Colorful Fiesta ware is hot with collectors—see what old and new pieces are worth.
Inheriting my grandmother’s large Fiesta ware popcorn bowl sparked my interest in collecting. What can you tell me about this popular line of dinnerware?
—S.G., Waukesha, Wisconsin
A: The glossy, colorful Fiesta line of china—popularly known as “Fiesta ware”—was born in the Great Depression, aiming to affordably brighten dinner tables and lives. Designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead for the Homer Laughlin China Company in Newell, West Virginia, it was introduced to the public in 1936 and quickly became a mainstay in kitchens across the country.
The original five Fiesta ware colors were red, yellow, cobalt blue, light green and ivory; turquoise was added a year later. The beauty of the concept was that pieces could be easily mixed and matched, and bought individually or in small batches instead of costly sets.
Fiesta’s streamlined design featured an art deco style with concentric circles that made it look as if it were handmade on a potter’s wheel. Of course, the sturdy china was mass-produced, selling at five-and-dimes like Woolworth’s and department stores such as Gimbels.
A 24-piece place setting sold for $11 in the 1930s. Today, prices can change as often as monthly, but a 6-inch plate in a common color costs $5 to $15, and a dinner plate $30 to $40; basic pieces are generally worth less than coffee pots, candleholders, casserole dishes, pitchers or vases. Rarities can cost hundreds of dollars.
Early ads for Fiesta ware were aimed squarely at middle-class housewives. The bold, solid colors were welcomed as something radically new, and helped reflect a more informal lifestyle. An advertising brochure proclaimed, “Color! That’s the trend today…It’s FUN to set a table with Fiesta!”
As the Fiesta ware phenomenon grew, the company created new shades to suit changing tastes, including softer pastels in the early 1950s and returning to bright hues in the early ‘60s. Of all the colors, the original orange-red color is valued especially highly by collectors because of its scarcity. The red glaze formula included uranium, essential to the World War II effort and unavailable to potteries for several years.
Fiesta ware fever cooled steadily from peak sales in 1948, when 30 million pieces were shipped. Earth-toned Fiesta ware in the late 1960s proved unpopular, and the line was discontinued in 1973. Before long, however, sales on the secondary market began to flourish as baby boomers began collecting, nostalgic for their mothers’ and grandmothers’ dishware. Rummage sales, eBay and auctions offered a rainbow of vintage Fiesta ware.
New Fiesta Fans
In 1985, Bloomingdale’s approached Homer Laughlin about reproducing an updated version in honor of Fiesta’s 50th anniversary. It was reintroduced the next year with new clays, colors and glazes.
Modern Fiesta ware, called Post 86, is microwave— and dishwasher—safe, as well as oven-proof and lead-free, and both Macy’s and Kohl’s headquarters report it by far their best-selling everyday china. To keep the line vibrant, a new color is added annually while others are retired. Shades entering the Fiesta spectrum range from tangerine and plum to peacock and flamingo pink.
Not only has the iconic china spawned the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association and an annual convention, it was honored with its own postage stamp in 2011. What’s more, a new generation is celebrating Fiesta ware. One collector told me, “My 8-year-old is the pickiest of eaters—but she’ll even eat leftovers if she can select the plate color her food goes on.”
—Barbara J. Eash (Country Woman Magazine’s Antiques Expert)
See Barbara’s appraisals of various Fiesta ware items in the slide show above.
Prices for Fiesta ware vary according to a piece’s age, size, color, function and regional availability. Comparative values given in the captions are for pieces in absolute mint condition, with no breaks, cracks, crazing, discoloration or marring of any kind; be aware that prices can change monthly.
Want to start collecting Fiesta ware, or learn more about pieces you have? Barbara recommends two of her favorite resources, The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Fiesta, by Bob and Sharon Huxford, and the Happy Heidi’s website.