Copper, business history and material culture

Following the discussion of some of the themes I have been exploring related to the historic copper industry through the lens of business archives, I have begun to think more holistically about the relationships between place-industry-business-commodity. My recent relocation to West Cornwall put me in mind of its world-class mining heritage and a landscape and society shaped by the demand for the commodities of copper, tin, and other minerals particularly during the 18th to early 20th centuries. Mining history is the staple of industrial heritage in Cornwall and Britain as a whole and mining landscapes in the rest of the world are beginning to receive similar attention, such as in South Africa and Australia.

But from the perspective of a material culture historian, mining is only part of the story and it has surprised me so far that both scholarly publications and public interpretation has largely been cursory in its treatment of ‘what happened to all that copper, or tin…?’ Those  who appreciate the value of biography as an epistemological tool (or theoretical framework) will have a natural desire to follow a commodity through the whole materials cycle.

The idea of studying the whole materials cycle in an historical context was mediated to me as I wrote a recent piece on the historic copper business, ‘Pioneers and profits‘ for Materials World, the magazine of  the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3). This is an organisation that focuses on contemporary issues related to materials from extraction to their eventual use and even recycling. Their description sums up this approach well:

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) is a major UK engineering institution whose activities encompass the whole materials cycle, from exploration and extraction, through characterisation, processing, forming, finishing and application, to product recycling and land reuse.

Historical studies of business and industry tend to compartmentalise one or two aspects of the historic materials cycle. Those that deal with the whole will usually privilege one stage, e.g. mining and extraction or smelting over others. This is particularly the case with the history of metals and metallurgical processes. It was with this in mind that I have begun to hammer out a plan to research copper through several of its materials cycles to try and understand how the supply chain operated, the skills involved, which individuals and companies were connected together (current work on historic social networks will come in handy here) and how changes in demand and technology manifested themselves in this cycle.

I described some of the ways I have been using business archives to  at a recent workshop on the value of business archives in research, held at Swansea University and organised by the Powering the World project. In this paper I suggested that focusing on a firm that dealt with buying raw materials for smelting and refining copper and then supplying its products to onward manufacturing industries was an effective way to exploit the full potential of business archives held in local and specialist collections. Pascoe Grenfell and Sons is one of the firms I am most interested in. Not having been the subject of any major study, PG&S’s activities spanned mining, smelting, refining, transport and part manufacture of copper and brass. Archives related to their business concerns spanning the late 18th to late 19th centuries can be found in Swansea, London, Cornwall, Aylesbury, Birmingham and beyond. They illustrate the huge complexity and balances required in the procurement of materials to produce saleable commodities.

An example I gave of constructing a biography of copper was of craft copper, such as developed in Newlyn at the end of the 19th century. It’s very schematic and only intended to illustrate the idea of looking at materials cycles. Determining accurate percentages of actual Cornish copper in what was crafted in Newlyn and elsewhere is of course an impossible question to answer at the moment. Also bearing in mind that it is estimated that 80% of copper ever mined is still somewhere in use today, the study of materials cycles become even more compelling.

Newlyn copper biography

Newlyn copper biography

2 thoughts on “Copper, business history and material culture

  1. Pingback: Industrial heritage education at risk? | Tehmina Goskar

  2. Pingback: Nineteenth-Century Excel: Swansea and Cornwall Ticketing documents | History of Copper

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *