By Liz Rogers
NEWELL, W.Va. – Handpainted on a Sunflower Fiesta dinner plate perched high atop a shelf in the Homer Laughlin China Co. museum: "Jill, will you marry me? Jim."
And you thought the iconic Art Deco ware was just for serving up some meat and potatoes.
For the past 75 years, the vibrant hues of Fiesta have been part of kitchen table settings everywhere. Vivid colors bearing names of Scarlet, Plum Shamrock, Lemongrass and Paprika have helped to make Fiesta the most collected china in the United States.
And, it's made in the United States, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. In fact, an easy hour's drive from Washington.
"That's part of the appeal of Fiesta," said Dave Conley, director of Homer Laughlin China's retail sales and marketing. "This is the only thing they can find anymore made in the U.S."
Another selling point: It's lead free, and says so on the product line's back stamp, he added.
Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, the pottery put the tiny town of Newell on the map – literally.
Founded in 1871 in East Liverpool, Ohio, by Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin, the company's steady growth led to its move to an undeveloped tract of land across the river in West Virginia. Utilities were installed, a suspension bridge built and a trolley line created to transport pottery workers over the Ohio. Newell was established in 1905, and the new Homer Laughlin plant became the largest of its kind in the world at the time.
As demand for the pottery grew, more plants were built, and in the mid-1920s, the company hired English potter Frederick Hurton Rhead. Rhead created glazes in colors of red, blue, green, yellow and old ivory, deviating from the traditional white. Plus, a concentric circle design was imprinted on each piece, lending to the appearance of pottery handcrafted on a wheel. Fiesta became Rhead's legacy.
To date, Fiesta has launched 42 colors, and 15 remain in production. Each year, a color is retired and a new one introduced. Evergreen retired in 2010, and Chocolate is about to follow suit, ending production in March. The 2012 color will be announced at the International Trade Show in Chicago in March.
And the most popular color of all?
"Scarlet," says Conley without hesitation. Introduced in 2004, the color is the runaway favorite with collectors. The original Fiesta red was not a true red, he added, but more of an orange.
"For years, we couldn't do red," he explained. The pigments could not withstand the 2,300-degree firing temperature without burning out the color.
And the high temperature is necessary to ensure the product's durability.
The least popular color was Pearl Gray, which was produced for only two years.
Fiesta was taken out of production from 1973 until 1985, when Fiesta was reintroduced with lead-free glazes and vitrified china in five updated colors: White, Black, Rose, Apricot and Cobalt Blue.
Over the years, the company changed hands, and today is owned and operated by Joe Wells III, and his sisters Jean Wickes and Elizabeth McIlvaine, the fourth generation of the Wells family to run Homer Laughlin.
The company employs 965 people, most of whom are second- third-fourth-and fifth-generation employees.
The factory is open for tours twice daily by appointment, and is well worth the drive.
Barb Watson, who spent 30 of her 48 years with the company as a "handler" – someone who attaches handles to cups – came out of retirement to conduct the tours. She's familiar with every nook and cranny of the sprawling factory and knows everyone by name.
She proudly tours a visitor through the factory in late December, starting at the end of the production line and working her way to the beginning, where rolls of clay are cut and molded into the familiar shapes of Fiesta.
Among tour highlights: watching bowls move along a conveyor through a spray of glaze; artisans applying decals on plates and hand-painting gold trim on cups, and the imposing 350-foot-long main kiln, which bakes china at a blistering 2,300 degrees for eight hours.
The tour ends in the Homer Laughlin China museum, which features pieces of china manufactured throughout the company's history.
Also on display is a commemorative bowl marking the company's production of its 500 millionth piece of china in 1997. Only 500 pieces were produced, and the remainder was presented to dignitaries, the governor of West Virginia and the Smithsonian. Fifteen were donated to charities for auction, fetching an average of $5,200 apiece.
This year, in honor of the 75th anniversary of Fiesta, a special tureen and platter in this year's anniversary color, Marigold, are being produced. The 75-week production ends in November, or when the company reaches 10,000 pieces, whichever comes first.
The adjacent retail store features open stock of Fiesta, but the biggest draw is the seconds room, where pieces containing imperfections in glaze or color are sold at reduced prices.
Collectors look forward to the company's twice annual tent sales, held in June and October in the outlet store parking lot at the factory.
"The day it opens, we have 400 people standing in line waiting to get in. It's like Black Friday. They think they are getting something no one else is going to get," Conley says with a chuckle.
As for the plate bearing the marriage proposal?
"She said 'yes,'" Watson said.
For factory tour appointments, call 800-452-4462.
(Liz Rogers is editor of the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. This story first appeared in the January/February issued of newpaper's Living Washington County magazine)