a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fiesta® addicts are born here

Stacks of Fiesta® dinnerware are sold below retail prices at the Homer Laughlin China Co. factory store in Newell, W.Va. (Scott Beveridge photo) 

By Scott Beveridge

NEWELL, W.Va. – The vibrant colors of the venerable Fiesta® dinnerware offer the most-logical reason why it has remained on the market and manufactured in the United States for more than eight decades.

The vintage look of the China, as well as its quality, simple design and durability also likely contribute to its popularity and having earned the distinction of being "America's favorite dinnerware."

But the hardcore Fiesta® addicts typically are born after one visit to the company's factory store in Newell, W.Va., along the hard-worn Northern Panhandle shores of the Ohio Rivera clerk there explained last week.

"It's a addiction coming here," she said inside the two-room, no-frills store in a company town that built up around the Homer Laughlin China Co., when it expanded and relocated from across the river in East Liverpool, Ohio. "I don't know why," she said.

Shoppers often head straight to the area off the main showroom, to where four long rows of plates, bowls, vases and pitchers are offered well below retail prices found at such department stores as Macy's and Bloomingdales. Some pieces have slight imperfections while others are first-quality put there for fast sale.

A four-piece setting sells here for under $25 and about $2 less than the same packages is selling this week at 30 percent off full price at a Macy's at Century III Mall south of Pittsburgh. And, the factory store gives one set away free when a customers purchases four of them.

"Grabbing up on the white bowl, huh?" the clerk exclaims as I walk it to the cash register, carrying the unusual, short and wide piece. "It's first quality. I've never seen it in white. It's discontinued."

I bought it, having felt a need to purchase something after making the 63-mile drive here from my house in southwestern Pennsylvania. I had thought about replacing some of the inexpensive, all-white dinnerware in my pantry, with some nicer Fiestaware. It is produced in such bold colors as cinnabar, lemongrass and peacock, and paprika, the new one introduced last year.

"You definitely need to add some color to your kitchen," my editor, Liz Rogers, said earlier while we discussed her Fiesta® collection and my boring white plates in the Observer-Reporter newsroom in Washington, Pa.

I quickly change my mind in Newell after realizing it would cost nearly $60 just to purchase six large plates from the discount section of the store. However, I did leave with an $8 shamrock vase that would have sold for $29.99 in a department store, the clerk said.

Rogers apparently is among the Fiesta® junkies, many of whom fill up myriad Internet chat rooms gushing about their love of all things made at the sprawling Homer Laughlin plant.

Homer and his brother, Shakespeare, founded the company in 1871 using $5,000 in seed money East Liverpool City Council awarded them to build a white ware pottery factory. The city was out to compete with the more-sophisticated white China imported from England that had been growing in popularity on the U.S. market, the company's website explains.

The Laughlin company grew so fast that it expanded across the river about 1905, and also built the Newell suspension toll bridge, which is still in open to traffic. Fiesta® was introduced in 1936 by designer Frederick H. Rhead, an English immigrant potter who joined the company in 1927. However, "darkness covers the land ... no Fiesta® production for 12 years!!!" beginning in 1973, a company brochure states.

The years have shown their wear on the plant, as well as East Liverpool, where many downtown stores are vacant and few shoppers can be found on the sidewalks. Meanwhile, a long row of redbrick buildings beside the Homer Laughlin corporate offices appear rundown.

It was a disappointment to find the Museum of Ceramics' doors locked for the day by the time I stumbled upon it after its 3 p.m. closing time. It's located in an ornate former post office in East Liverpool. I likely will return there earlier in the day to visit that place, and also take a guided tour of the Fiesta® factory. Reservations are required at the plant.

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