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Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning

Author(s):Blaszczyk, Regina Lee
Reviewer(s):Calder, Lendol G.

Published by EH.NET (August 2001)

Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from

Wedgwood to Corning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xiii

+ 380 pp. $45.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6193-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lendol Calder, Department of History, Augustana

College, Rock Island, IL.

Regina Blaszczyk brings something new to the oldest question asked by

scholars of consumer society: who wields decisive power — the people

themselves, commanding business, their servant, or “captains of consciousness”

manipulating the imaginations of the many for the private gain of a few? It is

a large question that typically attracts large answers. Thus, debates over the

question of power relations in a consumer society tend to be characterized by

metanarratives (e.g., Marxist analysis), abstract theoretical concepts (e.g.,

hegemony), and common-sensical assertions (“producers and audiences shape each

other”). But in Imagining Consumers, Blaszczyk grounds her arguments

on something not seen before: a cornucopia of archival research, painstakingly

acquired from untapped company archives of key firms in the household

furnishings business. Blaszczyk’s conclusion is bold. “Make no mistake,” she

writes, “supply did not create demand in home furnishings, but demand

determined supply” (p. 13). Imagining Consumers is a careful,

fine-grained monograph whose claims are firmly tethered to its assembled

evidence. As such, it will hardly end debate over the nature of power

relations in consumer society. But Blaszczyk succeeds in accomplishing at

least this much: the bar is now raised for those who want to argue that

consumers are the victims of business interests that create and manipulate

consumer desire.

Blaszczyk’s decision to study the household furnishings industry is an

interesting, highly commendable choice. As a researcher and curator of several

exhibits on the glassware and pottery industries for the Smithsonian’s

National Museum of American History (she is now an assistant professor of

history and American Studies at Boston University), Blaszczyk became

dissatisfied with a tendency she observed in historical studies of consumer

society. Historians of consumerism, she noted, either neglect to consider the

point of view of the companies making the goods (which is sort of like

studying medieval society without taking seriously the Catholic Church) or

focus too much on corporate giants such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola,

companies whose well-known successes at creating demand for new products are

not typical of the businesses she was studying. Thus, Blaszczyk directs

attention to a sector of the consumer economy most scholars know little about,

despite the fact that it made some of the most meaningful artifacts of the

consumer revolution, goods like glassware, china, pottery, and bakeware.

Between 1898 and 1916, products for table and kitchen took up a surprising

thirteen per cent of the annual incomes of American households (p. 130). But

the value of these goods may be better measured by examining photographs of

the interiors of late-Victorian and early-twentieth century homes. It wasn’t

Crisco tins and Coke bottles that were displayed in the ubiquitous china

hutches, buffet cabinets, and sideboards, but dinner sets bought at

Woolworth’s, glassware ordered from Sears, and porcelain bric-a-brac given

away as premiums by tea-stores. China and glassware were central in the

creation of consumers’ identities, especially for working- and middle-class

housewives who used them as credentials of respectability and as exhibits of

personal taste. Blaszczyk has interesting things to say about how men and

women participated in consumer culture, though in different ways. But her

central concern is to show the truth behind the dictum laid down by marketing

guru Paul T. Cherington in 1931: “The consuming public imposes its will on

the business enterprise.”

In four case studies spread across seven chapters, Blaszczyk lays out the case

for how this was so in the pottery and glass trades. In two of the industries

studied — glassware and tableware — manufacturers were quick to discover

that the golden road to profits lay not in shaping consumers but in “imagining

them,” i.e., guessing at what they wanted, and designing products for them on

that basis. A basic strategy for how this could be accomplished had been

established years before by the celebrated English potter Josiah Wedgwood.

Partnered after 1769 with the Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood

forged a successful business empire based on two innovations that American

glass and crockery companies would later adopt. The first contribution

affected marketing: instead of trying to shape demand, Wedgwood endeavored to

meet it. Adopting a methodological agnosticism on the subject of good taste,

Wedgwood depended on “fashion intermediaries” like the well-connected Bentley

to fine-tune a sense of what the public wanted. Since public tastes varied and

were constantly changing, Wedgwood’s second innovative practice followed from

the first: “flexible batch production.” At Wedgwood’s pottery works, short

production runs were used to cater to various niches of taste, so that from

week to week output was highly variable when it came to color, decoration,

style, and price. As practiced by Wedgwood and his later American imitators,

flexible batch production aimed not for homogenous mass production but for an

endless flow of novel lines calculated to please various groups of consumers.

