“The first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night, ... cough, cough, cough! And still, to work, work, work! The lozenge was continually in the mouth, and other sources of relief resorted to; but the good man’s lungs were, weekly, daily, hourly, wasting away; and death was only a question of time. Now, a walk up-hill became a pain; and the panting sufferer had to rest by the way. Still, for all working purposes the man was as good as ever.” 
A detail of one of the photographs accompanying Goodby’s essay discussed below.
Wallace Stevens wasn’t thinking of Majolica and other ceramic products of the Potteries in Staffordshire when he wrote “Death is the mother of beauty,” but that memorable phrase certainly describes the human cost of bringing affordable art and design to the people — well, at least to people of the middle and upper classes in England and America. According to Miranda Goodby, “Doctors at the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary were shocked by the level of lung disease among the pottery workers—and by their acceptance of it as a normal state of affairs. Combined with the ever-present threat of tuberculosis, which was aggravated by the working conditions, lung disease not only shortened the lives of its victims but also often 'became a lingering death for a period of twenty years'” (100). Dr. John Arlidge (1822–1897), one of the physicians at the Royal Infirmary, “gave lectures in the Potteries and published papers outlining the grim statistics of industrially related lung disease” (101). He suggested simple inexpensive ways to save lives, but few manufacturers or workers followed his life-saving advice.
Goodby, whose essay in Majolica Mania (2021) is accompanied by a treasure trove of photographs of workers in the Potteries, explains the two main causes of lung and other diseases associated with this kind of labor. First, men and women polishing fired clay send tiny particles into the air that they breathed. The second cause lay in the chemicals that produced Majolica’s bright colors and characteristic glaze:
The brightly colored printed or painted decoration, as well as the colored glazes contained finely ground minerals, including cobalt, manganese, copper, arsenic, antimony, nickel, and chrome. All were poisonous — and most dangerous in their raw state, before calcining or firing. Another significant danger for workers was the widespread use of lead-based glazes. Lead, which is highly toxic, had been the main ingredient in the standard glazes used in the Staffordshire pot- teries since the Middle Ages. Fired “biscuit” pottery was dipped in a mixture of finely ground lead oxide, water, and powdered clay before being fired a second time, which fused the liquid to the ware. The resulting glassy surface, or glaze, made the finished piece impervious to liquids and, if colored with other metallic oxides, could be used to decorative effect. . . . The advantages of lead as a glaze material are many: it can be used in its raw or fritted state, it tolerates a wide range of firing temperatures, and it gives a wonderfully glossy finish. Its appeal was further increased by its relatively low price. [101-02]
One cannot even blame the devastating effects to worker’s health on the Industrial Revolution or the technologies, such as steam engines, that powered it, since the actual process of making majolica ware hardly differed from that used in the Potteries since the middle ages.
Links to Related Material
- Public Health (homepage/sitemap)
- Victorian Occupations (homepage/sitemap)
- Robbed of “twenty-five years of existence” — The Trades of Sheffield and their dangers to worker's health
- Chemistry (homepage/sitemap)
Goodby, Miranda. “‘The fearful malady of the clay’: Working Conditions in the Nineteenth-Century Staffordshire Potteries” in Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850–1915. Ed. Susan Weber, with Catherine Arbuthnott, Jo Briggs, Eleanor Hughes, Earl Martin, and Laura Microulis. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. Pp. 97-108. [Review]
Last modified 11 December 2021