The History of Economic Growth Through Ceramics, a Story

I spent three-plus hours yesterday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a monument to Victorian intellectual omnivorousness (and the grandeur of the Empire, of course). Most of this time I spent only in the ceramics and pottery galleries.

The evolution of ceramics uses, decoration, themes and techniques illustrates and parallels economic growth more broadly. The 12th-14th centuries were dominated by Islamic ceramics, which were largely mosque and palace decorations in very ornate, detailed geometric patterns. The dramatic colors of blue, orange/red and yellow were intense, and were the result of using costly vegetable dyes in great concentration. As with medieval cathedrals and castles in Europe, these decorations also functioned as a show of wealth. Increasingly over these two centuries these techniques showed up in home goods. Also increasingly into the 17th century, Islamic pottery showed strong use of Chinese motifs (especially as Ming dynasty pottery became so popular). The use of Chinese motifs also indicated the cross-cultural trade with China that increased up to the 17th century (but then fell off dramatically due to Chinese imperial isolationism), because the Islamic diaspora served as a crucial trade conduit between the Far East and Europe.

Spanish ceramics of the 15th-16th centuries reveal the Islamic influence of the Spanish conquest. Italian ceramics of the same period (15th-16th centuries) show many similarities — the use of strong colors from expensive dyes, decoration of cathedrals and palaces — but use largely religious themes (I believe the Koran prohibits human and landscape representations, so this difference is not that striking). The general appearance of Italian ceramics and the integration of geometric designs with human representations reflects an Islamic influence, certainly a result of cross-cultural trade and the growing trade networks of the Italian city-states. One thing I noticed yesterday is that around 1530 you start to see the Mannerist techniques of the Renaissance showing up in pottery, and the human representations become much more realistic and compelling, with more complex facial expressions.

Then the Dutch pottery becomes popular in the 15th-17th centuries, mirroring their growth and role as the commercial and financial juggernaut of the period. Again, Delft china shows a lot of Chinese themes, consistent with their trade and with the popularity of Ming china. Relative to the earlier Islamic, Spanish and Italian pottery, Dutch pottery is thinner and of a more consistent quality, which is the result of the increased ability to fuel hotter fires for kilns in reverberatory furnaces and clay-lined kilns to refract heat back into the kiln.

British pottery was, shall we say, rustic before the 17th century. Very utilitarian, with little emphasis on decoration and much on functionality. The heyday of British pottery comes with the entrepreneurship of Josiah Wedgewood in the mid-18th century, who harnessed the ever-increasing ability to fuel hotter and hotter fires more efficiently with coal and coke to build larger and larger kilns (that’s economies of scale for you). He also spearheaded the canal construction of the mid- to late-18th century in the British midlands, which increased transportation networks for heavy and fragile items such as pottery (and, by the way, for coal and coke coming into Staffordshire).

Wedgewood and subsequent Staffordshire potteries, such as Minton, used these transportation networks and economies of scale in production to create consistent, higher quality, diversely decorated and styled, ceramic objects and vessels in a variety of price ranges. Now families in a wider range of incomes than just the wealthy with palaces and estates could have beautifully decorated, higher quality ceramic items to increase the beauty in their everyday lives. Mass production brought higher, and higher variety, quality at affordable prices for more people.

Mass production created a backlash, of course, in the Aesthetic and pre-Raphaelite movements of the late 19th century, with its focus on artisanal pottery. Mass production potters such as Minton cleverly incorporated these motifs as they became more popular, co-opting the arts and crafts motifs for mass consumption, but also thereby increasing their popularity (to this day, even; they are by far my favorite types of ceramics, especially in their American manifestations).

How does this story mirror economic growth? Look at the time periods of the ascendancy of each society’s ceramics, the effects of cross-cultural trade on the aesthetics of a society, the effects of technological change on technique, the change in quality that provides increasing value for money for more people, and the role of entrepreneurship in creating growth and profit opportunities by serving wider and wider markets.