Heidi Kellner discusses the history, colors and styles of vintage Fiesta dinnerware and other Homer Laughlin Company lines such as Harlequin and Riviera. Heidi can be contacted via her website, Art of the Table: Fiesta Pottery, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I started as a collector and I’m a web designer, so I thought I would design a website from my passion. I threw it up there and people just found me and it started to take off. Fiesta is made in West Virginia, and I’m from West Virginia originally. I was a thrift store fanatic in college, and I would see this unmarked colored dishware that just really caught my eye. That was probably Riviera, because Fiesta would be marked.
People would know Fiesta, but Riviera wouldn’t be marked, so often they wouldn’t know what it was. We’d get it for a quarter, usually chipped up. I think it’s the color that everybody responds to first with Fiesta. Its number one attraction is the bright color.
Collectors Weekly: Were both Fiesta and Riviera made by the same manufacturer?
Kellner: Yes, Homer Laughlin Pottery Company in Newell, West Virginia. They’ve been there since the 1930s. Fiesta started in January 1936 and went through the war. The red had uranium in it, and during the war the government needed uranium, so they couldn’t get the materials and they quit making it. Red was always more expensive because the materials were more expensive, and it still is probably the most desirable color. There’s a little less of it, next to maybe medium green, which they only made for a few years.
After the war, they introduced 1950s colors, and then it dwindled and they redesigned it a little bit. They did this ironstone line, which is I think pretty unattractive, but people do collect it. They quit for a while and picked it back up again in the mid-1980s, but they redesigned the line. The pottery itself had changed, so with some of the molds, the lids were collapsing, and they had to physically change some of the designs. Some of the molds are exactly the same, like the water-pitcher mold, and that’s caused a lot of confusion in the collectors’ world, trying to tell the new from the old.
Homer Laughlin started putting a raised letter H on the bottom, but not always. There are other ways to tell once you start seeing new and old together in person. The newer glazes are more translucent, so you’ll be able to see through the pottery, and they go around these Art Deco lines instead of being deeper and thicker and more opaque. The newer glazes are lighter and thinner and more translucent. If you see white lines, that’s new.
When you’re first starting, it is difficult to tell. A book pays for itself immediately with your first purchase. There are all kinds of little ways to tell the new and the old. They used stamps and numbers or initials on the bottom of pieces, inspected by the plant. They don’t do that anymore. If you get a piece, turn it over, and if you see a pair of numbers or a pair of letters, you know that it’s vintage.
There are little, tiny differences in the pieces, too. The water pitcher is one of the most troubling pieces to tell new from old because they used the exact same mold. The new water pitchers have an indentation in the handle because the mold was slightly changed and they were tooled by hand. All you have to do is put your finger inside of a water pitcher and the new ones have what they call a little dimple inside the handle. As soon as you know that, you’ll never be fooled again.
Homer Laughlin is still manufacturing today. You can go to your mall, like to a big Macy’s department store, and you can buy Fiesta. They still do all kinds of color changes and they add new pieces, then they discontinue colors and they become very collectible. It’s still the most collected dinnerware in the world.
Collectors Weekly: What were the first colors they used?
Kellner: The very first color was red. They call it red, but it’s actually an orange. They started with red and cobalt and ivory and then a green, which they call light green but I like to call original green because there’ve been so many greens. Then there was yellow, and turquoise was added six months or so after the first five colors. That’s why, for example, the cream onion soup bowl in turquoise hardly exists at all. They were just introducing the color as they were discontinuing the first couple of pieces.
They kept the same six colors for the first 20 years, and then they added four colors in the 1950s – chartreuse, rose, forest green, and gray. Then they restyled it, reintroduced red, added a medium green, and discontinued the cobalt. So they were really switching it up a lot, and then the whole thing dwindled until the 1980s. Anybody who collects vintage Fiesta has this kind of special appreciation for it compared to the newer colors. There are 35 colors that have been on the market since the ‘80s. They’re just trying things out, throwing them out there.
Collectors Weekly: How come Fiestaware dwindled and then came back in the 1980s?
