Andrew Popp. Business Structure, Business Culture, and the Industrial District: The Potteries, c. 1850–1914. Modern Economic and Social History. Aldershot, Eng., and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001. viii + 288 pp., 25 tables, bibliography, indexes. $99.95; £52.50 (hardbound).
In this history of the British potteries, Andrew Popp, a lecturer in the School of Management at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, examines the evolution of Staffordshire’s Six Towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Situated at the intersection of business history and economic geography, Popp’s study—based on his Ph.D. dissertation—considers relationships among the structure of the industry, business strategy and business culture, and the economics of spatial clustering.
With a targeted readership of British business historians, Popp rests his narrative on multiple historiographies within that tightly knit academic circle. Foremost, he seeks to illuminate ongoing debates about family capitalism and industrial districts as British alternatives to the American model of managerial capitalism articulated by a most senior business historian, Alfred D. Chandler Jr., in Strategy and Structure, The Visible Hand, and Scale and Scope. To form his argument, Popp draws on theories about industrial districts from other scholars. Alfred Marshall, an eminent late-nineteenth-century scholar of British industry, introduced the model when evaluating English manufacturing in his own time. In the 1980s, scholars hoping to rejuvenate American capitalism looked to business successes in other countries and revived the concept of industrial districts. Among them, Michael Piore, Charles Sabel, and Jonathan Zeitlin modified Marshall’s model based on their observations of contemporary Italian industry. Drawing on the Italian case, these scholars emphasized the ways in which communities and regional cultures sustained distinctive manufacturing clusters characterized by small-scale, flexible production. The main unit of analysis in scholarship on industrial districts is the community. This approach stands at odds with Chandler’s market view, in which firms and entrepreneurs take center stage.
How are these highly theoretical academic debates relevant to the Six Towns? In Popp’s account, The Potteries provide an ideal proving ground for testing theories about industrial districts. His general assumption is right—family capitalism and flexible production, two hallmarks of industrial districts, thrived in north Staffordshire for generations. Popp’s analysis divides into ten chapters, beginning with theoretical foundations and moving chronologically through a series of examples probing different aspects of his story. In his story of The Potteries, the structure of the industry—the collective actions of individuals, firms, and institutions—influenced how individuals and partners ran their firms. This thesis is the obverse of Chandler’s argument that business managers designed corporate strategies that, in turn, affected the structure of their industries.
Popp frames his study in the period 1860 to 1914, when the structure of the Staffordshire district was well established and the pottery industry was relatively mature and stable. To set the framework, he outlines the general character of the industry, discussing the size of firms, spatial clustering, industry structure, and types of governance. Subsequent chapters examine international competition, technological change, marketing, and design practices, followed by case studies of Minton Ltd., a luxury goods manufacturer, and Jesse Shirley and Son, a supplier of raw materials. By no means one big happy family, The Potteries had its share of conflicts between management and labor, mushrooming upstarts and established companies, and the like. Industrial evolution occurred as members of the community negotiated change. Popp presents a convincing case for Staffordshire as an industrial district shaped by customary practices, social obligations, and trust. Economic growth followed the paths determined by the industry writ large, rather than stemming from the individual actions of a few prominent entrepreneurs.
Popp’s discussion of international trade is one of the highlights of his book. On this side of the Atlantic, Staffordshire constituted an enormous threat to potteries in Trenton, New Jersey, and East Liverpool, Ohio. From the 1870s through the post-World War II years, the United States Potters Association vigorously lobbied for tariffs to protect American markets against imports from England, continental Europe, and Asia. Popp illuminates the other side of the picture. In his book, we see Staffordshire potteries struggling with imports of inexpensive German china, which flooded the English market beginning in the late nineteenth century. Similarly, we see them coping with American tariffs, which resulted in a 52 percent decline in exports to the United States between 1881 and 1913. Finally, we see the British potteries seeking markets elsewhere in the empire: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
At first glance Popp’s chapters on marketing and product innovation suggest some fundamental differences between British and American practice. In his view, the Staffordshire potteries embraced modern merchandising and design strategies unevenly and with hesitation, in contrast to their American counterparts. For the United States, I have shown how late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century manufacturers in the pottery district of East Liverpool, Ohio, grew increasingly dependent on mass merchandisers, such as department stores, mail-order houses, and five-and-tens. To create branded images, these retailers needed to carry products that distinguished them from competitors, and they turned to the flexible pottery producers of East Liverpool to fit the ceramics bill. Working for the new mass merchandisers, professional buyers earned their livelihoods by mediating consumption. Acting as “fashion intermediaries,” they analyzed sales statistics, gathered feedback from store managers, and went to the East Liverpool district during the buying season determined to get what they imagined shoppers wanted. As such, these representatives of mass merchandisers interpreted changing fashions for the potteries and contributed vitally to product innovation.
