Jan 28, 2011

Fiesta Friday: Running in circles

Just when you thought Fiesta Fridays were over, here's one final blog post on the subject, at least for now.  It's a brief exploration of pottery known as "ringware" or "California pottery" (although Homer Laughlin has always been located in the eastern U.S., it falls into this category, along with several other Ohio River-area pottery companies such as Cronin China, McCoy, Hall, Taylor, Smith & Taylor.)  Even Frankoma down in Oklahoma made some solid color pottery dishes in the same hues.

Suffice it to say Homer Laughlin's Fiesta/Harlequin/Riviera dinnerware aren't the only lines of brightly colored pottery introduced during the Great Depression, nor are they even the only ones with concentric rings and Art Deco shapes. However, they are the best-known and Fiesta is arguably the most successful and enduring line.

Other well-known lines originated with Gladding, McBean & Company who introduced Franciscan ware in California, and Bauer (originally called Paducah Pottery before John Bauer moved production from Kentucky to California in the 1930s.)

When I think of Franciscan, I usually think of their famous "Desert Rose" dishes. But their line of "El Patio" is very similar in many respects to Fiesta, and the ball jug is almost identical to the Harlequin ball jug.

Many of Bauer's pieces are easy to distinguish with their heavy rings, reminiscent of a beehive. Among Bauer collector's favorite is nested mixing bowls that range from 1 pint to 3 gallons. In fact, I have a Bauer bowl I use as a fruit bowl. (It came along with a Fiesta mixing bowl I won off eBay several years ago and I didn't know what it was for a long time.) Bauer has reintroduced its "American Modern" line of mix-and-match pieces designed by Russel Wright, in a partnership with his daughter.

So who came first? (And who copied whom?) Well, both HLC and Bauer got their start in the late 1800s.  HLC began in East Liverpool, Ohio 1871 and Bauer in Paducah, Kentucky in 1885. Bauer moved to California in 1909, but didn't begin producing chunky, handthrown ringware until 1931, a few years before Fiesta debuted with a more sleek and stylized rendition of Bauer's "beehive" ringed pieces.

But credit for first producing this genre of pottery probably goes to the California Colored Pottery, which began on Catalina Island in 1927 and was acquired by Gladding McBean in 1937. Gladding McBean produced a line called "El Patio," and at a glance it looks a lot like Fiesta. Gladding also produced a line of promotional products for Sperry Flour Company of California (the small pieces were placed in sacks of flour); Sperry later became part of General Mills. Gladding's "Montecito" line was a more refined, pastel-hued line not pottery that is still highly collectible today.

Another player in this arena was Vernon Kiln (the makers of all those commemorative state plates), who also produced a "Montecito" line of pottery in pale colors around the same period.

Why the history lesson? Well, for one thing, it's interesting. (At least I think it's interesting), and in case you also like knowing the background of what you're collecting, I wanted to save you a little time and energy, which could be better spent stalking pieces of pottery!

More seriously, if you are starting a collection, you will undoubtedly come across some pieces that you may initially snub as "fake Fiesta."  One of the telltale signs is the rings - concentric rings that remain evenly spaced are not Fiesta (but may be Harlequin); the rings on Fiesta move closer together with each rotation.  But except for some clearly unoriginal imported knock-offs, most of what you'll come across isn't really faux anything; these pieces were proudly designed and produced by a pottery company - many of them right here in the U.S. using our own clay soil. And you may find you like one of these lines as well or better than Fiesta. Or you may want to mix and match items of similar colors or shapes.

In fact, I'm really starting to covet a dog bowl made by Bauer. Fiesta made pet bowls, too but they're no longer in production, and - truth be told - I really kind of like Bauer's better anyway.

Bauer's pet bowls - there's one for cats, too!
Fiesta's pet bowls
Happy history-ing!