Fiesta Ware - America's colorful classic

by Carol Perry
Volume 21 No. 10 - June 1995

Reprinted from Collectors News & the Antique Reporter with permission of the author

Things were pretty grim in the United States during the 1930s. The country was slowly climbing its way out of the Great Depression, and Candlesticks there wasn't much money around. But Americans are an optimistic lot, and upbeat, peppy music and bright, happy colors marked the period as America kept her spirits up.

The time was perfect for the introduction of a dazzling line of bold, colorful dinnerware which could be sold for pennies at Woolworth's. In fact, the very modern, innovative design called "Fiesta Ware", was deliberately targeted at the "low end" of the market. Fiesta Ware was developed by the Homer Laughlin Company in Newell, WV. An extraordinary potter from Stoke-on-Trent, England, came up with the Art Deco-style design. Frederick Rhead was the potter who had come to America to work in Hollywood, but left there in 1932 to join the Laughlin Company their East Liverpool, OH, plant.

Those now-famous modernistic lines and brilliant colors didn't "just happen." Months of painstaking search and careful analysis the marketplace preceded the introduction of the new ware at the Pittsburgh Pottery and Glass Show in January 1936. The response was immediate; Fiesta Ware was wildly successful. Orders poured in. Laughlin's Coffepot and cups marketing plan was right on the money. There were so many people in financial difficulty, "sharing the financial constraints of the lower classes", as Sharon Dale, curator of the Frederick Rhead works at Pennsylvania's Eria Art Museum, puts it, that the market for Fiesta was enormous.

The promotional efforts behind the product were inspired too. Full page color ads ran in major newspapers, touting "the table sensation of the year," and offering the "genuine Fiesta ensemble" at the remarkable price of $14.95 for a 109-piece service for eight! Open stock pieces included a coffeepot for $1.19, and a cup and saucer for l9 cents. (Today that same coffeepot lists for $95, and the cup and saucer might bring $30!)

Color has been a key to this dinnerware's success from the Start. From hundreds of hues, the originators decided on five vivid colors: cobalt blue, yellow, ivory, light green, and red. It was that brilliant orange-red which was the key to the whole spectrum though. Everyone, it seemed, loved that particular color, so the remaining four colon were selected with an eye toward mixing and matching with it.

It was that same Fiesta red which makes a story dear to the hearts of Fiesta Ware collectors. It seems that in 1943, the second year of WWII, a group of agents of the United States government appeared Marmalade and mustard unannounced at the West Virginia plant. It was obvious that they were there on serious business. "What, they demanded, "is the Homer Laughlin China Company doing buying up 90% of the country's supply of uranium oxide?"

The potters looked at each other and shrugged. Uranium oxide is a common mineral, and it's been used to color glazes for centuries. They showed the agents some Fiesta red plates, and agreed - because they were asked to do so - to stop producing their favorite color for a Relish tray while. Of course, it wasn't until after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that they learned why they had to give up their uranium!

Later on, in 1959, they started once again to make the lovely color, this time with a "depleted" form of Uranium oxide, which doesn't contain those special atoms needed for bombs or reactors. During the 1970s, when collecting Fiesta Ware began to really take hold, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started to get lots of inquiries about possible radioactivity in the dishes. (The FDA studied the matter, and came to the conclusion that pieces colored with uranium glazes might better be used strictly for decorative purposes. It was decided that it was "not prudent to use the existing uranium glazed pottery for eating," but that handling the pottery doesn't pose any health problems.)

Colors changed over the years, and after Fiesta red "went to war," the original blue, green, and ivory were replaced with a darker forest green, rose, chartreuse, and gray. These four shades are known among collectors as the Fiesta 50s colors. The original yellow and a Pitcher and tumblers turquoise, which had been introduced in 1933, remained in the line, and, in 1959 yet another shade of green was introduced.

The distinctive colors are helpful in recognizing and dating Fiesta Ware. Some other clues can help to distinguish it from competitor's copy-cat designs and from similar dinnerware which Homer Laughlin Syrup manufactured, too. The ringed design is unique, There's always a band of six concentric rings close to the rim of each piece. Most pieces, except for really small stuff like salt shakers, egg cups, and some tea cups, are marked with the Fiesta trademark. Molded marks, incised into the piece before glazing, were used on early examples. They consist of the familiar word "Fiesta" in a distinctive script, with HCL.USA beneath, or "Fiesta" with a sort of HL monogram above it and "Made in U.S.A." beneath. In the early 1940s the word "Genuine" was added, and some pieces were marked with ink stamps after the color was applied but prior to the final firing.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the line had pretty much lost its popularity. It was redesigned once in 1969, but interest waned, and by 1973 it had been withdrawn from the market. In honor of the well-loved brand's 50th anniversary in 1936, Fiesta Ware was once again issued, this time in brand new colors: apricot, pink, blue, white, and black - in an effort to complement more modern tastes.

Virtually all Fiesta Ware, no matter when it was manufactured, blends with every other piece of Fiesta Ware. Many collectors use and Comport enjoy their collections every day. Of course, some pieces are much more difficult to find than others. Colors do make a big difference. The popular "disk" pitcher in ivory might be $30 or $40, while the same pitcher in dark green will fetch $90 or $100. Nesting mixing bowls were made in seven sizes up until 1944. You can pick up the smallest one (4½") for under $10, but the largest (9½") is harder to find (it was heavy and probably got dropped more often) and sells for up to $50.

Cups had full-circle handles until 1969, then partial-circle handles Sugars and creamers appeared. Until 1951, some demitasse cups were made with straight handles applied at an angle.

Although Fiesta Ware is becoming more and more popular as a collectible, and therefore becoming harder to find, most experts agree that you don't have to settle for less-than-perfect pieces. Look for mint condition pieces in a rainbow of colors. You'll set a wonderfully festive table and begin an endlessly fascinating collection!

Remember, as with just about any collectible these days prices vary widely depending on condition, color, and availability. Consult a reputable up-to-date price guide, for a "ballpark figure".