British history features a rich cast of inspirational figures. While names like Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, and Winston Churchill likely sound familiar, not many people know about Josiah Wedgwood, who is now considered one of the greatest businessmen in British history.
Based in the county of Staffordshire, Wedgwood developed an impressive array of pottery, capitalizing on Britain’s increasing levels of consumerism in the eighteenth century. His innovation and hard work led to an almighty reputation, both at home and abroad.
Though Wedgwood died more than two centuries ago, there’s still plenty we can learn from this inspirational entrepreneur.
Industrialization & the Rise of a Commercial Society
Before delving into Josiah Wedgwood’s life and career, it’s essential to discuss the broader context of eighteenth-century Britain.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Wedgwood and many other entrepreneurs benefited from one of the most important events in history: the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution accelerated Britain’s economy by providing fuel (such as coal and steam) for machines to work more efficiently.
Transport was also key to the Industrial Revolution. Networks of turnpike roads, horse-drawn canal boats, and horse-drawn rail wagons linked together to transport materials around the country and increase the rate of economic growth.
This economic growth incentivized skilled and unskilled workers to move from the countryside to the cities and towns. London was particularly popular, with approximately ten percent of the population living in the capital by the end of the century. In addition to full-time employment, young people were also attracted to theaters, inns, shops, and pleasure gardens.
With a larger workforce and improved technology, British society became increasingly commercialized. Shopping grew into a cultural activity, especially in major cities and spa towns, with certain areas being an indication of wealth and status.
Imports of rum, tobacco, sugar, and cotton from Britain’s empire contributed to the development of commercialism. Slavery plantations in America and the Caribbean were vital to the commercial success of the empire in the eighteenth century.
Josiah Wedgwood’s Family of Potters
Born in 1730, Josiah Wedgwood belonged to a family of potters and had many brothers and sisters. He grew up in a place called Burslem in the county of Staffordshire.
Burslem didn’t have a large population in the early eighteenth century. It consisted of a few hundred people living in cottages and a collection of businesses, including several smithies, a couple of butcher shops, and a bakehouse.
However, Burslem also had a strong reputation for pottery, with some referring to it as “The Potteries.” Wedgwood’s own relatives helped to build this reputation, having worked in the pottery industry since 1650.
Though he came from a successful family, Wedgwood’s childhood wasn’t without difficulties. As well as losing his father in 1739, the young Wedgwood contracted smallpox, and the disease left him with a lame leg. (He even had the leg amputated later in life.)
Wedgwood soon learned the craft of pottery by working in the family business, but he was unable to use a treadle wheel due to his damaged leg. Remaining in his hometown of Burslem, Wedgwood then started his own business at the Ivy House Factory in 1759.
Innovative, High-Quality Products
Josiah Wedgwood’s success didn’t just come from hard work and experience. He also understood innovation and creativity were essential ingredients for any entrepreneur who wanted to stand out from his competitors.
Using a lightweight earthenware with a yellow glaze known as creamware, Wedgwood created domestic products that were durable yet relatively inexpensive to produce. With the rising popularity of tea and coffee, there was a particular demand for cups and saucers.
Wedgwood kept an experiment book, which he used to make notes and jot down ingredients for new ideas. He was even elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society after he developed a clay pyrometer to measure extremely high temperatures.
Above all, it was Jasperware that really made Wedgwood stand out from his competitors. (Some even described Jasperware as the most important advancement in ceramics since the Chinese discovered porcelain.) This unique form of pottery took years to perfect, with Wedgwood trying many trials and experiments along the way. Having perfected his method, Wedgwood’s Jasperware captured the eye of customers in a variety of colors, ranging from pale blue to bolder shades of red and sage.
Neoclassical art was often used to decorate these products, mixing original designs with copies of well-known pieces of art. Wedgwood hired leading artists and sculptors like John Flaxman and George Stubbs to enhance the quality of his products, resulting in a higher sale price and larger profits.
