Smith in the City: The Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory

On Tuesday, March 25, Adam Smith’s pupils Duke Henry and Hew Campbell Scott most likely visited a porcelain manufactory in Sèvres, a small town located west of Paris, for Horace Walpole’s journal entry for that day reads: “To manufacture at Sevè with Lady George, Mrs Ker, Duke of Buccleuch and Mr Scot.[1] (The reference to the “manufacture at Sevè” must be to the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres (pictured below), a royal workshop established by Louis XV in the 1750s,[2] while “Lady George, Mrs Ker” must refer to Lady Louisa Kerr, the wife of Lord George Lennox. For their parts, “Duke of Buccleuch and Mr Scot” refer to Smith’s pupils, Duke Henry and Hew Campbell Scott, the duke’s younger brother.)

Did Adam Smith visit this porcelain manufactory as well? Either way, a number of world-famous workshops in 18th-century France enjoyed royal monopolies to produce luxury goods, including jewelry, furniture, snuff boxes, watches, porcelain, carpets, silverware, mirrors, and tapestries, among other things. The crown directly oversaw several royal manufacturers, including those of fine dishes (Sèvres), tapestries (Gobelins and Beauvais), and carpets (Savonnerie manufactory).[3] The manufactory at Sèvres was thus not just any commercial enterprise; it was a world-famous workshop with a royal monopoly to produce fine dishes and other porcelain goods. [See generally Préaud & Scherf 2015; see also Battie 1990.]

The Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory was originally founded in Vincennes in 1740 and then moved to Sèvres in 1756, after a new manufactory was built between 1753 and 1756 by the architect Laurent Lindet. [See generally Lechevallier-Chevignard 2013; see also Zarucchi 2016.] This new building was 130 meters long and four floors high. The ground floor contained clay reserves and storerooms of raw materials, and the first (second) floor contained the ovens and the workshops of the moulders, plasterers, sculptors, and engravers. Sculptors, turners, repairers, and packers worked on the second (third) floor, and the painters, gilders, and makers of animals and figures worked in the loft of the building. There was also a central pavilion surmounted by a pediment with a clock from the old royal glass-makers on the fourth level, with two long wings terminating in corner pavilions at each end. In front of the pavilion was a public courtyard, which was enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. This courtyard was decorated twice a month to entertain visitors to the building.

Although Smith was apparently not among the members of Walpole’s party to visit Sèvres on March 25, one aspect of Paris that must have caught the moral philosopher’s attention was the market in luxury goods, a growing market with political and moral implications.[4] By way of example, the word “luxury” appears only six times in Smith’s 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments; by contrast, “luxury” or “luxuries” appear over 60 times in The Wealth of Nations. Moreover, Adam Smith devotes considerable space to monopolies and luxury goods in different parts of The Wealth of Nations. Book 1 of his magnum opus contains an extended analysis of monopolies, while Book 5 adopts a broad definition of luxury goods. Smith also defends the imposition of taxes on luxury goods in Book 5. Perhaps his time in Paris, the capital of luxury, in some small part led to Smith’s transformation from a moral philosopher to a political economist.

Sèvres - Manufacture et Musée nationaux - Accueil

[1] Lewis 1939, p. 309, footnote omitted.

[2] Louis XV would also established the first annual exhibition of porcelain at Versailles beginning in 1769, three years after Smith’s departure from Paris. See Antoine 1989, p. 566.

[3] As it happens, the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres is still one of the principal porcelain factories in Europe, is still located in Sèvres, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) southwest of the center of Paris, and is still owned by the government; in fact, it has been owned by the French crown or government since 1759.

[4] See generally Jennings 2007.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Smith in the City: The Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory

  1. Sheree says:

    Interesting that luxury has always been part of Paris’ raison d’être

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