It’s easy to collect Homer Laughlin ceramics. The Homer Laughlin China Company has been making dinnerware and other pottery products since 1874, and just before World War I it was producing 10% of all the dishes purchased in the United States. During its peak year of 1948, it manufactured 10,129,449 dozen dishes. The company itself claims it has produced one third of all the dinnerware ever bought in America. So there’s no lack of Homer Laughlin products to collect.
The company got its start in East Liverpool, Ohio, where there were a number of potteries producing dinnerware from yellow clay. But the yellow color was on the way out; people wanted the new white dinnerware, which looked cleaner and brighter and matched any table setting. So the city fathers offered to fund a new start-up pottery that would produce the white ware. Homer Laughlin and his brother Shakespeare undertook to do this, although they had little experience with ceramics. But after some initial experiments gone awry, the business began to make headway, and soon they were selling to several hotels.
Part of the reason for the company’s success was that it took advantage of new technology in kilns. The old bottle kilns had to be allowed to cool, and resulted in a lot of down time. In the 1920’s new tunnel kilns were developed that could fire pottery constantly because the pieces were sent on a conveyor belt run by hydraulics. This meant that Home Laughlin could greatly increase production.
The company eventually expanded to seven plants and spread from southeastern Ohio into West Virginia; today its address is in Newell, West Virginia.
Another reason for Homer Laughlin’s success, and one of the reasons collectors like it, is that the company hired good designers. One of them was Frederick Harten Rhead, who joined the company in 1927. In 1935 he developed Fiesta ware, which features cheerful colors and concentric circles, and is still being sold today. Fiesta ware has a very Art Deco look that appeals to collectors. The original colors were bright red, bright yellow, cobalt blue, and medium green; then in the 1950’s Fiesta sported some new colors—mango red, turf green and antique gold. Today Fiesta ware’s newest color is flamingo, a kind of peachy orange.
Rhead was the designer behind another popular Homer Laughlin line, called Virginia Rose after a co-owner’s granddaughter. It was decorated with roses and sometimes had a scalloped edge like flower petals. It had a quaint, old-fashioned look, as opposed to the streamlined Art Deco motif. Over 600 thousand dozen pieces were sold in 1951.
During World War II Americans couldn’t buy fine china from Europe, so Homer Laughlin developed a more formal line called Eggshell. It had a soft cream-colored background. Cream-colored dinnerware had been popular for a while. In his article “The Homer Laughlin China Company History,” Jack Welch commented that people no longer wanted the bright white place settings that were the reason why the company first started.
It’s easy to tell when a Homer Laughlin piece was made by looking at the back stamp. From 1930 to 1960 the month was indicated by a letter from A to L. The year was a two-digit number, such as 53 for 1953, and the factory was a letter and a number. You can find the back stamps from earlier years described at http://www.beauxartsusa.com/HomerLaughlin.html.
Wherever collectors hunt for ceramics, they’ll run into Homer Laughlin sooner or later.
Virginia Rose bowl made in 1953
Eggshell plate made in 1944
Pictures by Kathleen Murphy. The top picture shows a Fiesta ware cobalt blue gravy boat probably made in the 1940's, although the stamp is very faded.