Kellner: I don’t know if it was just a management problem, because the interest was definitely there. People collect the pottery, even the new stuff, and they go to the factory. Their quality control was huge because it was really made to be mass-produced. They have a lot of glaze runs and sand bumps and all kinds of manufacturing flaws and problems, so they have seconds. People will stand in line at that factory overnight until they can get deals on these factory seconds, so there’s still a frenzy.
The seconds are really a personal preference or choice. Sometimes you can call the factory flaws character, but sometimes they can be distracting, like a really drippy, runny glaze. Green can be really splotchy, and I don’t think you want a giant bowl that’s all splotchy, so you want to minimize the irregularities as much as possible.
You learn to set your own limits on what’s acceptable for you and what’s not. Like with tin tops, the glaze would pop and sometimes you get these little dots. To me, that’s no big deal. It’s part of the process. The dinnerware itself came out during this Art Deco modern streamlined era, so you do really want the stuff to be in good condition. It’s not like 18th-century stoneware where a big chip missing doesn’t seem to bother anybody. This stuff is streamlined Art Deco, really clean, so condition is one of the things that I really preach in my business. If you watch the market, if a piece has a chip on it, depending on the rarity of the piece, it will bring half what it’s worth, if that. It’s really something to be concerned about. There’s enough of it out there that you can be fastidious about condition.
It’s hard to find plates without any kind of wear, but you don’t want scratchy, dull, overused plates. Plus there are health issues with Fiesta. There have been concerns since the very beginning, not only because they were using uranium in their red, but before they started remaking it in the ‘80s, it was all lead-based glazes. There are heavy metals in these glazes, but as long as it’s in good condition and it has a nice, clear protective coating over it and you’re not sawing a big steak on it and getting the chips of it in your food, you’re going to be fine.
Collectors Weekly: What was the heyday of Fiesta? When was it really being used?
Kellner: It came out in ’36, and I think its heyday was shortly after that in the 1940s. It was really cheap, so it was made for middle-class housewives, and it was always thought to mix and match with other things that were out there. Homer Laughlin’s early advertising showed it in ensembles with all kinds of other dinnerware that they were making. The whole idea was that it could just mix in and be used as filler pieces. The whole idea of mixing and matching, taking control of your own fashion sense, was a part of their original plan.
Collectors Weekly: Were Harlequin and Riviera the same era as the Fiesta?
Kellner: Exactly the same. They’re really sister potteries. Harlequin even has the same glazes, and some of the Riviera has the same, too. You’re going to find radioactive Harlequin and Riviera in the red as well, but both of those potteries were unmarked. I don’t want give misinformation, but I want to say that the Harlequin was made for F.W. Woolworth Company and it was exclusively sold there. They still do that. They have certain colors that they exclusively sell at Bloomingdale’s, so that adds to the collectibility of the pieces.
Fiesta is the most collectible. Riviera was sold exclusively by the Murphy Company. It’s a smaller line; really beautiful, unmarked, and more fragile. They made less of it, so there are fewer pieces, and it’s really under valued, because it’s actually rarer than Fiesta. Once you start collecting Fiesta, if you just keep at it, you’ll find yourself into the Harlequin pieces and the Riviera.
The designs are slightly different, but they were designed by the same designer, Frederick Rhead, and they have the same kind of Art Deco lines. The Harlequins were lighter, so they were cheaper to make and they were sold at Woolworth’s for quite a bit less than Fiesta.
Collectors Weekly: Were certain Fiesta designs more popular than others?
Kellner: I don’t know how many pieces were produced total, but I would assume that because they were constantly discontinuing pieces, there were some that weren’t really popular. They discontinued the cream soup bowl and the covered onion soup bowl right away. Large 12-inch divided plates were the first or second piece to go, so I think it really depended on what the market was doing.
I’ve been selling Fiesta online for about five years now, and I probably sell more of the bowls than anything else by a long shot. My number one request is sets of seven nesting bowls [see example, at top]. A full set weighs about 20 pounds, and I think I sold my last set for $1,800. It was the most expensive set of bowls I have ever sold to date.
There are all these little quirks that you can get into when you’re collecting Fiesta. We know that if the bowls have rings on the inside bottom, they were all made in the first year, 1936 to 1937. Then it was too cumbersome, so they took the rings off. It’s a nice thing because it does date your bowl.
The bowls are supposed to fit inside each other. You get a set with seven, but nobody is definite on how they were originally marketed. There are arguments on whether they were marketed as one, two, three, or four bowls that nested, whether they came in a standard set of colors, and whether the customers were allowed to mix and match. It’s really not clear.
They added the lines on the outside after they developed the main form and colors. They decided that they needed to do something to make them just a little less boring, so that was the extent of the decorations. It’s really the final fringe on the Fiesta; a little bit of flair.
Collectors Weekly: Did other companies besides Homer Laughlin make colored dinnerware, with this Art Deco modern look?
Kellner: Sure. Fiesta was probably the original, and it became very popular very quickly. There was a company – I think they were called Knowles – that just really ripped them off completely. Homer Laughlin sued them and ran them out of business. Out in California, there’s Bauer, which is really similar. In fact, the colors are almost identical. He’s got red, yellow, cobalt, and some other different California colors that for the most part are really closely competitive with Fiesta. They’re much heavier and have a lot of rings. They call it ring ware.
Then there was Catalina Island Pottery. Catalina Island Pottery is a similar solid-color dinnerware that is very collectible now. There was Gladding McBean Pottery, which I think bought into Bauer. There’s California Pottery. Even McCoy Pottery in Ohio and all the Ohio art pottery makers started dabbling in solid-color wares because Fiesta was so popular.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have everything that Homer Laughlin made on your site?
Kellner: I think I have almost every piece photographed. There are a few pieces I’ve never had. I’ve never owned a mixing bowl lid. Certain pieces seem really odd to me, so I’ve never bothered to fork over the money needed to buy them. There’s a French onion casserole that has this giant stick handle that I think is clunky, so I just never bothered to buy one.
There are certain things that seem like signature Fiesta pieces. There’s the demitasse pot, or the after-dinner coffeepot, with the stick handle. They only made those in the first six colors before they discontinued it. A sugar bowl is a beautiful piece and it’s got everything Fiesta’s all about. They’re Fiesta signature pieces with those extra little flairs.
Then there are pieces that are really odd, like the carafe. It was part of the original line but was discontinued by 1946. It’s a very odd piece and it took me a long time to come around and enjoy it. It has an awkward look, a big round bowl that’s in a skinny neck, and I hate it. Once you get into it, sometimes you get caught up and you get really addicted to collecting Fiesta, so you want one of everything and every color.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect every color?
Kellner: It’s a preference. I know a husband who only collects green and his wife collects yellow. I knew a woman who only collected ivory. There are people that really just collect the oddities, like the original coffee cups that have flat bottoms because they were hand tooled. There’s a utility tray, and the early ones will have a wiped dry foot but the later ones will have a wet foot, so people would ask, “Does it have a dry foot? It’s important.”
Ashtrays had extra rings on the bottoms. When you really get into collecting something for a long time, you start picking up on these little subtleties, and you want a brighter, thicker glaze, the most rings, the best examples, or the ones with the labels still on them. That’s big with Kitchen Kraft.
Kitchen Kraft is also made by Homer Laughlin and is extremely collectible. They were more like serving pieces and they seem like they were made for filling out the table. Big jugs and big bowls fall into Kitchen Kraft. They’re actually marked with “Kitchen Kraft” on the bottom, even though they’re Homer Laughlin or Fiesta colors. They did refrigerator sets, cake servers, etc. I don’t have my Kitchen Kraft gallery up yet. It’s highly collectible and it’s harder to get.
Collectors Weekly: Do most collectors stick to Fiesta or do they go from Fiesta to Riviera to Kitchen Kraft?
Kellner: A lot of people buy all across the board. I had a woman who’d buy a Harlequin teapot, then ask for a Fiesta marmalade, and then ask for a Riviera butter dish. It’s a sickness; one thing leads to another and you just can’t help it.
