By Jan Uebelherr
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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."
Dealers and "professional pickers" had passed them by, but Holley knew exactly what she had: 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.
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 has even spawned a play, American Fiesta, about a collector and his quest for a vintage piece of Fiesta ware - while dealing with his parents' disapproval of his same-sex marriage.
Steven Tomlinson's play gives a 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."
Dedicated to the dishes
Consider Fred Mutchler of St. Louis Park, Minn., who built an 800-square-foot addition to his 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.
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.
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 is a frequent contributor to The Dish, a quarterly publication of HLCCA, and a regular at the annual convention. Through collecting, she has 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."
Since its introduction, Fiesta has come out in 41 hues that have tantalized collectors. Fiesta introduces a new color each year and retires old ones that aren't selling well.
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, while spending weekends at his future in-laws' lake cabin. "We would go to these farm auctions. We started picking up these box lots . . . A buck for a box of dishes."
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 the hues
Fiesta ware celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2011, and here's a look back at some of milestones of those colorful years.
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).
2007: Evergreen is introduced, periwinkle is retired. 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 is introduced, and evergreen and cinnabar are retired. A third anniversary item, a two-piece prep baking bowl set, is introduced.
Source: Homer Laughlin
The dish on collecting
- The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association: Nonprofit group for collectors, historians and dealers.
HLCCA produces a full-color, quarterly magazine, The Dish, and holds an annual convention (July 15-18 in Nashville this year). Find an online store, a blog and more at hlcca.org. Membership is $30 for a single, $45 for a couple.
- 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).