Get the Party Started with Fiestaware
It’s rare that a product name aligns so perfectly with the mood it evokes, but Fiestaware really does feel like a party for your table. The colorful, Art Deco-inspired ceramic dinnerware line from Homer Laughlin China Company has been largely unchanged over the 85 years since its debut, but somehow, it has managed to retain just as many—if not more—devoted fans as it had in its mid-century heyday of the 1940s-1950s. According to the New York Times, “Fiestaware is the most collected brand of china in the United States.” Today you can walk into a Macy’s or Bed Bath & Beyond and find Fiestaware sold as place settings or by the piece.
If you’re not familiar with Fiesta, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Sure, the colors are vibrant. The design style is bold and simple, with no decoration save for concentric circles. However, it’s actually that bold simplicity that makes Fiestaware such a timeless classic. If you’re looking for dinnerware that fits with your mid-century modern kitchen decor, you may just be a Fiestaware collector in the making.
When the Fiesta line was released in 1936, it was a shocking departure from most china of the day. The vast majority of china at that time was dominated by Victorian-inspired styles; think cabbage roses, formal gold accents, scrollwork, and lots of fussy details. Fiestaware’s bold, striking shapes and solid colors stood in sharp contrast, hinting at a modern aesthetic that is still right at home on today’s tables.
Fiestaware was designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead, an important Arts and Crafts ceramicist who was renowned for his work in both studio pottery and industrial ceramics. Homer Laughlin brought him on as art director in 1927, and within the next few years, Rhead devised the concept and design for the Fiesta line.
His idea for the colorful dishware was drawn from Art Deco motifs, giving Fiesta dynamic, arcing forms, and restraining ornamentation down to the minimalist lines that ring its plates, bowls, and other serving pieces. The original Fiestaware line included 5 colors: Red, Yellow, Green (Light), Blue, and Old Ivory. Two years later, Turquoise was added, and these 6 colors remained unchanged for years, with the exception of the red glaze.
Like most red glazes used in commercial pottery in the U.S. at the time, red Fiestaware prior to 1944 contained uranium oxide. (Smaller amounts have also been noted in other early Fiesta glazes, like ivory.) The element gave these glazes a vivid red-orange color, but Homer Laughlin and other companies’ supplies were commandeered by the federal government for weapons development during WWII, causing the company to discontinue red Fiesta.
In 1950, the company responded to post-WWII changes in home fashion by retiring several original colors and replacing them with four new colors: Chartreuse, Forest, Gray, and Rose. Turquoise and Yellow remained, keeping Fiestaware at its previous number of 6 colors.
Despite pivoting with the color trends of the time, Fiestaware sales declined over the next decade. An end to the moratorium on commercial uranium usage allowed ceramics companies to resume offering bright red glazes, and the Homer Laughlin Company capitalized on the opportunity, hoping to raise demand for the Fiesta line. Red Fiestaware was reintroduced, this time with a glaze made from depleted uranium. A new color, Green (sometimes denoted as Medium Green among Fiestaware collectors), was also introduced. From 1959 to 1969, Homer Laughlin only offered four colors: Red, Green, Yellow, and Turquoise. In 1969, the company attempted to rejuvenate Fiesta once again with a color shakeup. The original red was renamed Mango Red, and the other colors were retired in favor of Turf Green and Antique Gold. For those familiar with 1970s interior design, these hues are immediately recognizable as analogs of the popular Avocado and Harvest Gold hues. Some slight design changes to the iconic forms (like mug and lid handles) were also attempted, but the changes did nothing to slow the decline in sales. By 1973, the company halted production of Fiestaware, marking the end of what collectors now call the “vintage Fiesta” era.
Of course, with the cyclical nature of fashion, it wasn’t terribly long before home trends shifted once again, providing an opportunity for Homer Laughlin to re-launch Fiesta. In 1986, the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of Fiesta’s original launch by reviving the line in 5 colors: Black, White, Apricot, Cobalt Blue, and Rose.
Homer Laughlin has continued to rotate in new colors and retire others in the decades since, allowing Fiesta fans to continue to mix and match their dinnerware according to changing styles and personal taste. The company has also released limited edition pieces and collaborations with other brands.
After so many years as an American tabletop staple, there are now multi-generational Fiestaware collections, with some of the original Fiesta fans passing down these colorful heirlooms to their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. If you are interested in collecting Fiestaware, it’s important to pay attention to the scarcity/availability of the items you purchase.
- Some valuable Fiestaware can be identified by color. For instance, the Medium Green color introduced in 1959 is one of the hardest varieties to find. As the last color introduced to the line in the vintage era, fewer pieces were made than any of the other colors.
- Certain retired and limited edition colors post-1986 are also highly sought after. For example, a Fiesta limited edition presentation bowl in Raspberry sold for $6,000 in 2015. One of the most unique Fiestaware collections even featured Looney Tunes characters! The plates, bowls, cups, and saucers featuring Bugs Bunny and friends were sold in Warner Brothers Studio Stores in the 1990s.
- Correctly dating Fiestaware is important when determining the value, so be sure to flip the item over and look at the bottom. The maker’s marks changed through the years, but you can reference all of them in WorthPoint’s M.A.P.S. database. Some authentic Fiestaware is not marked but can be correctly identified by color, glaze quality, etc. Books like The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Fiesta are great resources to help you identify valuable Fiestaware.
Carolyn Horne is a freelance writer, artist, and professional nerd living in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a B.F.A. in Illustration before spending over a decade in the digital marketing industry. These days, she lives in an apartment full of art, books, vintage finds–and just enough cat hair to make her regret her mostly-black wardrobe–with her partner and their “hairy daughter.”
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