The pieces are styled completely differently, even though the glaze colors will be the same, and there are duplicate pieces. There’s a sauceboat in Harlequin and there’s a sauceboat in Riviera, but both have a completely different design.
Some of the advertising that was printed by Homer Laughlin would actually show tables set with both Riviera and Fiesta pieces mixed together. They were even promoting it early on – “Hey, this is all mix and match” – because there was never a butter dish with Fiesta, for example. Here’s an entire dinner line, but they never give you a butter dish, so you’ve got to go a Harlequin or Riviera to get one.
Some of the rarest Fiesta is the Fiesta with stripes. I think I saw a covered onion striped soup bowl. I want to say it went for $4,000 or $6,000 at auction, but now they have a value of $10,000. The guy flew from Seattle into the Midwest to buy this covered onion soup bowl with red stripes. It’s extremely rare; you hardly see it come up at all.
It makes you really wonder about what you could buy today that’s going to be worth that much tomorrow. But it took 60 years, so you’d have to wait 60 years. The Fiesta market’s doing pretty well. I think it’s a good investment as long as you’re really particular about your condition. I think it’s holding its value really well.
Collectors Weekly: Do people use their Fiestaware?
Kellner: They use it a lot more than you would think. I just had a woman write me yesterday to say that her parents had always used their plates and their mugs and displayed the rest of their Fiesta, but her dad, who was getting older, started pulling the other pieces out and using them. He had broken one of the creamers, so they were trying to replace it before her mom found out. That was funny. So yes, people use it.
I get questions about safety. The Iowa Poison Control Center bought some Fiesta from me to run tests on. I just donated a bowl to a science teacher to do an experiment with his class at a school. He needed a uranium red bowl.
As far as the safety factor. I won’t put water in a water pitcher and let it sit overnight because there’s going to be some seepage. Homer Laughlin conducted their own tests, and they strapped the 15-inch red chop plate to somebody’s chest for 24 hours to measure the radiation coming off of it to try to prove that it was safe. All the tests were really extreme. They had a test where a woman washed and handled the dishes almost all day, day after day, but you just don’t use things like that.
You have to draw the line somewhere, however. The red sugar bowl, for example – do you want to put your sugar inside a uranium bowl and leave it for weeks, then use the sugar in your tea? I don’t know about that. I would also never put it in a dishwasher or a microwave.
Collectors Weekly: When did it become popular to collect Fiestaware?
Kellner: Huxford put out her first book, The Story of Fiesta, in the 1970s. Fiesta probably started to become collectible when it was discontinued. You couldn’t get it anymore, so you wanted it. They’ve really been able to keep it collectible, even the new stuff. They do little things, like a limited color or a limited piece, but they constantly introduce new pieces and new colors. Again, it’s a fever. There’s a documentary called Dishes, which is all about Fiesta, and the filmmaker was just absolutely amazed at how obsessed collectors get with this dinnerware. It’s addictive.
Collectors Weekly: How many pieces do you have in your collection?
Kellner: I just lost my inventory list, so my poor husband had to lug 38 boxes out of the basement. That doesn’t include all the Fiesta we have on display. My goal was always to have one of everything, because if I had one of everything, anybody could reach me at any time and I would have what they needed. I do try to keep everything in stock. I can’t even imagine how many pieces that might be, and I do still buy pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you usually buy your pieces?
Kellner: I try to buy at auction because then you can see it. When I first started collecting, I was lucky enough to have a shop nearby with a warehouse full of Fiesta. I paid book prices, but I was able to hold it in my hands and examine it and know exactly what I was getting.
People buy from somebody like me, a collector, or go to a show. There’s the Homer Laughlin Association sale and auction every year. I still hear stories of people finding Fiesta at yard and estate sales for a quarter. I know a Fiesta collector in Illinois that bought seven turquoise covered onion soup bowls off of a wagon. It’s out there.
At the height of production, Homer Laughlin was producing 360,000 pieces of dinnerware per day. Their factory was a million and a half square feet. They were cranking it out. They’re still located in Newell, West Virginia, but I don’t know whether they have newer factories. They had multiple factories at a time.
Collectors Weekly: So do you collect the newer Fiesta, too?
