By Dave Zuchowski
— A few years back, when I wrote a feature article about a local collector of Fiesta ware, I learned that the factory that made this popular line was actually less than 60 miles from my home.
Not particularly interested in dinnerware, even a brand that’s become very collectible, I still wanted to take the guided factory tour that shows how the colorful art deco dinnerware is still being made, albeit in old factory buildings that reek with atmosphere and interest.
One spring-like day at the end of March, I jumped in the car and headed for Newell, W.Va., a town that snuggles along the Ohio River sandwiched between Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Entering the retail store, my eye wandered over the array of colorful bowls, dishes, plates, canisters, platters, utensils and more, beguiling the homemaker with an artist’s palette of colors with sensual names like paprika, tangerine, peacock, scarlet and sunflower.
They were a far cry from the initial hues of red, yellow, cobalt blue, green and ivory the Homer Laughlin China Co. first offered back in 1936. That was the year when Fiesta ware became the first widely-promoted and mass produced solid color dinnerware in the United States.
To commemorate Fiesta’s 75th anniversary in 2011, Homer Laughlin, the last major dinnerware producer that still makes its products in the U.S., manufactured its first and only special item, a limited edition and numbered soup tureen done in bright marigold yellow. During my visit, a few of the 10,000 tureens made to mark the occasion were still for sale in the retail room.
Even more fun is the adjacent seconds room, where bins of full of dinnerware with minor flaws are marked down as low as half off the regular retail price. An even better deal comes twice a year during the tent sales when first quality items are reduced by 10 percent, although the biggest draw remains its inventory of seconds. This year’s tent sale is scheduled for June 20-22 and later in October, although no date has yet been assigned.
Tour guide Sheila Blatchford, who’s been at the job for eight years and really knows her stuff, assembled our group of 10 and herded us into the factory for an hour-long tour.
"We’ll be walking about a mile and a half and up 18 steps," said Blatchford by way of introduction.
Along the way, we got to see the workers up close, the kilns from a short distance, most everything seemingly operating just as it has for decades. A jolt of modernization came when we were introduced to a computerized operation and a robotics section, which contrasted sharply with manual operations that include workers who still apply decals to certain pieces by hand and handles on as many as 1,500 to 2,000 cups each day.
Passing one massive kiln, Blatchford said it holds as many as 1,020 plates that would be fired at 2190 degrees for four hours. Further on, we learned that the Eisamenn kiln was for glazes that were heated even higher to 2300 degrees and kept there for eight hours. I could only imagine the factory’s annual fuel bill.
Homer Laughlin first introduced Fiesta ware to the public at the Pittsburgh China and Glass Show. The product was an immediate hit, so much so that, by the second year of production, the company turned out an excess of one million pieces. At its peak in 1948, more than 3,000 employees produced more than 10 million pieces. Currently, the factory employs a total of between 900 and 1,000 workers assigned to one of three shifts.
The tours end with a look inside the Homer Laughlin Museum that displays items from the company’s 140 years of history. Be sure to check out the raspberry colored bowl set aside in a special case. It represented Fiesta at the1939 World’s Fair in New York. Another celebrity item is the 500 millionth piece of Fiesta ware produced by the company. Naturally, it gets a place of prominence in the museum, which, by the way, is open to tour-takers only.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.