottery firm.

Wedgwoods has always been more than a brand of luxury ceremics. Its foundation marked a vital step in the development of British industry and technology. Josiah Wedgwood's technical innovations meant that Britain had bone china that could compete with the Chinese originals in the home market and for export. The growth of his factories in the Potteries of northern England was a key step in the growth of English industries based on marketing to the newly emerging middle classes. It's the high-end stuff that is famous, but the Potteries made pottery for everyone. The archaeology collection of practically every post-1750s historical site in much of the world is heaped with Potteries pottery.

This all means something particular to me, too. I was born within the smell of Wedgwoods' chimneys (hey, we're a country of immigrants), and throughout my childhood, my Canadian childhood, my parents could hardly go into a restaurant or even a private home without wanting to turn over a dish to see the maker's mark of whichever Potteries factory had produced them.

Well, those days were going a long time ago. Before the end of my childhood, you couldn't rely on finding those British brands everywhere. Long term consequence: the Wedgwood group declared bankruptcy today.

Turns out Wedgwood and Royal Doulton and the German Rosenthal and the Irish crystal-maker Waterford are all one company nowadays, and all toast together. Wikipedia has a pretty decent summary of the history of Wedgwoods here. No doubt someone will pick up most of these brands in some form.

Waterford has resonance for me too. Someone long ago gave us some gloriously heavy Waterford cut crystal tumblers, and it's been always strangely reassuring and comforting to me to sit with an inch of Scotch in one of them, savouring the weight and the splintering light. Dickens knows the feeling precisely: "At Bob Cratchit's elbow stood the family display of glass: two tumblers and a custard cup without a handle." Ah, gentility.
Follow @CmedMoore