Kellner: Only the older stuff. There are people that do collect both potteries, but I just feel like the original Fiesta was designed painstakingly by an entire crew and they really spent a lot of time on the design. They had a professional English pottery designer. They had glaze experts. They had all kinds of marketing experts. There are certain design changes that happened with the newer potteries which are really not as aesthetically pleasing. I think the proportions are really out of whack, but that’s a personal preference.
Collectors Weekly: Was there European dinnerware similar to Fiesta?
Kellner: Fiesta is quintessentially an American pottery. Its colors are American. The English came from a really different cultural experience with finer china and a finer dining teatime. There’s something really utilitarian, industrial, and bold about Fiesta that has something to do with the American spirit. It’s lower class.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite pieces of Fiestaware?
Kellner: The relish tray is great. You really can mix and match all the colors all at once. You get four trays in your center, so you see all the colors in one tray. I have a preference towards the pots, the pieces that have the handles, the lids. I always thought things like a mustard jar were really overrated because they’re $250 and they’re like 2 inches, but the marmalade is the same pot. It’s a little bigger, but for some reason it’s really nice. I love the demitasse pots with the stick handles. They have the little cups to go with them; very fancy.
The sweet compote is really cute. The coffeepot’s a great piece. The vases are great. There are 8- and 10- and 12-inch vases. They’re still making new vases with exactly the same molds, but the height is different because the clay is different, so the new vases shrink. The old vases are exactly 8, 10, and 12 inches and the new vases are 9 1/2 inches, so all you have to do to know if a vase is new or old is measure it.
Kitchen Kraft is fun because you can get labels on it and you can’t really ever find Fiesta with labels on it. The Kitchen Kraft came with a gold and black Kitchen Kraft label, and there are actually quite a few pieces still floating around with these labels on them.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any clubs for Fiestaware collectors?
Kellner: There’s HLCCA, Homer Laughlin Collectors Club Association. I joined that for a little while. They have a newsletter. There used to be a wonderful website called mediumgreen.com, but they just quit. It was basically a public announcement board. It was a huge community with messages all day long back and forth about Fiesta, but Homer Laughlin sued everybody about two years ago, including me.
They wanted any use of the word “Fiesta” to have its trademark after it, and you absolutely were not allowed to use “Fiestaware” in one word. You had to refer to it as Fiesta and you had to put these little copyright symbols on it every single time. There were a few collector sites that just said, “Forget it. It’s not worth it,” and took their sites down, which was sad.
“Fiestaware” is common lingo. I don’t think that the company will sue you, but I think it is interesting to note. It’s almost like Kleenex. Kleenex is a manufacturer, but we call all tissue Kleenex. I actually talked to a lawyer when they were suing me and he told me that if it was worth it, I could probably argue that “Fiestaware” has entered common language use and win. It was really odd. I don’t know why they were going after people. They were going after their fans. It was really not a very intelligent decision. I don’t know what they gained by bringing a lawsuit, especially since it’s a vintage pottery and it’s not even what they’re making anymore. There was a lot of anger on the Medium Green post. It was like cutting the hands off their fan base.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any important books for someone who’s just starting to collect Fiesta dinnerware?
Kellner: I really like Bob and Sharon Huxford’s Collector’s Encyclopedia of Fiesta, they did their 10th edition in 2005. It has the story of Fiesta, a price guide, Riviera, Harlequin, the decal line, the go-alongs, some other kinds of art china, and other miscellaneous stuff. There’s another book put out by the Homer Laughlin China Association with the history of the entire pottery, too. Fiesta’s even made it into some other books. Your general Miller’s Guide to Antiques will have a few pages on Fiesta now.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else that you’d like to mention that we didn’t touch on?
Kellner: I would emphasize that if you’re going to get into collecting Fiesta, make sure you collect the high-quality pieces. Condition is number one. And buy pieces with lids. People find pieces really cheap without a lid, and then they wait their whole life to find a lid. I just hope that people continue to collect it and enjoy it because it is really colorful and very American.
(All images in this article courtesy Heidi Kellner of Art of the Table: Fiesta Pottery)