China Town

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn a cramped but tidy museum within the Homer Laughlin pottery factory, in Newell, West Virginia, I stood before a small case displaying an object that all but took my breath away. There, under a steady but flattering light, was the 500 millionth piece of Fiesta ware. Half a billion pieces! My mind scrabbled around the number like a pup on a newly waxed floor, trying to gain purchase. At the same time, another confusion overcame me: Fiesta ware, which apparently is only slightly less common than used tinfoil, remains an extremely desirable collectible. It is, in fact, the most collected type of dishware in the country.

I am not myself a collector of vintage dishware. Dishware is not displayed at our house, unless one considers a display something that involves a melted cheese sandwich and potato chips. I am, however, an inveterate user of dishware. I buy up old ironstone of the sort once found in restaurants and hotels—weighty white plates, saucers, and coffee mugs, each delicately enlivened with a thin green stripe. Our kitchen cupboard is full of the stuff. I love it because it can survive unyielding sinks and teenagers, it has simple, modern elegance, and it always brings to mind the comforts of streamlined diners and good meat loaf. That, and it can be had for a few dollars apiece at thrift shops and yard sales.

 
 

At those same sales I’ve often been afflicted with Fiesta-ware envy, but I’ve never indulged it, because of price. I’ve often held up one or another of those richly glazed plates with the subtle concentric rings, the space attenuating between them, and thought: Now this would go very nicely with yams. But at $40 or more for a plate? No, thanks.

So I was in for another bout of confusion when I wandered from the Homer Laughlin museum into the adjacent factory outlet, still thinking of my encounter with Fiesta 500 million. With no warning, I found myself amid a riot of new Fiesta ware. In a side room off the main showroom, hundreds of Fiesta dishes stood piled in perilous stacks, overflowed from wooden boxes, and lay indecorously heaped in plastic milk crates. These were factory seconds, many marred with microscopic blemishes, but the price was certainly right.

Most pieces could be had for just a few dollars—in many cases the prices were boldly markered across the faces of plates tilting on long racks—but even better deals were scrawled on torn pieces of cardboard tacked here and there. On the day I was there, small oval Fiesta plates—sized perfectly for peanut-butter-and-raspberry-preserve sandwiches—were one dollar apiece. For a moment I stood mildly dumbstruck, hearing only the buzz of fluorescent lights, the clatter of dishware, and the grunts of hunched and rooting shoppers.

But only for a moment. I swiftly joined in the rifling to take part in what seemed to be a sort of scarcely legalized looting. An hour later I loaded two heavy cartons into my car. Our cupboard at home, which once had all the color and merriment of a hospital linen closet, now looks like Oz.

The town of newell is located at the tip of that finger of West Virginia that points northward between Ohio and Pennsylvania, as if directing traffic toward Lake Erie. The point is created by a sweeping bend in the Ohio River, and just across an open-deck steel-truss bridge is the industrial town of East Liver- pool, Ohio. While dramatic, this is not a part of the country to which people travel for natural beauty. The Homer Laughlin factory, sooty with age, occupies a mile of riverfront that’s overgrown with sumac. Coal barges move slowly past. Much of the opposite bank has been blasted to accommodate a highway. It’s more Ashcan than Hudson River school.

Yet since that first, disorienting trip to the Homer Laughlin factory five years ago, I’ve come back twice. And not just for the dishware bargains. That first visit left me intrigued by the area, by its link with a past when geography was destiny, when workers versed in arcane manufacturing techniques seemed to pool and eddy in regions around the continent. Hartford meant guns. Pittsburgh meant steel. Corning meant glass. And East Liverpool meant ceramics. It was known as “America’s crockery city.”

While inexpensive imports have gradually discounted the region’s national recognition in the pottery world, it has held its own surprisingly well in an era when local heavy manufacturing is fading into anachronism. And the Ohio River Valley is increasingly rediscovering its heritage, broadening the ways in which it educates and entertains travelers. Spend a day or two roaming around here, and you’ll leave with more than a trunkful of dishware deals. You’ll also have a fresh view of your dinner table and how it got that way.