January, 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of Homer Laughlin’s most popular and enduring line, Fiestaware. This is the first of a series of posts about this famous dinnerware. It is intended as an overview of it history and as a guide for novice collectors. I have been collecting Fiestaware for 19 years starting with the new Fiesta because I liked its nostalgic appeal. By the time I stopped buying “Post ’86 Fiesta”, I had place settings for 20 people and many serving pieces. So it wasn’t much of a leap from the new to the old. It started innocently enough with a vintage 9 inch, light green plate purchased on Memorial Day weekend, 2000 at the Circle Drive-in Flea Market in Scranton, Pa. Little did I know how much of an obsession it would become. By the end of the day I had added three more pieces to my collection. It has become a goal of mine to acquire one piece of vintage Fiestaware in each color. I still have a long, long way to go.
In the late 1920’s, Bauer Pottery introduced a solid color tableware. Around 1933 they introduced a line called Ringware which proved very popular. Other California pottery companies soon started producing similar lines.
Bauer Ringware sold very well on the west coast and was making some inroads in the east, but was eclipsed by the introduction of Fiestaware in 1936. Designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942) in 1935, this was his crowning achievement in an illustrious career that spanned over forty years.
Born in England, Rhead immigrated to the United States in 1902 and became a manager for a small pottery company in Tiltonville, Ohio. By 1904 he was, briefly, at Weller Pottery before going over to Roseville as art director. After running his own pottery company in California from 1913 – 1917, Rhead returned to Ohio and in 1927 was hired by Homer Laughlin as art director. In 1930, perhaps as a response to the solid color dinnerware being produced in California, Rhead designed the Wells Line. Wells Art Glaze can be seen as the direct antecedent to Fiestaware. Wells pieces were matt finished in the subdued colors, unlike the bright colors used by Bauer. It was also traditional in style and would fit in nicely with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.
Here are some pieces of Wells Art Glaze from Chris’ collection –
Homer Laughlin phased out the Wells Art Glaze line in 1935. That same year Frederick Rhead was busy creating a new solid color dinnerware line, eventually named Fiestaware.
The Birth of Fiestaware
Towards the end of 1934 Homer Laughlin was ready to begin production of a solid color dinnerware line. During the first few months of the 1935 Rhead was busy creating shapes and choosing glazes. By April the glazes under consideration were: yellow, bright red, lava red, turquoise, buff, white, green, blue, ochre and rose ebony.
Homer Laughlin general manager, Joseph Wells chose six colors for limited production on basic table items such as cups and saucers, plates and sugar and creamer. The colors were deep blue, rose ebony, yellow, mandarin red, turquoise and white.
In a late 1930’s Rhead wrote an article for the Crockery and Glass Journal which he described the main design theme for Fiestaware – –
“We wanted a suggestion of a streamline shape, but one which would be subordinate to texture and color. Then the shape must be jolly and pleasant, that is, convex and curving rather than concave and angular. There was to be no relief ornamentation. The color must be the chief decorative note, but in order that the shape be not too severely plain we broke the edges with varying concentric bands.”
With the shapes and colors in development, a name was needed for the solid color dinnerware. In the first two weeks of April, 1935 the following names were in the running:
Rhumba ware; Park Lane; Rhapsody; Plaza; Faience; Tazza; Tazza Faience; Chalet Faience; Dashe Faience & Flamingo.
Flamingo was the name most used by Rhead. Sometime around mid-May the name Fiesta was suggested and shortly thereafter chosen. And Fiesta was the perfect name, suggesting Mexico / Southern California and the type of pottery this new line was emulating.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1935 tests were being made on the clay, glazes and shapes. By late October the final decisions were made and the glazes chosen were, yellow, red (more orange than red), blue (referred to by collectors as cobalt), green (called light green today) and old ivory chosen to be a neutral. Out were white, rose ebony and for the moment turquoise. Now production went into high speed to be ready for its January launch.
When Fiestaware hit the stores in early 1936 its simple modern design and bright colors made an immediate hit. Backed by a powerful marketing campaign and a large factory for mass production, Fiestaware was available in higher quantities everywhere, compared to the products of the California potteries. At its introduction there were 42 items in the line from cups & saucers, plates, coffee pots and mixing bowls.
Here are examples of relish trays as sold to the retailers. These are seldom found this way today and were probably mixed and matched in the store to suit the customer’s wishes.
As this first group of items was hitting the stores, Rhead was busy on the finishing touches of the next set of pieces. Rhead and Homer Laughlin were always interested in feedback from store owners to determine what needed to be changed or added to the Fiestaware line. These items were added in August, 1936.
When collecting Fiestaware, either vintage or Post ’86, it is primarily important to know the colors and shapes. Knowing this will prevent you from being taken by pieces marked as vintage (with corresponding prices) to items that were made in the past 20 years or are still being sold today. And this can work to your advantage in finding vintage Fiesta that is being sold as new.
This brings us to the end of 1936. Part two will look at the years 1937 – 1940.
Here are some useful resources for Fiestaware collectors both seasoned and novice:
http://www.happyheidi.com/antiques/ (A great site, and where many of the photos in this post came from).
Chris & Anthony (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
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