By Jan Uebelherr
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — The sign said “Everything 10 cents.”
Kathy Holley made her way into the dim basement of the estate sale and saw a pool table loaded with housewares. Then she spotted them: Four egg cups. Bright red.
“I picked them up,” she says. “I flipped one over. My hand started to tremble.” She looked at the sign again.
Dealers and “professional pickers” had passed them by, but Holley knew exactly what she had in her trembling hands: Fiesta Dinnerware egg cups.
No cracks, no chips. She paid her 40 cents and went home with the cups, which she figures are worth $40 each. Not that she would ever sell them.
“I don’t collect for investment value. I collect for the joy of it,” says Holley, who has cupboards of vintage and contemporary Fiesta ware.
A COLORFUL WORLD
This is the world of Fiesta ware, the collectible, iconic American dishware introduced by Homer Laughlin China Co. in 1936 as an affordable, colorful set of mix-and-match dishes for middle-class housewives.
On the brink of its 75th anniversary, and despite a deep recession, Fiesta ware saw record sales last year, the manufacturer says. Collectors travel to an annual convention where the fate of old colors and the possibility of new ones are debated.
The sturdy dishware that prompts collectors to scour estate sales, rummage sales and eBay for the rare and sublime has even spawned a play, “American Fiesta.”
The Renaissance Theaterworks production, which stars John McGivern and played recently in Milwaukee, follows a collector named Steven and his quest for a vintage piece of Fiesta ware — at the same time dealing with his parents’ disapproval of his same-sex marriage.
Steven Tomlinson’s play gives a vivid glimpse into the mind of a fervent Fiesta fan: “Its graceful curves, its distinctive rings, ripple across your memory: dewy tomato slices on a green platter, scrambled eggs steaming on cobalt. Steppingstones across the great gulf that separates you from what America was. And suddenly you’re back at your grandmother’s table — safe and warm and well fed.”
“I don’t collect Fiesta ware — not yet,” McGivern says. But he’s come to understand the attraction.
“The find, the transaction, the arrival and then the perfect place to display. It’s about knowing it’s out there, and finding it,” he says. “It’s about the hunt.”
McGivern’s character embraces this hunt for a particular reason.
“He’s trying to find a piece that captures a specific memory,” McGivern says. “And in doing so, bring sense and order to his childhood.” McGivern sees the play as a discussion of the role of “stuff” in our lives.
He adds, “Is our collecting a symptom of needs not filled? Or do we collect simply because the stuff is pretty, nice, rare, interesting?”
There are plenty of collectors willing to chat about the wonderful world of Fiesta, in all its glorious colors, and the powerful memories it conjures.
DEDICATED TO THE DISHES
Consider Fred Mutchler of St. Louis Park, Minn., who built an 800-square-foot addition to his Minneapolis-area home to accommodate the Homer Laughlin dishes he and his wife collect — much of it Fiesta. He figures they have 1,500 to 1,800 pieces of Fiesta.
“It’s literally in every room, including the bathroom, the kids’ bedrooms,” says Mutchler, who helped found the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, which has 1,100 members, most of them Fiesta collectors.
Mutchler is drawn to Fiesta by the work of skilled ceramist Frederick H. Rhead, who designed the original Fiesta dishes in 1936.
“To design a (mass) production piece that emulates that hand-thrown quality, with the concentric rings — that has a great appeal to me,” Mutchler says. “And the colors of the vintage Fiesta are literally just a tribute to the colors of the day.”
And consider Holley, whose Racine, Wis., home has a seasonally rotating lineup of Fiesta ware. How much does she have?
“It would frighten me if I counted,” she says. “It’s probably over 1,000 pieces. I have cupboards full.”
She explains the draw: “It’s everyday art. I open my cupboard, and there are happy colors looking at me. The shapes are sculptural. It’s like my very own museum display. My loaded dishwasher even looks good.”
Holley’s passion was sparked in 1992, when a friend inherited her grandmother’s vintage dishes.
“She would throw dinner parties with these beautiful dishes that had been her grandmother’s,” Holley says. “I was intrigued that she had these dishes that survived all these years.”
BONDING WITH ‘DISH SISTERS’
Holley is a frequent contributor to The Dish, a quarterly publication of the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, and a regular at the HLCCA annual convention. Through collecting, she’s met dear friends, whom she calls her “dish sisters.”
“Fiesta’s really impacted my life — the circle of friends it’s opened me up to,” she says. “My avatar online is ‘Live every day with color.’ That’s my attitude, and it becomes your lifestyle. I’m not going through life beige.”
And consider the Village Cafe in Door County, Wis., where Fiesta ware has been a trademark for decades — a continuing theme as ownership changed hands.
“They’re just nice and vibrant, and they hide a lot of sins,” says Kim Jensen, who bought the Egg Harbor cafe in 2000 with her mother, Mary Jo Delorit. “Lighter colors show cracks more, but darker colors hide cracks from age. And it’s an omen, almost, to put the same color cup and saucer on the table. They never should match.”
Just the sight of the dishes seems to rekindle memories.
“People come in and say, ‘I remember my mom or my grandmother had that,”‘ Jensen says. People also come in looking for purple coffee cups.
“If you get the purple cup, you get a free cup of coffee,” says Jensen’s mother, who loves the durability of Fiesta. “It’s colorful, it’s uplifting — and to tell you the truth, you can’t ruin those plates.”
Since its introduction, Fiesta has come out in 41 hues that have tantalized collectors. Which color is Holley’s favorite? “Oooh. That’s like asking which of your kids is your favorite,” she says. “I really love the chartreuse.”
Fiesta introduces a new color each year and retires old ones that aren’t selling very well. The new color is paprika, a deep orange-red. Evergreen and cinnabar were retired.
“The collectors have lobbied for some time for a hot pink,” Holley says. “We want a fuchsia.”
HUNTING AND COLLECTING
Fiesta collectors all have their “find” stories, like Holly’s tale of egg cups discovered in a dark and dank basement. Mutchler’s favorite find story involves a forgotten room on the final day of an estate sale.
“I went through the whole house, and I found nothing,” he says. “I walked onto a three-season back porch, and they had piles — tables piled full of vintage Fiesta.” He saw rare pieces — covered onion soup bowls in ivory and yellow.
“I ended up literally stopping in my tracks and hollering for the person in charge of the sale: ‘Bring me some boxes and newspapers!”‘ He bought hundreds of pieces for less than $2 each.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Fiesta prices have flattened slightly since so much is available on the Internet, especially eBay.
“If you want to build a collection overnight, it’s pretty easy to do,” says Mutchler, who began collecting before he married, when he and his bride-to-be spent weekends at her family’s lake cabin in northern Minnesota. “We would go to these farm auctions. We started picking up these box lots at these old farm auctions. A buck for a box of dishes.”
One of the most coveted pieces is the elusive turquoise covered onion soup bowl. The prized soup bowl can go for as much as $10,000 — but only in turquoise, and with the lid, says Dave Conley, a Fiesta historian at Homer Laughlin.
“That’s kind of considered the holy grail of Fiesta collecting,” Holley says. “They were made for a very short time. The piece was being phased out at the time the turquoise color was being phased in.” This color and shape were produced in late 1937, probably for about six months, according to reference books.
One of these rare covered soup bowls, in turquoise, recently was offered for sale on eBay with a starting price of $5,999 — but no takers.
An even bigger find: lids that were produced for early versions of some mixing bowls. One dealer sold two of these lids for $35,000 five years ago, Conley says.
AFFORDABLE AT THE START
They may be prized collectibles today, but Fiesta ware is solidly rooted in middle-class America — a big part of their appeal for collectors.
“All of it was under $1 (per piece) when it first came out, with a few exceptions,” Mutchler says. “You could buy a dinner plate for 40 cents. So a person could put together an entire cupboard full of dishes for maybe 10 bucks.”
For Holley, part of the appeal is imagining those years of use.
“Bowls were used, and often dinged and chipped and cracked,” she says. “The big bowl was where you mixed your bread dough or the triple batch of oatmeal cookies because people were helping on the farm.
“This wasn’t good china. It got used every day — which is funny now to see people handle it so gingerly.”
HISTORY OF HUES
Fiesta ware celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2011, and manufacturer Homer Laughlin can’t help but look back on those colorful years and millions of pieces of dinnerware. Here are some milestones:
1936: Homer Laughlin introduces Fiesta ware in five colors — red, yellow, cobalt blue, green and ivory — at the Pittsburgh China and Glass Show.
1938: Two years after production begins, the company has turned out 12 million pieces of Fiesta ware.
1948: 30 million pieces of Fiesta shipped — a record at the time.
1950-’59: In keeping with colors popular at the time, Fiesta comes out in softer pastels.
1973: Homer Laughlin stops production of Fiesta ware.
1986: Fiesta ware is reintroduced.
1997: The 500 millionth piece of Fiesta ware is produced.
2000-’05: Bold new colors are introduced, including plum (2001), tangerine (2003) and peacock (2005). Other colors are retired.
2007: Evergreen is introduced, and periwinkle retires. Fiesta introduces bakeware, glassware and table linens.
2008: Homer Laughlin gears up for the 75th anniversary in 2011 with a new item in a new color — a three-piece baking bowl set in marigold yellow. A new color, chocolate, debuts, along with a new dish shape: square.
2009: Lemongrass is introduced, and heather is retired. Another anniversary item, an oval platter, is introduced.
2010: Paprika (above) is introduced, and two colors are retired — evergreen and cinnabar. A third anniversary item, a two-piece prep baking bowl set, is introduced.
Source: Homer Laughlin
THE DISH ON DINNERWARE COLLECTING
Looking for help or information on Fiesta ware? Here are some resources:
The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association: Nonprofit group for collectors, historians and dealers interested in all china produced by Homer Laughlin, which was established in 1871 in the Ohio Valley.
HLCCA produces a full-color, quarterly magazine called The Dish. It also holds an annual convention (July 15 to 18 in Nashville this year) and offers an online store, a blog and more at www.hlcca.org. Membership is $30 for a single, $45 for a couple.
Collectible Medium Green: An online community of collectors of Homer Laughlin dinnerware. Chat, learn, view photos and connect. Go to http://mediumgreen.proboards.com/index.cgi
Facebook: The “Fiesta Ware Is Amazing” Facebook group has nearly 800 members and hundreds of colorful photos.
Books: For two handy guides, consider “Fiesta, Harlequin, & Kitchen Kraft Dinnerwares: The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association Guide,” a collaborative effort by members of the HLCCA (Schiffer Publishing, 2000, $39.95), and “Collectors Encyclopedia of Fiesta,” by Bob and Sharon Huxford (Collector Books, 2005, $24.95).
Fiesta ware inspires rabid collectors, playwright