So, I was on vacation last week. The man and I went to Palm Springs, which, if I had remembered to take any pictures, is pretty much exactly the right visual substance for my weblog. We stayed at one of those adorable garden hotels with the bungalows arranged around a lovely saltwater pool, and it was great. I forgot to take pictures.
Anyway, I got some pretty wonderful things at Long Beach last weekend. Among them were these two mixing bowls:
These are vintage Fiesta mixing bowls, sizes 5 and 6.
Before I get too into these bowls in particular, here’s a super quick introduction to Fiestaware. The Homer Laughlin company introduced the bright, art deco Fiesta line in 1936, after much careful thought and planning of everything from the overall shape (thank you Fredrick Rhead) to the first set of colors (red was a must, and the others followed to complete and complement it) to the glaze (not too dull to make cleaning difficult and imperfections obvious, but not too shiny – just a pleasant, soft sheen). I collect Fiesta ware (in spite of the fact that a lot of other people do) because my grandmother did, and so does my mother, but because a lot of people collect it, prices at antique malls and flea markets can be inflated simply because it’s marked Fiesta. So it always helps to know whether a piece you’re looking at is rare and whether it’s actually vintage: Homer Laughlin reintroduced Fiesta in 1986, and many of the original shapes and some approximations of the original colors were and are being made. Look at color, shape, and what’s on the underside – pin marks, backstamps, and indented marks will help you age a piece. The first line introduced in 1936 included (cobalt) blue, yellow, (old) ivory, (light) green, and the aforementioned (orange) red. Turquoise followed in 1937.
The vintage Fiesta red has a bright orange cast to it, as opposed to the newer Scarlet color, which is closer to a true red. In 1943 the government decided it needed to use the uranium that was used in making the red glaze, so Fiesta sent its red color to war, and from 1943 to 1959, no red was made. In 1951 new colors were added: rose, gray, chartreuse, and forest green – very modern indeed. Medium green was introduced in 1959, a mere 10 years before all of the above was discontinued – hence its scarcity and high price tags. The only medium green pieces I have are saucers; one is Fiesta and one is Harlequin (a less-expensive Homer Laughlin line sold through Woolworth’s that shared many of the same colors).
So now you know what colors are vintage, but there’s a slight problem – some colors, like turquoise, cobalt blue, ivory, and yellow – were reproduced after 1986 and can look very similar to the vintage colors even side by side:
The saucer in front is from my mother’s collection and was made in the early 90’s, while the one in back is from my grandmother’s collection, probably from the early 40’s. The vintage turquoise is slightly more bluish, while the new turquoise is a little on the greener side, but very, very slightly. In these situations, shape, weight, and most importantly, the marks on the bottom, tell us which is which.
When a Fiesta piece is marked with an ink backstamp, it will either say “FIESTA” in all capital letters, as shown on the right, or “fiesta” in all lowercase letters, as on the left. Aside from simply looking like a newer stamp, the capital letters and the words “LEAD-FREE” always indicate it was made after the reissue in 1986. Always. The lower case, as on the saucer on the left, indicate vintage Fiesta. The mark may differ from the one shown, but the letters will always be in lower case. Note that this is only true for ink backstamps, and not for indented marks.
A piece may very well not be marked – many vintage plates weren’t marked, and some items such as salt and pepper shakers were never meant to be marked and are rare when they are found with one. As you can see in the above photo, vintage Fiesta plates bear three tiny marks from where they were held up during firing. New Fiesta will have an unglazed foot like you see above – the old method of firing held up by pins simply isn’t done anymore (but some vintage pieces, like mugs, will as well. I know. Confusing.). You’re also more likely to see imperfections in the glazes of vintage Fiesta – the newer methods provide a consistent, even glaze. Holding these saucers in different hands, the new one feels weightier, has a slightly less refined shape and feel, and just looks newer. So is that it? No, of course not! There are also indented marks, which you’ll find on contemporary cereal bowls and disk pitchers as well as vintage ones. Color, size, glazed feet (see the saucers above), and overall feel will be your guide here. It helps to know your colors. I once bought a post 86 creamer at a flea market knowing it was post 86 because it was apricot, a newer color only, and because the handle was a D-shape instead of an O-shape – and I knew not to pay too much for it even though the dealer told me she thought it was from the 60’s. I don’t think she was trying to cheat me, she just didn’t know. The bottom line is that you buy what you like, whatever colors and shapes appeal to you, and knowing just a little about what you’re looking at can help you make informed decisions on how much a piece is worth to you.
And a note about worth: the values you see in books or price lists indicate value for mint condition pieces. Wear marks, cracks, chips – these diminish value significantly and make a rare piece a candidate for everyday use. Speaking of wear, let’s get back to my mixing bowls. The nested mixing bowl sets, in sizes #1 (5″ diameter) to #7 (11.5″ diameter), were made between 1936 until about 1943, in each of the original six colors. The largest and smallest size are the most rare, with the largest taking that top honor. Mixing bowls are being made today, but they are much more limited in size, and they have a little foot or base that the older bowls do not have. The oldest mixing bowls, made before 1939, have an additional set of rings on the inside bottom of the bowl:
For an idea of what vintage Fiesta in mint condition is worth, I highly recommend Happy Heidi’s guide and pieces for sale. The bowls she has for sale put the number 5’s around $200 and the number 6’s around $300. As you can see, my bowls are nowhere near mint, so I feel pretty pleased about my $60 investment: not only do I get two great mixing bowls for a reasonable price, but I get to continue using something that’s been used for 75 years, whisking and stirring and making pies and cookies. I completely understand collectors’ desire to have pristine examples of this or that, but for me, the real value of something is the sum of the work that went into its creation plus the work it’s done before me, and I hope I can only add to it.