I’ve always loved Fiesta dishes, so you know when I discovered that the Homer Laughlin Company has its factory near the Lincoln Highway in Newell, West Virginia, and just across the Ohio River from East Liverpool, Ohio, we’d be slipping across the state line to check it out.
Visitors can tour the factory, but we were not there at the right time to do so. The company conducts two factory tours each week day, and you must reserve your place for the hour-long tour in advance.
Fortunately, there was still plenty to see at the factory’s retail outlet.
I picked up a set of soup bowls and a 75th Fiesta anniversary T-shirt in the main store, but it was also fun rummaging in Seconds Warehouse, where shoppers can find discontinued colors, odd pieces, and strange shaped Fiesta plates, bowls and serving pieces at discount prices.
Homer Laughlin Company started long before its introduction of Fiesta, though.
The abundance of clay from the Ohio River resulted in pottery making becoming a major industry in area as early as the 1840s.
Consumers began buying white ware imported from England by 1870, seeing it as more sophisticated than the pottery produced locally, so the East Liverpool City Council offered $5,000 in seed money for the best proposal to build and operate a factory that could manufacture white ware with local clay and workers.
Brothers Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin from Liverpool, Ohio, submitted the winning bid and began selling pottery manufactured in their hometown in 1871. Shakespeare went on to other things by 1877, but Homer continued to manufacture pottery and run the company that bears his name today.
Homer retired and sold the business to William Wells and Louis Aaron in 1897. Fourth- and fifth-generation members of their families continue to own and operate it today.
The need for expansion in the early 1900s sparked the purchase of land across the river in Newell, West Virginia, and the company moved its headquarters there. By 1907, Homer Laughlin Company had one of the largest pottery plants in the world, with a production capacity of 300,000 pieces of pottery per day (or ten percent of the production capacity of the entire United States).
The development of continuous firing kilns revolutionized the pottery industry in the 1920s. Conventional kilns required several weeks to load, fire, cool, and empty it by hand. The new, higher capacity kilns greatly speeded up the process.
In 1927, Homer Laughlin hired an English potter named Frederick Hurton Rhead as its art director.
Consumers still purchased dinnerware as matched sets decorated with decaled designs, much as they had since the late 1800s and very early 1900s. Rhead’s revolutionary design for Fiesta dishes and the line’s introduction in 1936 changed that.
Fiesta’s concentric circles around the plates’ outer edges framed the food, and the design allowed for maximum plating surface. It was also Rhead’s idea to market Fiesta as open stock and encourage customers to mix Fiesta’s five original colors (red, cobalt blue, light green, deep golden, and cream) within place settings.
Fiesta seemed radically different and modern with its sleek Deco-influenced design and vibrant colors. Other companies produced solid-color dinnerware, but Fiesta was the first mass-produced and widely marketed solid-color dinnerware. Its affordability made it an immediate retail success despite the Depression-era economy.
Homer Laughlin Company changed Fiesta’s colors as styles and décor changed over time. They dropped and added pieces throughout the years, but the basic design of the original place settings and some of the classic serving pieces remained unchanged from 1936 through the early 1970s
World War II brought important changes to the company and its Fiesta line.
Fiesta’s original red glaze contained detectable amounts of uranium oxide, and the United States’ need for that element for development of the atom bomb meant it was no longer available as an ingredient for dinnerware glazes (which is probably a good thing!).
The Homer Laughlin Company began making a lot of china for the armed forces during the 1940s and increased its emphasis on commercial dinnerware for hotels and restaurants as the market for consumer dinnerware weakened.
The company’s production peaked in 1948 when more than 3,000 workers produced over 10 million pieces of pottery. However, changing styles and increasing popularity of imported dinnerware in the 1950s caused a slump in sales.
The company discontinued the declining Fiesta line in 1973.
I always loved the clean Art Deco-style and bright colors of Fiesta dishes, wishing I could have a set of them for my own house, but I only found them in garage sales or at antique stores as I was growing up.
Fiesta became very popular among collectors almost immediately after the company discontinued production and prices skyrocketed for vintage pieces.
Homer Laughlin officials noted the success of Fiesta in secondary markets and decided to reintroduce it with lead-free glazes 1986 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Fiesta’s 1936 introduction.
New colors reflect style and décor design changes, much as Fiesta’s original run did. The first colors in Fiesta’s reintroduced line were rose, black, cobalt blue, white, and apricot.
The reintroduction happened just as I bought my own home and went shopping for dinnerware, so many of the pieces in my cupboard today are apricot colored, although I’ve also got pieces in some of the newer colors like red, tangerine, Kelly green.
Homer Laughlin Company introduces and discontinues Fiesta colors (like this year’s introduction of Marigold in a limited 75-week run to celebrate the line’s 75th anniversary) to spur the collectors’ market and insure the line’s continued popularity.
Local clay also figured prominently in another important 1800s Ohio industry. Read about Ohio’s Hocking Valley brick makers and more about working with early kilns at Ohio’s Hocking Valley bricks pave the nation.
Want to learn more about Fiesta and collecting vintage pieces? Check out Warman’s Fiesta: Identification and Price Guide by Glen Victorey or Collector’s Encyclopedia of Fiesta by Bob Huxford and Sharon Huxford.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved