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Mass production

1. Before c 1900

Source: Oxford University Press

Mass production developed in pockets of the Western capitalist economy before the factory system, before machine production and even before a detailed division of labour. There is some evidence of large-scale hand-production of basic pottery in both ancient Egypt and ancient Rome, and a division of labour was beginning to emerge in the furniture workshops of mid-18th-century London in such firms as those of John Linnell (i) and Thomas Chippendale (i), where chair and table legs and feet were made by hand in batch, if not mass, production. The large-scale development of mass production came with the introduction of machinery, the factory system and the division of labour on the one hand and the growth of the domestic and overseas middle-class market on the other. The main developments took place from the mid-18th century. From 1769, for example, Josiah Wedgwood (see Wedgwood) introduced a detailed division of labour to speed up production, employ fewer skilled workers and produce more uniform products at his Etruria works. Mass production led to the success of his ‘Queen’s Ware’ range, which filled the gap in the market between very expensive foreign porcelain and the poor-quality everyday tableware then available from British potteries.

By the mid-19th century it was still only the British textile industry that had been extensively mechanized. In other industries higher levels of production were often at the expense of an increased division of labour, and low prices were the result of poor-quality materials and unskilled labour. For example, there was little division of labour in the largely bespoke furniture trade until the second half of the 19th century when it began to cater for the growing middle-class market, which demanded high-quality goods but at greatly reduced cost. This was achieved through the ‘sweated labour’ system that developed in the East End of London where the increased production of cheap furniture was based on low wages, poor working conditions, cheap materials and an intense subdivision of labour. Production was by hand rather than machine because, despite the enormous demand, wages were so low that it was not worthwhile for employers to introduce expensive machinery, the initial cost of which took years to recoup. In the USA, however, high labour costs and a shortage of craft skills encouraged manufacturers to replace people with machines. These factors, coupled with developments in precision tool-making, encouraged the growth of the American System of Manufactures, in which goods using standardized and interchangeable parts were mass-produced by machine. Fire-arms, locks, clocks, watches, sewing-machines and cars were all produced by this system, and the results in a country with an enormous domestic market were remarkable: for example, by the end of the 19th century Robert H. Ingersoll (1859–1928) produced a wrist-watch that cost only one dollar. The growth in population had led to a greater demand for all kinds of domestic goods, and from the early 19th century glassmakers, for example, experimented with new technology to mass produce cheap pressed-glass tableware; such companies as the Libbey glass co. developed mass-produced industrial glass products.

In 1857 Michael Thonet opened his purpose-built factory in Koritschan-bei-Gaya, Moravia, where he employed unskilled local workers, whom he trained in his new methods of mass-producing bentwood furniture, designed for commercial use in hotels, restaurants etc and produced on a huge scale for an international market. It was shipped unassembled for easier transportation. In 1857 the factory produced 10,000 articles, mainly chairs; in 1859 the first Thonet catalogue was issued showing 26 items, and by 1860 the factory produced over 50,000 pieces of furniture including armchairs, settees and tables .

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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