Well suited for the diverse American market, flexible batch production came

to dominate the furniture, silver, rug, textile, glassware, and pottery

industries. It also effectively closed the circle of the Wedgwood business

strategy, leaving owner-managers too busy with factory matters to have much

time for scheming about ways to manipulate demand. Instead, Blaszczyk finds

that they spent all their energies on getting their audiences in focus.

Imagining Consumers devotes many pages to explaining how American firms

such as the Homer Laughlin China Company used “fashion intermediaries” to

generate new product designs. From 1865 to 1945, fashion intermediaries —

whose porous ranks included workshop artisans, shopkeepers, salesmen, retail

buyers, home economists, and early market researchers — were primarily

responsible for the way things in American homes looked. High-style craftsmen,

name designers, and taste reformers (such as the well-known Walter Dorwin

Teague) may have left historians a more interesting corpus of ideas to write

about, but Blaszczyk finds that in the household goods business those who

attempted to create demand or shape taste to a single national style usually

failed. This was a lesson that Wisconsin’s Kohler Company, a leading maker of

sanitary fixtures in the 1920s, found out the hard way. One of the most

interesting accounts in the book is how Kohler tried to use national

advertising, consumer credit, and innovative product design in the 1920s and

1930s to create demand for the electric sink (an early version of the

electric dishwasher) and for colored, stylish bathroom fixtures. Both attempts

to shape public thinking about bathroom and kitchen plumbing ended in dismal

failure. Corning Glass Works had a similar experience with Pyrex dishware,

until the company learned the lesson followed by Wedgwood, Homer Laughlin

China, and other successful firms selling household durable goods: women would

not buy products they did not want, no matter how much was spent on making

them want the right things.

Thus, Blaszczyk finds that the household furnishings industries, more so than

with Ford, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and other corporate giants, grasped

the nature of America’s heterogeneous society and the egalitarian potentials

of the consumer revolution. Her history complicates heroic narratives of how

businesses operate, stories featuring powerful corporations employing legions

of scientists, industrial designers, and advertisers to manufacture consumers

as well as products. On the contrary, imagining consumers with the help of

fashion intermediaries was a messy, uncertain business at best, a marriage of

guesswork about what consumers wanted to workshop knowledge of what it was

chemically and financially possible to manufacture. Nevertheless, as is

evident from the commercial success of Fiesta tableware compared with the

failure of 1930s industrial designers to arouse popular enthusiasm for

streamlining, companies that honored consumer sovereignty instead of trying to

elevate it or overpower it generally came out ahead.

A short review risks oversimplifying Blaszczyk’s richly detailed argument.

There is no over-arguing of the case here; looking beyond the household

furnishings trade, Blaszczyk describes the nature of relations between

business and consumers in general as “a complex dialogue” (p. 1). Evidence

that runs counter to the main thesis is admitted, such as the way crockery

merchants in the 1880s used lavish advertising to persuade Americans that

Continental porcelain was more desirable than English pottery. Why merchants

succeeded in manipulating taste here when so many others failed to do the same

is left unexplained as a mysterious exception that proves the rule. Some may

wonder whether Kohler, Corning, and the other business failures in the book

were simply luckless when it came to hiring good advertising talent.

On the question of desire and how it is formed and by whom, Blaszczyk is

neither philosophical nor the first to argue there is more power in the

consumers’ corner than often believed. But she is the first to show from a

business perspective how and in what sense consumers have exercised a degree

of sovereignty over the businesses offering them choices. We await the

scholars who can meld Blaszczyk’s evidentiary approach with the theorizing

that will be necessary to explain the nature, origin, and structure — the

metaphysics — of consumer desire.

Lendol Calder, assistant professor of history at Augustana College, is the

author of Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer

Credit (1999).

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII