Despite its winding economic narrative (and piles of manufacturing statistics), “Porcelain” is rarely a grind. Ms Marchand writes wittily about subjects from bourgeois views on tableware to Weimar advertising, veering away from tea sets and vases when she spies an interesting vignette. “Fox tossing”, she relates, was a popular pastime for 18th-century courtiers (the animals were hurled into the air until they died). King Frederick the Great of Prussia recruited hundreds of invalids from a state hospital literally to sniff out illegal coffeeroasters in Berlin and Potsdam.
The porcelain-makers themselves were often as fascinating as Bottger. After running away from home to become a cowboy, for instance, Philipp Rosenthal made a fortune in porcelain—before being ruined by the Nazis. Ordinary workers led colourful lives too. One report of 1796 describes how employees at a firm in Furstenberg drank schnapps at work or skived off to go hunting. Their successors in the 1940s spent their time dodging Allied bombs and repairing shattered windows.
Today German porcelain-makers face different threats. Chinese imports are undercutting them. Tastes have evolved: polystyrene cups have long replaced elegant coffee sets in many situations. Between 2006 and 2014 alone 190 German porcelain firms closed. Soon, writes Ms Marchand, production may return entirely to East Asia, where porcelain was first invented. The story that began with Bottger could become just another fairy-tale.