Fiesta Brand History
Bright, bold colors and sturdy construction have earned Fiesta dinnerware a place on America’s table and in its culture. Many people remember the colorful dishes from their childhood, attaching an air of nostalgia to the brand, and a pause in production for 13 years spawned a community of collectors that has yet to slow down.
Today, the company cycles out colors regularly, creating demand for new and discontinued colors alike. When I discovered the company’s Colorama tool, meant to help prospective buyers try out various color combinations, I suddenly understood the impulse to collect retired pieces when I realized Plum was retired, and my dream color scheme just didn’t work without it. I spoke with Dave Conley, company historian and former Director of Retail Sales and Marketing at Homer Laughlin, to learn more about the history of Fiesta and where it’s going from here – and to see if I should hope for Plum’s return.
The Birth of Fiestaware
In 1927, Homer Laughlin China Company hired Frederick Hurten Rhead as its design director. Rhead came from a family of potters and had seen some success as an artist before moving into the commercial pottery world. Rhead designed the initial Fiesta line, which debuted at the Pittsburgh China and Glass Show in January 1936.
The Fiesta line was originally made in five colors: Red, Yellow, Cobalt Blue, Green, and Ivory. Each piece of the Art Deco-style set was sold individually, allowing customers to mix and match the bright colors as they pleased. The Fiesta line was an instant hit, and a sixth color, Turquoise, was added a year later. Within two years, more than a million pieces of Fiesta dinnerware had been produced.
Those six colors were produced throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s with few changes until World War II, when production of red pieces was halted. The red glaze used a small amount of uranium oxide, which the U.S. government took control of during the war for developing nuclear weapons. In the early 1950s, pastel colors were more in demand by consumers, so the rest of the bright colors were also temporarily discontinued in favor of lighter options. The bright colors came back by the early ‘60s, including red, which was produced with a different variety of uranium.
Despite decades of robust sales, demand for the Fiesta line slowly declined throughout the 1960s until, after 37 years of continuous production, the line was retired in 1972.
Because of Fiesta’s popularity during the middle of the 20th century, many baby boomers had fond memories of the dishes being used in their households as they grew up, so as they came of age many of them wanted the same dishes in their own households. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the line that had fallen out of favor enough to be discontinued was in high demand once again, creating a market for secondhand Fiestaware that drove prices up. Depending on condition and rarity, some Fiesta pieces were selling for hundreds of dollars.
The growing market for collectible Fiestaware did not escape Homer Laughlin for long. After only 13 years of retirement, the Fiesta line was revived in 1986 for its 50th anniversary in five colors: Rose, Black, Cobalt, White, and Apricot. Production of the Fiesta line has been continuous since 1986, though the colors are constantly changing, keeping collectors interested and buying. Vintage Fiesta pieces, as well as many modern pieces, are still considered highly collectible.
“We encourage Fiesta collectors in every way that we can,” says Conley. “The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association is an independent group of collectors with nearly 1,500 members. We attend their annual conventions and produce special Fiesta items that are available only to the collectors. An annual pilgrimage to our factory has become a tradition for many of the collectors from all across the country.”
When Homer Laughlin China re-introduced Fiesta, there were a few improvements made to the line, though overall each piece is still very similar to the original design. Because Homer Laughlin wanted Fiestaware to be usable in restaurants as well as by residential customers, the new Fiesta line is made of fully vitrified clay, which is lighter and more durable than the original material. Another change was the glaze, which in the new line is much harder and shinier than that of the original pieces. The Fiesta line, like all of Homer Laughlin’s dinnerware, is still made entirely in America.
“Fiesta Dinnerware is lead-free and free of any heavy metals or other toxins that could be hazardous to health or the environment,” says Conley. “It is made to the same standards of durability as all of our restaurant china. Best of all, it is made right here in the Upper Ohio Valley by American workers, many of whom are second, third, and even fourth generation members of their families to work at Homer Laughlin.”
It has become a tradition for Homer Laughlin to only offer 15 colors of Fiesta at one time, with one new color being introduced each year as another is retired. Recently retired colors include Black, Paprika, and Peacock, though retired colors are still sold by Homer Laughlin until there are no more in stock.
“There are many factors that enter into color selection,” explains Conley. “Fashion trends are obviously part of the decision, and we welcome suggestions from our retail partners, as well as consumers. Manufacturing issues are also considered. There will always be disappointed customers when a color is retired. However, that is kept to a minimum because our decision to retire a color is largely influenced by sales volume. The slowest-selling colors are more likely to be retired than a more popular color.”
When asked if that disappointment ever leads to retired colors being brought back for a second run, Conley dashes my dreams of Plum-colored dishes making a comeback.
“We have not brought back a retired color,” he states. “However, with a total of 49 colors since 1936, it is inevitable that any new color will bear some resemblance to an earlier color. We have even used a color name more than once. For instance, there was a Turquoise color in the 1930s and another Turquoise in our current colors, but they are distinctively different from one another.”