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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Fiesta Fun
by Bob Brooke


The bright colors of Fiesta dinnerware brightened many a table up to the mid-1970s. Most people associate its style and colors with the 1950s. But actually it appeared during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. Englishman, Frederick Hurten Rhead, designed the simple Art Deco shapes while chief engineer Victor Albert Bleininger fabricated the colorful signature glazes. Both worked for the Homer Laughlin China Company of Newell, West Virginia.

Originally, the company offered 37 different affordable pieces, ranging from candle holders and ashtrays to large serving dishes, each in five bright colors: red-orange, yellow, green, cobalt blue, and ivory. It added turquoise in 1939 for a total of six basic colors.

Homer Laughlin pioneered a whole new concept in dinnerware with Fiesta. When the company first introduced the dinnerware at the annual Pottery and Glass Exhibit held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in January 1936, its line was the first widely mass-marketed, solid-color dinnerware in the country. The forms and surfaces had an Art Deco influence. It was also the first dinnerware that consumers could purchase by the piece instead of in complete sets, as was the custom at the time. This allowed customers to mix and match, perhaps choosing a different color for each place setting, or have all their dinner plates one color, their cups and saucers another, and so on. This concept became instantly popular with the public, and soon Fiesta dinnerware became a runaway hit.

Fiesta was the first dinnerware that could be purchased by the piece allowing customers to have a different color for each setting, or all their dinner plates of one color, all their soup bowls another, and so on. This concept of mix-‘n-match in solid color designs caught the imagination of the public, and together with its crisp Art Deco style, caused Fiesta ware to become widely popular.

People could not only design their own color schemes, but could also build their collections one or two pieces at a time rather than purchasing an entire dinner set—a boon for newlyweds. Although common now, this was a radical departure from convention in 1936. Only full dinner sets were available back then.

At its introduction, Fiesta dinnerware consisted of the usual place settings of dinner plates, salad plates, soup bowls, and cups and saucers, plus occasional pieces such as candle holders in two designs, a bud vase, and an ash tray. These came in five colors—red-orange, cobalt blue, light green, deep golden yellow, and old ivory or yellowish cream. By 1938, two years into production, the company added a sixth color, robin’s egg blue. With the exception of the red-orange, discontinued before 1944, this color assortment remained in production until approximately 1950.

A set of seven nested mixing bowls ranged in size from five to twelve inches in diameter. The company also sold basic place settings for four, six and eight persons. But the idea from the start was to create a line of open-stock items from which the consumer could pick and choose based on their personal preference. From its first introduction in 1936 and for over a decade, Fiesta ware became a trendy fad. The dinnerware became something of a status symbol for late 1930s and pre-war 1940s middle-class households.

The Homer Laughlin Company quickly added several additional items to their line and eliminated several unusual items—a divided 12-inch plate, a turquoise covered onion soup bowl, and the covers for its set of mixing bowls. The Fiesta line eventually consisted of 64 different items, including flower vases in three sizes, water tumblers, carafes, teapots in two sizes, five-part relish trays, and large plates in 13- and 15-inch diameters.

The onset of World War II forced the company to reduce the number of items in the Fiesta line as public demand declined and companies cut back non-war related production.

Over the next four years, the company discontinued the more unusual serving pieces, and by 1946, the line's variety of items had been reduced by nearly a third. Overall sales of the more typical place-setting pieces of Fiesta remained strong and reportedly peaked around 1948.

The design of the original dinnerware pieces remained unchanged from 1936 to 1969.
The texture of the original glazes, and throughout the life of vintage Fiesta, was semi-opaque. This is smooth and glossy, but without any shining glare, rather more like an eggshell. The ware sometimes shows " glaze curtains", areas of uneven glazing where a heavy application meets a lighter one.

However, the company did change its colored glazes to keep up with home decorating color trends. It introduced four new colors—rose, gray, dark green, and chartreuse, replacing the original blue, green, and ivory. Yellow and turquoise continued in production.

By the end of the 1950s, sales again dropped, so the company reduced its offering of items and changed the glaze colors once again. This time, it introduced a medium green, to distinguish it from other green glazes which the company had produced. This shade of green is in high demand by collectors, and certain pieces in this color command extremely high prices.

Homer Laughlin removed the original red-orange color, the most expensive glaze to produce, before 1944 because it contained uranium oxide which the government needed to construct the atom bombs. Therefore, red pieces also usually command a premium price in today’s collectible market.

By 1969, the company restyled the finials on covers, handles on cups, bowl contours and shapes to give them a more contemporary style. Although essentially the same Red glaze as had then been available since 1959, it was renamed Mango Red.

Fiesta dinnerware became popular once again as baby boomers began establishing their own homes. In the 1970s, Art Deco designs from the 1920s and 1930s became popular once again. Not long after Homer Laughlin discontinued the brightly colored dinnerware line in January 1973, collectors began buying up what remained at garage sales and second-hand shops. Prices for it hit the roof and by the mid-1980s, prices of Fiesta items reached $100 for scarcer pieces.

Generally, serving pieces such as casserole dishes, carafes, teapots, and water pitchers almost always have higher values than normal place setting pieces. As mentioned earlier, certain colors are also priced higher, no matter what the piec

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