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Collecting Mania: Fiesta Dinnerware

Updated on March 20, 2011

The brightly colored dinnerware of decades past is finding a new audience - collectors. Mention the words conchita, hacienda, Mexicali, or ranchera to most people, and their attention quickly shifts south of the border.

But add the word Fiesta, and the images become somewhat blurred, vacillating between a street festival in a Mexican village and a dinnerware manufacturer in Newell, West Virginia.

Fiesta dinnerware - or Fiestaware, as it is commonly known - is the highly successful product of the Homer Laughlin China Co. Introduced in the mid-1930's, discontinued in 1973, and reintroduced 13 years later, the solid-color, durable, inexpensive Fiesta continues to be a popular tabletop favorite even today.

For many Fiesta fans, however, it's not the items purchased new from department store shelves that warrant attention, but the vintage pieces turning up at flea markets and yard sales across the country.

If Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin's father had literary aspirations for his sons, his wishes would be left unfulfilled, since the brothers would become successful in another endeavor: pottery.

In 1871, after a brief stint at producing yellowware and stoneware, Homer Laughlin joined his brother in East Liverpool, Ohio, to form Laughlin Brothers Pottery.

Inspired by recent American industrialization and the challenges of producing a white china to rival European imports, the Laughlin brothers would focus their attention on whiteware: a pottery made from a yellowish local clay that, when fired, turned bright white. After many trials, they perfected their product, garnering top honors at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and forever securing a place in American china history.

Shakespeare withdrew from the business in 1877. Homer changed the company's name to Laughlin Pottery and continued to market his inexpensive white dinnerware to restaurants and hotels. The company was incorporated in 1886 as Homer Laughlin China Co.; Homer retired the following year and sold his interest to a former bookkeeper, William Edwin Wells, and a Pittsburgh family (Louis Aaron and his sons Marcus and Charles). To this day, the company that bears Homer's name continues to be managed by successive generations of the Wells and Aaron families.

It was Frederick Rhead - a well-known English potter in his own right and the art director of Homer Laughlin China Co. - who would forever alter the course of the company, coupling streamlined Art Deco dinnerware with the handmade qualities of wheel-thrown pottery to create Fiesta in 1936.

Homer Laughlin China introduced Fiesta at the Pottery and Glass Show in Pittsburgh in January 1936. For American housewives looking for an alternative to the fussy lines and patterns of Victorian-style china, the product was right on the mark with its simple geometric shapes, bold colors, and extremely appealing price tags.

Thirty-three different items were included in the original Fiesta line - everything from dinner plates, soup bowls, and cups and saucers to teapots, relish trays, and nested mixing bowls. By the following year, some 20 new items had been added, including egg cups, Tom and Jerry mugs, and vases.

The company claimed that Fiesta's colors were inspired by those of Mexican festivals; "the dinnerware that turns your table into a celebration" proved to be a popular marketing slogan.

Continued In Collecting Mania: Fiesta Dinnerware Part 2

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