Enhancing the Business
Josiah Wedgwood’s genius went beyond his knack for making innovative designs. Determined to make every aspect of his operations as smooth as possible, he also developed new ways of enhancing his business.
In addition to the engine-turning lathes and the balanced throwing wheels, Wedgwood used ground flints and mixed clays with new power sources like windmills and steam engines. This enabled his workers to produce high-quality products at a faster rate.
Wedgwood pleased his customers by offering free deliveries from his factory along with a full refund if any products were damaged while in transit. To lower the chances of this happening in the first place, Wedgwood supported the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal, resulting in a smooth journey for purchased pieces of pottery. Designed by the engineer James Brindley, the canal linked Staffordshire to major ports in Liverpool and Hull. The canal was also used to transport clay from Cornwall up to Wedgwood’s factory.
Keen to expand the size of his customer base, Wedgwood set up showrooms in London and other major cities to promote his products. These showrooms were spacious and extraordinary, containing hundreds of items for potential customers to observe.
Queen Charlotte & Catherine the Great
Josiah Wedgwood’s reputation was so good he even managed to attract the attention of royalty, both nationally and internationally.
Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, ordered a creamware tea set from Wedgwood’s company in 1765. The tea set in question was a work of art. Wedgwood and his team produced a magnificent collection of bowls, cups, and tureens featuring decorative flower petals. Queen Charlotte was impressed with the collection, and Wedgwood earned himself a new title: Potter to Her Majesty.
Yet Queen Charlotte wasn’t the only royal who took an interest in the Staffordshire potter. Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a large dessert service from Wedgwood in 1773. The order included more than 900 pieces, each featuring a frog emblem in reference to Chesme Palace, which was built at a location known as Frog Marsh. The pieces were handpainted with picturesque views of Britain. Wedgwood displayed replicas of the items purchased by Catherine the Great inside his London showrooms.
Wedgwood’s association with royalty is often cited as an early example of celebrity endorsement. By earning the approval of Queen Charlotte and Catherine the Great, Wedgwood elevated his reputation to a place many entrepreneurs could only dream of. His connection with Catherine the Great was particularly effective in bringing in an international customer base. Towards the end of his career, eighty percent of Wedgwood’s customers were from outside Britain.
Josiah Wedgwood’s Role in the Anti-Slavery Movement
Given Josiah Wedgwood’s money-making obsession, it would be logical to assume he wasn’t the most virtuous of individuals. But this assumption would be wrong.
At a time when many people in Britain accepted slavery as natural, Wedgwood stood against this barbaric practice by producing an anti-slavery medallion. The medallion featured a kneeling slave and the phrase, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” This image became the most recognizable symbol of the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
The medallions were not produced and sold in the same way as Wedgwood’s other products. Instead, the potter made the medallions at his own expense and made no profit from their distribution. To show their support for the anti-slavery movement, people often wore their medallions as a hairpin or a button.
Leading abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson praised Wedgwood’s role in the anti-slavery campaign. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was part of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in America, was grateful for Wedgwood’s work. (He also received a sample of the medallions from Wedgwood.)
Though Wedgwood died before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, his contribution was never forgotten. In 1807, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which was followed by the Slavery Abolition Act twenty-six years later.
Josiah Wedgwood’s Legacy
Despite how much the world has changed in the last two hundred years, there’s still much we can learn from Josiah Wedgwood.
Innovation, intelligence, and graft were the qualities that defined this man’s life and career. He stood out from his competitors due to his experimentation and original techniques, with Jasperware being his most impressive creation.
Yet Wedgwood knew his great products were just one part of a successful business. He took his entrepreneurship to the next level by supporting the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal, setting up showrooms, and – perhaps most importantly – earning the approval of both national and international royalty.
While there are plenty of business tips and tricks floating around in the modern media, looking to the past can also be beneficial. The story of Josiah Wedgwood and his successful pottery business will continue to inspire entrepreneurs for many years to come.