PM&M / Resources / Essays :

The Name Game

Many people asking for decoration (pattern) identifications are confused when I point out that hunting for names is often pointless when it comes to German porcelain and ceramics. The background is not easily explained. We not only have to cover economic changes in a period of well over two hundred years but also have to hold in mind that we are talking about two completely different markets which more or less were unsynchronized for relatively long periods of time. Please let me at least try to shed a little light on the whole matter.

Around the year 1800 most account books still contained lots of redundant information in form of long descriptive text passages and so accounting was a tedious job especially when the business was involved in international trade. Keeping track of stock was inefficient, slow and prone to error. Even more so if the main office had to rely on translated tables or reports.

Until then most British or North American businesses had served local markets which had grown slowly and in most cases covered product ranges that did not exceed the bare necessities. Meaning that up to a certain degree basic accounting and stock keeping systems worked most of the time. Plain put: a shovel was a shovel and a barrel was a barrel.

With ongoing industrialization however the product diversity and ranges expanded at far greater speeds than before. More and more producers made the same items, resulting in a row of various different designs, qualities and prices and so hardware stores did not sell a single shovel type but had three or more different ones on display. And to make sure that a customer bought certain products, producers and businessmen had to make sure that specific product features would be easily recognizable during direct comparison with products of the same product type.

One could say that this was the birth period of marketing. Of course certain product groups offered a wide array of varying specifications but when it came to tableware and similar products the possibilities were somewhat limited. A cup or coffee pot may vary in size and have smaller or larger handle or be more durable than others, but that's about it. So producers tried to win customers with more pleasing forms or decorations, 'naming' their molds or decorations and relying on well-sounding names which could be easily remembered by customers.

This however in certain areas created problems with the old forms of accounting. The number of clerks and accountants required by a middle-sized business soon increased which created two different effects: some companies kept price levels but created less profit, others had to increase prices as they were forced to spread the cost of additional expenses.

Long before large scale international commerce was on their minds many German producers had (based on the often quoted "Prussian/German virtues") started to rely on structures which seamlessly integrated everything that was required for efficient production as well as streamlined account-/stock-keeping. Such procedures not only saved a lot of money by greatly reducing the number of required ledgers and accountants, et cetera, they also allowed a better overview in regard of workflow, quality assurance and even individual employee efficiency.

It should be noted here that this did not mean that German businesses had re-invented the wheel or that they were more intelligent than others; it was the combination of various factors which caused German businessmen to stumble across and then adapt certain proceedings faster and more efficiently than others. And all that during a period of already steadily increasing trade relationships.

For outsiders it must have seemed that the Germans had gone crazy about numbers and abbreviations. There are indeed travel reports of foreign visitors which describe German factories as being carefully planned, highly efficient, but very monotonous. Every department in a factory was numbered and literally everything - from raw material or components to the end product - had his own numeric ID code (including the workers). As direct result thereof, everything from production lists to work orders became much shorter. Pages in ledgers could hold far more information and were quicker to update, read and analyse. And in the end it all added up to lower costs, faster work, and increased output.

In some areas this resulted in a partial market dominance. English potteries for example suffered greatly under the influence of German goods. The effect was so threatening that the British Parliament passed the Merchandise Act on August 23rd 1887 in order to protect the British market. German imports from then on should bear what was intended to be a mark of shame, and so the infamous Made in Germany was born. The United States saw themselves confronted with a similar dilemma (but not restricted to Germany alone) and so the Congress of the United States passed the so-called McKinley Tariff Act on October 1st 1890.

Time for a short break: as implied before we should hold in mind that what took place over a few decades was the direct result of two parallel markets (outside/inside Germany) which each evolved slightly different; it took another few decades before the systems we know today actually came into being. In our day and age we simply know that global trade relies on transferable constants, designations that do not change even if the target market uses a completely different language or even alphabet.

Take a close look at the bar code tags (e.g. a typical 'EAN-13' type) you find on nearly every item today. Next to cryptic abbreviations, they mainly consist of numbers. Reasons of course include work/cost efficiency and international readability (next to computer readability, but that's a different matter). With other words, the manufacturer creates an unique item number whilst it is up to the local stores to create a matching sales description for the item; it does not matter in which language this is done as the unique item ID remains the same.

