Cinco De Mayo: Time for Fiesta(ware)!
Updated: Jun 3
Beginnings: The Laughlin Brother's Pottery
The Laughlin Pottery was founded in 1871 in East Liverpool, Ohio. The company was formed as a partnership between brothers Shakespeare and Homer Laughlin. During the early stages of their business, sixty employees were producing around 6,000 pieces of dinnerware per day, and they were among the first to produce “white-wares” which closely resembled the popular china being imported from England at the time. So superior was the quality of their pottery that it won them the highest award at the very first U.S World’s Fair:
After Shakespeare left the pottery in 1879, the company underwent a multitude of managerial and ownership changes. Most notable of these was Homer’s sale of his shares in the late 1890s to William Edwin Well and a Pittsburgh group headed by Marcus Aaron. In their tenure, the original manufacturing plant was abandoned, and multiple new plants sprung up to ramp up production.
When they switched from the periodic kilns of old to the continuous tunnel kilns of modernity, the company took its first and most crucial step towards mass-production. At the height of production, the company employed 2,500 people and produced 360,000 pieces of dinnerware per day – utilizing a combined 1,500,000 square feet of production space. With that, the Homer Laughlin China Company was flung into the 20th-Century ready to compete on an industrial scale.
The story of Fiesta
Designed by the highly regarded English potter, Frederick Rhead, the Fiesta dinnerware line was introduced by Homer Laughlin Company in 1936. It was formally launched at the Pottery and Glass Show in Pittsburgh, and became an instant hit as it captured the imagination of the trade.
It’s popularity was not by accident, but instead, a result of high-level planning, market analysis, creative development, and a fundamentally sound and organized styling program. As the Homer Laughlin Company trudged towards modernity, it took on and adopted the newest methods of business success with open arms, and much to its favor. These careful, scientific steps during Fiestaware’s development would bring the dinnerware line success for decades to come.
First, development focused on texture. When Fiesta chose its signature look, they “decided on a semi-reflecting surface of about the texture of a billiard ball. The surface was soft and pleasant to the touch, and in average light there were no disturbing reflections to detract from the color and shape.”
Fiesta’s overall design was very simple and therefore, extremely versatile. The pattern consisted of a band of concentric rings graduating in width, with those nearer to the rim of the pieces being more widely spaced. While certain vases and tripod candle holders were designed without rings, they too were skillfully modeled with simple lines, geometric forms, and “stepped” devices that instantly related to the Art Deco mood of Fiesta’s clean and uncluttered shapes.
Next came the question of color. Fiesta’s emphasis on color was a huge point in its popularity. Since the early thirties, there has been a noticeable trend in merchandising toward promoting ‘color’ in everything from automobiles, household appliances, and ladies apparel.
The Homer Laughlin Company chose Fiesta’s colors one at a time: first deciding on a shade of red, then an appropriately opposing blue, then a green that was halfway between the red and the blue, then a yellow toned halfway between the red and green, and finally a fifth, settling on an ivory color that seemed to “click” with any other colors in the set.
While the 1930s and 40s saw a proliferation of the color combo’s popularity, in 1943 the U.S government assumed control of uranium oxide, a crucially important element in the manufacture of the famous Fiesta red glaze. As a result, it was dropped from production – the color assortment transitioning to turquoise, green, blue, yellow, and ivory in 1944.
By 1951, a radical color change took place – as the light green, dark blue, and old ivory were retired, turquoise and yellow remained as forest green, rose, chartreuse, and gray were introduced, dubbed ‘fifties colors.
But at last, in March of 1959 Fiesta red was reinstated when the Atomic Energy Commission licensed Homer Laughlin China Company to once again buy the depleted uranium oxide supply. With this
rejuvenation, the line forged onwards, and underwent style makeovers in both 1969 and
1986 to meet the needs of the modern family,
That radioactive red
Due to the publicity given to uranium and radioactivity during the war years, rumors began circulating that red Fiesta ware could be ‘hazardous’ to consumer health when the color was reintroduced after the war.
The following excerpts from a letter that appeared in the Palm Beach Times in February 1963 show the sentiments of a man who had evidently reached the limit of his patience with Homer Laughlin Company’s continuous use of uranium oxide:
“This plate was left to me by my great-grandmother, and I noticed that whenever she ate anything from it, her ears would light up; so we all had to wear dark glasses when dining at her house… I first became suspicious of this dish when putting out food for my dog, on it I noticed the dog’s nose became as red as Rudolph’s; and one day a sea gull fed from it, and all his feathers fell off; then one night when the weather was raw I placed it at the foot of my bed, and my toenails turned black…”
The good news is, all of the studies have shown that these plates were and are completely safe! The penetrating radiation from uranium oxide is measured by milliroentgens per hour (mR/hr), with 20 mR/hr as a standard “safe” level of exposure for humans working with radiation. It was found that at their highest levels of radiation penetration, Fiesta red was emitting 1.3 mR/hr, or 95% less radiation than the “safe: measure of 20 mR/hr.
So no, red Fiestaware is not, and never will be a hazard.
“To set a table with Harlequin is an adventure in decoration.” Harlequin dinnerware was produced by Homer Laughlin in order to serve all markets and fit every budget. It was a less expensive dinnerware and was sold without a trademark through the F.W Woolworth Company. The new line of Art Deco dinnerware was introduced to the public in 1938.
Like Fiesta, Harlequin was also designed by Frederick Rhead, and it originally came in just four colors: yellow, green, red and blue. Over the years the budget line came to include all of Fiesta’s colors except for ivory and dark blue. The original four colors, however, were developed just for Harlequin.
Harlequin proved to be very popular and sold well into the late 1950s, when sales began to slow and finally diminish. Records show that the final piece was manufactured in 1964.
Riviera was introduced by Homer Laughlin Company in 1938, sold exclusively by the Murphy Company. It is notable for being unmarked, lighter in weight, and therefore, less expensive. It also has a rather dubious distinction of being the only one of the three dinnerware lines which was not originally created as such – its forerunner lined called Century, an ivory line with a vellum glaze. Riviera was born when some enterprising designer (Rhead, most probably) applied the popular color glazes to the Century shapes.
Colors are mauve blue, red, yellow, light green, and ivory. On rare occasions a dark blue piece may be found. That said, for collectors, Riviera as a whole is a much harder line to find, for it was quite limited. It ended sometime prior to 1950, giving it a much shorter timeline than the other two dinnerware lines. Mint condition pieces are rare gems, and today, quite hard to find in full sets.
Yesterday's News currently has a huge stock of Fiestaware, Harleqiun, and Riviera dinnerware in great condition. As hints of Art Deco design elements begin trickling back intro the mainstream, these colorful pieces are a great addition to any kitchen or dinner table.
Check out our collection of available pieces on our recent Instagram post – and Happy Cinco de Mayo to all who celebrate!