Jan 14, 2011

Fiesta Friday: A little history lesson

While I'm focused (okay, fixated) on my beloved Fiesta dinnerware, I thought I'd share some insights and lessons I've learned. I hope these tips help others who are trying to find their way through the jungle of vintage vs. retired vs. new Fiesta pieces, as well as sort out the various Homer Laughlin vintage lines.  I don't pretend to be an expert, but I have stubbed my toes on a few purchases, and that led me to dig around for the following information.  Hopefully it will help you avoid making similar mistakes.

But before we dive in, let's start at the beginning - if you're a history buff, this will be interesting.  If not, just skim it and glean a few quotable facts you can casually toss off to your friends (they will think you are incredibly knowledgeable, so just smile coyly and bask in their admiration.  If they press for more details, you can politely demur by refusing to bore them with all that old history stuff.  Yep.  That's how it's done.)

To give credit where it's due, let's recognize the men behind the company and the design.

According to the Homer Laughlin Company ("HLC") website, Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin were brothers in East Liverpool, Ohio.  Together they formed a pottery business in 1871 and quickly made a name for themselves producing high-quality dinnerware. When the younger brother moved on to other pursuits, the company became known as the Homer Laughlin China Works.  It moved across the Ohio river to its present location in Newell, West Virginia in 1902.

Frederick Hurten Rhead was the designer responsible for the iconic dishes known as "Fiesta."  He was born on August  29, 1880 in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Great Britain, moving to the U.S. in 1902. He became art director to HLC in 1927, and died in New York on November 2, 1942.

Fiesta was first produced in 1936, in five colors.  Over the years, the colors and pieces offered changed, but by 1973 HLC discontinued Fiesta due to lack of sales.  However, they reintroduced Fiesta in 1986 and a completely revamped line of Fiesta Square dishes in 2009.  (Somehow I missed the advance notice, so I didn't get my square dish collection started until last year.)

In the 100-plus years of its history, HLC has produced quite an array of dinnerware, but its fine china patterns could never be mistaken for Fiesta.  However, there are four distinct lines of vintage dinnerware, each having overlapping colors that are often lumped together.  While there's nothing wrong with mixing and matching pieces from the various lines, it's helpful to know the distinctions so you know what you're looking at when you come across a piece.  I highly recommend the following pages to give you a brief overview of each line:

Fiesta history
Harlequin history
Riviera history
Kitchen Kraft history

And some special notes about two colors:

Will the real green please stand up?
Heidi does a wonderful job of explaining the various greens in that link  Chartreuse and Forest are easy to pick out from the original foursome, but medium green and original green are more difficult, and online photos can be extremely tricky.  While most sellers would not deliberately mislead their buyers on which green they are selling, it is truly a case of "caveat emptor" - proceed with caution if you are on the hunt for one particular shade.  Not to mention the huge value/price difference in certain pieces (like the much-vaunted green teapot.)  And these colors have come and gone (chartreuse in particular has come back into vogue) so determining new vs. vintage adds another layer of complexity.
Was it really radioactive red? 
Yes, indeed and the link above explains why this orange-y red color is called "radioactive."  You will come across vintage Fiesta, Riviera, Harlequin and Kitchen Kraft pieces in this color and despite its orange tint, it is the original red.  "Rose" was introduced later and newer pieces feature a truer red, along with scarlet and a brownish "paprika" color.

Kitchen scene on Christmas morning
How does mommy's piggy eat?
On Fiesta, of course!
(Sidenote:  In the 1983 holiday movie "A Christmas Story," Fiesta dinnerware is prominently featured in the kitchen scenes.  However, only the most eagle-eyed Fiesta lovers are likely to notice it because the plates and cups used in the meal scenes are in the pale hues (there are some bright-colored pieces in the Hoosier cabinet in the background.)  I'm not sure why the movie used only the pale pieces.  According to IMDB's trivia, the movie is set in 1940.  The uraniuim-based color wasn't discontinued until 1943, so all the the eye-popping red, yellow, turquoise, green and blue were being churned out.  Shrug.  Maybe Ralphie's mom just liked the pastels best.  We know she had a fondness for pink bunnies...)

Okay, back to our history lesson.  If you skimmed the information in the above links, you've probably gathered that vintage Fiesta is a throwback to an earlier time, when even inexpensive, common "everyday" dishes had specific functions (Mustard pots? Egg cups?  Celery plates? Individual creamers?  Can you imagine hand-washing those mountains of dishes each day?)  Even casual meals "back in the day" seemed to have  more formality than we often give to special occasions nowadays.  I guess that's part of the appeal for me (and perhaps many other collectors) - it's a tip of the hat to an era when family meals were a daily celebration.

Much thought and care (and labor) went into each meal's preparation, and it was anticipated and appreciated by those eating it--no "brown bag special" to be wolfed down in the car. Dinner time was set aside to gather family or friends to the table and enjoy the fellowship of breaking bread together.  Setting an attractive table was an art form that women and daughters prided themselves on learning well.

Okay, enough meandering down memory lane.  Next time we'll dig into some nitty-gritty details and cautionary tales as you start down this fun collecting path.

Happy Fiesta-ing!