This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.
When we think of the Industrial Revolution, we usually think of coal and steam power and mechanized manufacturing. Not all the innovations of the period revolved around new technologies, however. For some basic products, hand production was still best. Even for these, though, the Industrial Revolution saw advances in technologies and in manufacturing processes that led to vast improvements in quality and accessibility of the products. A case in point is Josiah Wedgwood, the man credited with industrializing the production of pottery.
Josiah was the thirteenth child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood and a fourth-generation potter. He was apprenticed to his brother and showed a great deal of talent, but the normal course of his career was cut short by smallpox. He survived the disease, but it left him with a severely weakened knee on his right leg, which made it impossible for him to work the pedals on the potter’s wheel. As a result, he turned his attention to design and to experimentation with clays and glazes.
When his brother refused to partner with him, presumably because of his damaged knee, he struck out on his own. He worked with Thomas Whieldon, the best-known potter in England, where he perfected his craft. A marriage to a wealthy cousin secured him the capital to continue his experimentation with glazes. In the 1760s, his work paid off with the invention of a cream colored earthenware that became the foundation of his business. It supplied the need for good quality, affordable pottery for the growing middle class.
In 1768, his knee became so bad that he had to have his leg amputated, at home, without anesthetic, by a local surgeon. Within two months he was back to work, visiting one of his factories and within a few years starting several others.
Wedgwood went on to develop a wide range of other colored glazes, some of which were attempts to recreate ancient techniques. He received commissions from the British royal family as well as from Catherine the Great in Russia. His best known product was jasperware, an unglazed, slightly translucent porcelain that could be made in a variety of colors and that included white ornamental appliqués molded separately and baked onto the pottery.
To provide consistent results, Wedgwood realized that he needed some means of controlling the temperature in his kilns. Accordingly, he invented the pyrometer, the first tool capable of accurately measuring the very high temperatures used to fire ceramics. This invention earned him a place in the Royal Society in 1783.
Wedgwood’s scientific and technical advances were matched by advances in production techniques. Since materials science and manufacturing technologies had not yet reached a point to allow the pottery to be molded or produced by machine, Wedgwood decided to improve efficiency by setting up an assembly line with a high degree of specialization of labor. Rather than following the traditional system of having each potter make a complete piece, Wedgwood broke down the process into steps, with each person doing only one step. This meant that the potters got very good and very fast at the step they were responsible for, increasing the rate of production dramatically.
Along with increased production, Wedgwood was also a stickler for quality. When he walked through his factory, if he saw a piece that did not meet his standards, he would smash it with his walking stick, shouting, “This will not do for Josiah Wedgwood!”
The effect of his new clays and glazes, his beautiful designs, and the speed, quality and consistency of his production meant that his work rapidly became known across Europe and forced other prominent ceramic producers to imitate his styles in order to stay in business.
Wedgwood was also an innovator in marketing. He is credited with creating the first illustrated catalogues, employing the first modern traveling salesmen, and pioneering direct mail marketing. He offered money back guarantees, free delivery, and self-service in his shops. He even set up “buy one, get one free” sales for his products.
Although he is best known for his pottery, his remarkably innovative abilities as a marketer were arguably even more important, particularly in terms of their impact in producing social change and reform in Britain and America.
Wedgwood grew up in a family of Dissenters from the Church of England. His faith made him an ardent abolitionist as well as a supporter of universal male suffrage. In 1787, he joined Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkston, and William Dillwyn in founding the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He asked one of his workers to design a seal for the Society; the worker produced one featuring an African in chains kneeling on one knee, his hands raised imploringly, with the caption, “Am I not a man and a brother?”
Wedgwood quickly realized the power of the image and so, thinking like a marketer, he began to mass produce it as a ceramic cameo, creating the first logo for a political cause in history. The cameo took off like wildfire. Thomas Clarkston reported, “Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and this fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.” The image was also put on cufflinks and smoking pipes, and made into posters.
The cameo’s impact was huge. It allowed women, who were otherwise excluded from the political process, to express their opposition to slavery. The image even crossed the Atlantic and became a staple of the abolitionist movement in America. Ben Franklin, an abolitionist himself, commented that it was the “equal to that of the best written pamphlet” in promoting the cause of abolition.
Although Wedgwood was not orthodox in his faith, he did have a deep, biblically-informed sense of the supreme value of human beings made in the image of God, and therefore of the fundamental evil of slavery. He was shrewd enough to realize that he could use his considerable skills as a businessman and marketer to promote the cause of abolition. His example here shows that in God’s economy, there is no sacred/secular divide, and that all areas of life can and should be harnessed to advance God’s purposes in this world.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.