Popp draws on evidence from The Potteries to challenge this viewpoint. He argues against the dominance of fashion intermediaries in Staffordshire, maintaining that most firms were too small to harness the benefits of mediators’ expertise. But in the American case, even the smallest firms filled orders as they arrived, decorating blanks in stock according to retailers’ specifications. To be sure, new high-profile mass retailers like F. W. Woolworth and Company had little time for these small shops. But jobbers and general storekeepers who ordered from small factories could mix-and-match the shapes and decorations shown in manufacturers’ catalogs. The resultant products reflected the tastes of local markets as much as possible, given the limits of the extant production and distribution system. This evidence suggests that size of the manufacturing plant did not matter, contrary to Popp’s claim. Further, Neil Ewins’s study of importer-potter relations in 1860s America shows a St. Louis importer telling his Staffordshire manufacturer precisely what shapes Midwestern consumers liked. Given these examples, Popp’s assertions about the unimportance of mediation are open to question.
A discussion of industrial arts education, both formal and informal, might have added depth to Popp’s account of marketing and design in The Potteries. By his period, Staffordshire emigrants to the American potteries attributed their superior technical and aesthetic know-how to three factors: atmosphere, apprenticeship, and formal schooling. Popp certainly acknowledges that The Potteries, like other industrial districts, generated a distinctive business culture. Pot-making was “in the air.” This craft pride rested on a foundation provided by apprenticeships and the emerging system of state-sponsored industrial arts education. Through these institutions, artisans like china decorators and mold makers learned to interpret popular culture for the mass market. Even those who labored at the bench alongside semiskilled workers used fundamental design principles as they assisted salesmen and managers in developing new products. These craftsmen lacked managerial titles such as “art director,” but they constituted an artisanal elite, whose expertise included aesthetic skill. The matrix of atmosphere, apprenticeship, industrial arts education, and multigenerational employment sustained these practical men as an aesthetic labor aristocracy. In them, aesthetic sensibility and manual skill were indivisible. This fusion was integral to the distinctive character of the Staffordshire district, and worthy of attention in a study of the region’s business culture.
Business historians readily acknowledge that responsiveness to changing styles is a salient characteristic of flexible production, but few examine the products generated by industrial districts. Following this pattern, Popp writes about fashion, style, taste, and aesthetics in very general ways. Scholars of industrial districts must be careful to distinguish between Fashion and fashions, that is, between high-end designs promulgated by tastemakers and the many changing styles that continuously bubble up from popular culture. Each appeared in the market basket, but they sat at opposite nodes. Elite ideas—Fashion, Style, and Aesthetics—were important at firms like Minton. Elsewhere, mass-market notions of fashion, style, and aesthetics—as interpreted by fashion intermediaries like retailers and artisan decorators—drove production and innovation.
Popp’s aim to fill interstices in the literature of business history and economic geography is noble, and there is much to be admired in his study. He shows that structure shaped strategy in the potteries, critiquing the powerful Chandler thesis. His discussion of international trade is thought-provoking, and his case studies of Minton and Jesse Shirley and Son provide insight into the internal operations of two very diVerent firms embedded in the Staffordshire district. In terms of design, Popp provides a useful starting point, opening the door for others to write a fuller comparison of merchandising and product innovation in the transatlantic pottery industry.
Regina Lee Blaszczyk
Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania
Senior Research Associate, Hagley Museum and Library
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1962); The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1977); Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1990).
Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
Neil Ewins, “A Picture of Midwest American Ceramic ‘Taste’: Staffordshire Ceramics for the St. Louis Market,” Wedgwood: Production for Elegance, Fashion, and Taste, Wedgwood International Seminar Proceedings 41, 42, edited by Keith McLeod (Toronto: Wedgwood International Seminar, 1998), pp. 178–99. The St. Louis importer was Chauncey Filley and the white granite manufacturer was Liddle, Elliot and Son. Much of the St. Louis information is from the Missouri Historical Society’s 1865–1866 letter-book of Chauncey I. Filley. Neil Ewins, “‘Supplying the Present Wants of Our Yankee Cousins . . .’” Staffordshire Ceramics and the American Market, 1775–1880,” Journal of Ceramic History 15 (1997), pp. 1–154.