Okay, ready for more? So far we covered one aspect of the whole matter but there was another vital reason why many German factories did not want to use names. And that reason probably has far more weight when it comes to the situation of resellers, owners, or collectors today.

Anyway, classifying a mold or decoration per number alone was much easier than having to use names and it therefore became irrelevant if an item was locally sold as Lilienstrauss in Germany, Lily Garden in England, or Bouquet de lis in France as the corresponding number code always remained the same. Based on what was covered in the section of this document, most German manufacturers decided that their catalogs merely contained numbers and combinations thereof clearly (and internationally) stated item, shape and decoration type.

This procedure of course also avoided many secondary problems as registrations in general were both bothersome and relatively expensive. Registering a pattern in Germany was a matter of its own but German producers would have had to file, trace, and pay for registrations in each and every target state or country. Next to the regular fees for such a process there was also the 'foreigner tax' in form of an additional fee for being a foreign producer registering the design. All this paperwork in the end meant that factories would have had to ensure the services of a local company representative or even lawyer; the original price advantage would of course have melted rapidly.

But even naming something was by far not so simple as it may seem. A certain flower or plant for example might appear different than is locally known due to the different genetic settings resulting from evolution on different continents, hence using certain names might cause confusion as the chosen name simply does not match what people expect to see. Not forgetting that translations could also result in unwanted side efffects.

A German manufacturer wishing to create a plate series depicting foreign birds for example may find that "Maorischnäpper" sounds okay but it may be doubted that he may have thought about the implications of literally having a "New Zealand Tit" on a plate. Even worse if the potential customer would happen to be an Englishman as they would have to deal with a "Tomtit" on their plate, a (Yorkshire) slang term for feces. Either way definitely nothing you would want on your plate.

The only logical consequence for German producers was to simply stick with their rather successful numeric system and leave the dirty work to their importers and distributors. And as most foreign customers (especially in Canada, the UK, and USA) were simply still used to names, many of those importers and distributors quickly started to invent, use, and often register 'their' own names.

And this is the main reason for todays misery: as each importer/distributor had the possibility of creating own names, any given decoration, mold or combination thereof started to appear under numerous names world-wide. While a German company used certain names in Germany, a Canadian business would use other names than one in Great Britain or New Zealand. Even worse: US West Coast distributors often used and registered other names than companies from the US East Coast and vice versa. And at that time nobody bothered as each market segment was of course a stand-alone matter.

Nowadays however - with a true global market and the internet in place - we are sadly standing on the wrong side of a very large problem as customers, collectors and potential resellers alike still appear to believe that every pattern name they know is the godsent truth.

Assume that you are trying to sell an item you came to know in your home city Los Angeles. You checked out for a pattern name and eventually got a hint from a local dealer website. But who says that a potential customer in Boston will even find your item online? He may be looking for something completely different as the old catalog he received as part of his heirloom clearly states a different name alltogether.

And the eBay customer in the UK will probably have yet another name at hand (etc., etc.). All more or less legit by themselves, but still not 'definitive' and far from 'official'. No matter what sites like want to make you believe; the only good thing one could say is that sites like that simply don't (and can't) know it better.

Let us face it. People should open their eyes and accept the fact that these pattern names were (and are) local identifiers only.

My reluctance towards responding to ID requests is based on this knowledge. If I could offer an ID it would most probably be the original manufacturer code, something that was systematically ignored for years and can barely be found as reference nowadays as all those self-proclaimed 'experts' decided to use and advertize meaningless names instead. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Because the whole matter had gotten pretty complicated (and some people had indeed noticed that quite a few names simply did not match) many US collectors and resellers took up the habit of quoting completely useless item designations, for example the stock codes used by my favorite pet peeve But trying to find a way through a home-made chaos by relying on codes made up by a company so useless that it can not even identify US marks is definitely no solution.

I can not change the world as I definitely do not have the resources (or archive material) required to create a database which would contain the correct information. But people should think about the fact that they are causing even more confusion by evading confrontation and replacing original designations with made-up nonsense.

(Version 1.16)


© 2004-2023 C.S.Marshall, all rights reserved