Fred Mutchler treasures his vintage dishes -- so much so that he built an 800-square-foot addition to his house so that he could display more of them.
The St. Louis Park teacher and his wife have been collecting Fiesta, the colorful American dinnerware first introduced during the Great Depression, for more than three decades.
They acquired their first few pieces incidentally, in boxes of dishes that they bought for a dollar at a farm auction. Then in 1981, while removing siding from the couple's first house, Mutchler discovered newspaper insulation in the walls, including a full-page 1939 ad for Fiesta ware.
"I said, 'Hey! We have some of those dishes,'" he recalled.
He started looking for more, a quest that ultimately inspired him to collect more than 5,700 pieces of pottery and become a leader in Fiesta circles, cofounding the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association (HLCCA) and editing an exhaustive reference book ("Fiesta, Harlequin & Kitchen Kraft Dinnerwares") that some collectors refer to as "the Fiesta bible."
The Homer Laughlin China Co. introduced Fiesta in 1936 as affordable sets of mix-and-match dishes for middle-class housewives. The dishes were produced for about three decades, discontinued, then reintroduced with new clays, glazes and colors in 1986. They've remained popular ever since. Despite a deep recession, Fiesta ware saw record sales last year, according to the manufacturer, and the dishes have an active and loyal fan base.
Color adds to Fiesta's appeal
"Fiesta ware is the most collected pottery anywhere," Mutchler said.
What's the appeal?
"Most people would say the color," he said.
The cheerfully bright solid-color dishes have appeared in 41 hues, and the company continues to introduce a new one each year. The latest is paprika, a deep orange-red.
But Mutchler also appreciates Fiesta's "timeless design," which emulates hand-thrown pottery with concentric circles and sturdy character.
"Our kids ate off vintage Fiesta ware for years, which is a testament to how durable it is," he said. "Yes, you can put it in the dishwasher. There's probably some in there now."
Wisconsin collector Kathy Holley, who rotates her colors seasonally, describes her Fiesta ware as "everyday art -- I open my cupboard, and there are happy colors looking at me."
Holley, a frequent contributor to the Dish, a quarterly publication of the HLCCA, and a regular at its annual convention, said Fiesta has brightened her life in many ways, including introducing her to a circle of cherished friends -- her "dish sisters."
"My avatar online is 'Live every day with color,'" she said. "That's my attitude, and it becomes your lifestyle. I'm not going through life beige."
Which color is her favorite?
"Oooh. That's like asking which of your kids is your favorite," she said. "I really love the chartreuse."
Medium green, added in 1959, is the most popular color among collectors, Mutchler said. But he's partial to red, one of the original five colors, which was discontinued for a time during World War II because the uranium oxide used in its dye was needed for the war effort, he said.
Whiteware was 'the wow of the day'
His collection is shifting away from the bright Fiesta pieces and more toward the company's earlier, less-colorful pottery, he said. His oldest piece is an 1876 casserole, part of the "whiteware" that the company introduced at that year's Philadelphia Exposition. At that time, most American-made "white" china was yellowish in color, and the snow-white pieces were "the wow of the day," he said.
Mutchler has almost a complete set of Harlequin ware, the "mauve blue" pottery line that the Homer Laughlin company sold exclusively at Woolworth's from 1937 to the late 1950s.
And he's also drawn to vintage ads, price lists and other fragile paper artifacts.
"I have a passion for ephemera," he said. "The pottery was designed to last. But fully intact ads are scarcer than the scarcest dishes."
Fiesta prices have flattened slightly because so much is available on the Internet, especially eBay.
"If you want to build a collection overnight, it's pretty easy to do," Mutchler said. "If you have deep enough pockets, you can find everything."
One of the most coveted pieces is the elusive turquoise covered onion soup bowl. It can go for as much as $10,000 -- but only in turquoise, and with the lid, says Dave Conley, a Fiesta historian at Homer Laughlin.
"That's kind of considered the Holy Grail of Fiesta collecting," Holley said. "They were made for a very short time. The piece was being phased out at the time the turquoise color was being phased in."
But it's not a piece Mutchler covets.
"I've seen one. I've held one in my hands," he said. "But a number of us collectors have reached the consensus that, while it's still a cool piece, it's not as scarce as people commonly believe. There are two or three dozen known pieces out there, which means there are probably at least that many unknown."
An even bigger find: lids that were produced for early versions of some mixing bowls. One dealer sold two of the lids for $35,000 five years ago, Conley says.
Building on middle-class roots
They might be prized collectibles today, but Fiesta ware is solidly rooted in middle-class America -- a big part of its appeal for collectors.
"All of it was under $1 [apiece] when it first came out, with a few exceptions," Mutchler said. "You could buy a dinner plate for 40 cents. So a person could put together an entire cupboard full of dishes for maybe 10 bucks."
For Holley, part of the appeal is imagining those years of use.
"Bowls were used, and often dinged and chipped and cracked," she says. "The big bowl was where you mixed your bread dough or the triple batch of oatmeal cookies because people were helping on the farm.
"This wasn't good china. It got used every day -- which is funny now to see people handle it so gingerly."
This report includes material from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.