Appreciating Historic Ceramics

Man in shackles. Written underneath him is "Am I not a man and a brother?"

Medallion of British Anti-Slavery Society as produced by Wedgwood ca 1775

I am learning an affinity for pottery from the 17th to early 19th century. I would be lying if I said that I have always loved ceramics (or history for that matter). The opposite is closer to the truth. My preference was for the ancient art of making stone tools. I have a profound respect for the artisans as well as the material itself. The stone has survived while other materials have faded. The tools speak to us of a time about which we know so little. My appreciation for stone tools is still alive and well, but I am also learning to appreciate the evolution of more modern crafts. Not entirely by choice, colonial Britain and early national America has my attention.

Archaeologically speaking, historic pottery is highly diagnostic. It is easy to attribute a date to the wide variety of manufacture and decorative techniques. This makes ceramics appealing to many historians, archaeologists and art historians alike, but as with everything else, each artifact has many different stories to tell.

One of my favorite stories is of a potter that lived and worked in Staffordshire, England 1730 – 1795. He is a dynamic character who used his skills to create more than just dinnerware. His pottery adorned the tables of royalty. He is credited with the industrialization of pottery manufacture and creating mail order. He was also a prominent abolitionist. Josiah Wedgwood‘s company is still making fine china today.

Josiah was born into a family of potters in Burslem, Staffordshire, England. Staffordshire rose as a center of ceramic production in the 17th century due to its location near readily available resources.
Josiah Wedgwood began as an apprentice under his brother, but due to a bout of childhood smallpox, he was left with permanent problems in his leg. The leg was later amputated. This left him to focus on designing pottery instead of physical manufacture. He experimented with glazes, pastes, and styles of ceramics becoming famous for his signature classical style jasperware, a dry bodied stoneware. Some of the most interesting artifacts from his life are his trials of wares, enamels, glazes and pastes. Some of these trials are included in the online gallery at the Wedgwood museum.

Both Queen Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III of England, and Catherine the Great of Russia purchased dining sets from Wedgwood. With permission from Queen Charlotte, Wedgwood astutely called the line of ceramics “Queensware” and was named “Potter to her Majesty”.

Even more impressive to me is his involvement in the anti-slavery movement. “For more than 200 years Britain was at the heart of a lucrative transatlantic trade in millions of enslaved Africans…by 1807 the practice had been banned” (4) in large part due to activists like Josiah Wedgwood. He is most famous for his “Am I Not A Man and a Brother?” medallions which became a symbol of both the British and American abolition movements. In fact, the symbol has had such a lasting impression that the 2013 video game, Bioshock Infinite, includes posters within the game that appear with the symbol helping to give the bizarre and fantastical alternative history authenticity. While the artist of the original design is unknown, it is commonly attributed to either William Hackwood or Henry Webber who were modelers for Wedgwood. Due to the nature of the ceramic pieces, at the time, the medallions became fashionable to wear.

It would be a shame if I concluded without adding the following tidbit about Mr. Wedgwood. “In 1780, when Wedgwood’s long-term business partner died, he asked his friend Erasmus Darwin for help. Darwin’s son would later marry Wedgwood’s daughter, and they were the parents of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution” (5)

Wedgwood died on 3rd January 1795, 12 years before the ban on the slavery trade was enacted in Britain.


(1) Chisnell, Nick. “By Royal Command: Wedgwood’s Queen’s Ware” as posted on Wedgwood Museum blog 2 May 2012. accessed on September 2013

(2) Dabydeen, David. “The Black Figure in 18th Century Art”. Last updated 2011-02-17. British History. BBC. accessed September 2013

(3) Uglow, Jenny. “The Great Crash”. The Guardian, 6 February 2009. accessed September 2013

(4) “Abolition”. British History. BBC. accessed September 2013

(5) “Josiah Wedgwood”. Historic Figures. BBC. History. accessed September 2010

(6) “Josiah Wedgwood”. Wikipedia. accessed September 2013

(7) The Wedgwood Museum. accessed September 2013