Review by Amy C. Earls
Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning

Regina Lee Blaszczyk. Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. Studies in Industry and Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xiii+380 pp., 9 color plates, 51 b/w illustrations, notes, essay on sources, index. $45.95 hardbound; $22.50 paperback.

I was glad when Regina Blaszczyk’s Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning was published because I had found a wealth of data on the Trenton pottery industry in her dissertation on which it is based. The book’s focus on the market and consumers is a welcome relief from connoisseurship. Connoisseurs’ definitions of beauty deny, states Blaszezyk, “the historical significance of commonplace items, the building blocks of popular culture” (p. 273). I can appreciate a mass-market paradigm that embraces common wares such as Fiesta that archaeologists and historians of popular culture cannot ignore.[1]

The case study technique examines product design, production, and marketing using the companies and products as units of analysis. Blaszczyk points out significant technological, economic, and cultural variables affecting the American ceramics and glass market under conditions of increased competition and falling prices. The studies range from flexible batch production as refined by Wedgwood during the late eighteenth century to the mass production of the twentieth century. The cases provide contrasting insights on the American market during a century of growth and marked technological change.

The process in which factory managers and art directors imagined their consumers was sometimes successful, as in the cases of Homer Laughlin’s Fiesta and Corning Glass Works’ Corning wares, and other times less successful, as in the cases of Corning’s Pyrex and Kohler’s Color wares. The central concept is that of fashion intermediaries providing feedback on product design and consumer wants. In the 1860s these fashion intermediaries included wholesale merchants, urban retailers, country store owners, and peddlers. Twentieth-century fashion intermediaries were designers, engineers, retailer buyers, advertising consultants, and home economists. 

One of the fashion intermediaries for Homer Laughlin was Frederick Hurten Rhead, art director for the company from 1927–1942, who perceived a diverse American market stratified by class and who designed wares to suit this market. The English factory Wedgwood produced decorated creamware for the upper classes and plain creamware for the middle classes. As Rhead stated in 1931, “There is more than one personal taste” (p. 133). Taking an opposite view were art historians who believed in a unified aesthetic and tastemakers who saw only one customer: “a middlebrow who could be taught to appreciate upscale lines” (p. 251). By the 1920s, when working- and middle-class women comprised more than eighty percent of buyers of mass-manufactured goods, the consumers that many manufacturers tried to visualize were female. 

Blaszczyk uses data from a wide variety of sources, particularly trade journals, industry publications, business records, and managerial oral histories. The superb documentation is thought-provoking in its detail. The dissertation’s extensive footnotes are retained for the book, and the “Essay on Sources” is particularly useful for those researching American ceramics of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the author’s strengths is her ability to highlight technological changes in the narrative, such as the 1930s shift in decorative techniques from decals to painting, silk screening, and bright solid-colored glazes. The black-and-white and color illustrations help to bring the narrative to life and benefit from the author’s familiarity with not only company archives but also archives at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Dun & Bradstreet, Hagley Museum and Library, Winterthur Museum Library, the East Liverpool Museum of Ceramics, and other public and private institutions. 

Chapters 2 through 5 deal primarily with ceramics. Chapter 2 describes Trenton china decorator Jesse Dean’s experimentation with ceramic decals and photoceramics, china mania following the Centennial Exhibition, and the struggle between American potters and importers. Chapter 3 covers decal aesthetics and colored clays and glazes in the context of Homer Laughlin’s and the Sebring family’s competition for the mass retail trade, such as mail-order houses and five-and-dime stores. Chapter 4 describes the development of Homer Laughlin’s Fiesta and other modern-style wares. Chapter 5 describes Kohler’s attempt to persuade consumers to buy their colored sanitary plumbing lines, complicated by quality control problems with color matchings. The collaboration of Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley, the only English case, is treated briefly in the introduction and was not part of the author’s dissertation. Additional chapters discuss the American table glass industry (chapter 1), the development of Pyrex ware (chapter 6), and the fortunes of the Sebring companies, Homer Laughlin, and Corning Glass Works in the Baby Boom era (chapter 7). 

My criticisms are minor. At times when I became lost in the details of a company’s history, I longed for synthesis, but this may not be a fair criticism of the case study approach, particularly since these are so well grounded in historical context. The addition of the Wedgwood case to the book helps to clarify the origins of the American manufacturers’ factory structure and marketing methods, but this case is not documented with the depth of the other cases, making its placement in the introduction appropriate. 

It is my pleasure to call this book to the attention of an interdisciplinary Ceramics in America audience. Fiesta and Corning Ware are important milestones in American tableware history as is the rise of casual dining in the twentieth-century United States. The case study approach lends itself to browsing through the book a chapter at a time. Even if you can’t stand the sight of Fiesta ware, this book will teach you something about making and selling ceramics in America. 

Amy C. Earls

Ceramics in America 2002