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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 358-366
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SCHOLARS INTERESTED IN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCtion must read Regina Blaszczyk's Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. The title of Blaszczyk's book captures the work's major contribution to the field of consumer culture studies. Imagining Consumers is a collection of business case studies that shows how manufacturers in the ceramics and glassware industry responded to the tastes and practical requirements of their customers. Through extensive archival research, Blaszczyk persuasively argues that a host of "fashion intermediaries" carried men's and women's desires for particular designs of pressed and cut glass, dime store and schemeware china, and colorful pottery for casual dining back to the manufacturers, who in turn shaped the production and marketing of these goods to fit demand (12). Focusing on design, production, and marketing, it reveals the power of consumers: firms that considered their customers when they designed and marketed goods thrived, while others who developed styles or products without listening to their audience failed.
This story of the glass and ceramics industries complicates the picture of a consumer society forged by the engines of mass production, distribution, retailing, and new ways of advertising. 1 Blaszczyk follows the path of Philip Scranton's work on batch production, which [End Page 358] reconceptualized the business history of the Second Industrial Revolution. Scranton argued against a picture of "increasingly rationalized and bureaucratic big businesses fashioning a 'one best way' to mass produce and mass market standardized goods." 2 Arguing for the prevalence of batch production into the twentieth century allows both Scranton and Blaszczyk to paint a more diverse picture of consumer society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Batch production was a flexible-manufacturing format characterized by short runs of varied goods that could respond quickly to changes in taste. Such flexibility allowed "small, poorly capitalized companies to compete in a fashion-conscious environment." 3 It "emphasized the reading of consumer desires and the creation of an endless flow of novel lines, [which] perfectly suited the enormous and highly diversified market" (11). Batch producers of glass and ceramics had a different relationship to consumers than did mass producers of other goods. Mass production industries often introduced new goods and subsequent needs; among these other producers, demand shaped supply.
By bringing this production method back into the story of the rise of mass culture, Blaszczyk is able to bring the consumer into focus. She demonstrates how batch industries relied on fashion intermediaries for information about changing consumer tastes and needs during the period 1865 through 1945. The "tradition of imagining consumers" traveled from Britain to the United States in the eighteenth century with artisans who had long emulated the well-known practices of china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood and merchant Thomas Bentley (11). Wedgwood's partnership with Bentley allowed him to follow consumer tastes and meet its demands. Together, they devised a "system of fashion feedback" that could be adjusted to the heterogeneous American market (12). Blaszczyk's extensive archival research uncovers a world of individuals at work imagining consumers. These "consumer liaisons" included shopkeepers, buyers, suppliers, in-house art directors, home economists, advertising experts, and "practical men," the artisans who designed and produced glassware and ceramics (11-12).
Cultural historians have documented the role department stores, mail-order companies, and chain stores played in shaping consumer society. 4 Blaszczyk's contribution to this body of work lies in her ability to show exactly how this interchange took place. 5 Retailers played a major role in conveying valuable information about consumer tastes and requirements back to manufacturers of household goods. For [End Page 359] example, we go behind the scenes at Boston's Briggs China & Glass Warehouse in the 1860s-1880s, where proprietor Richard Briggs acted as a consumer liaison for manufacturers like Josiah Wedgwood & Sons and independent glass cutters, like Thomas Gibbons Hawkes. Briggs gathered information through...