In the 1930s, a dinnerware sensation swept across the nation – Fiesta ware. While most dishes of the time adhered to a predominantly white palette, Fiesta’s dinnerware embraced a vivid spectrum of colors, featuring shades like blue, ivory, green, yellow, and the distinctive orangeish-red that became its hallmark.
The widespread acclaim for these dishes extended to luminaries such as the renowned artist Andy Warhol.
However, what truly set Fiesta ware apart was the difficulty in replicating its signature red and, to a lesser extent, ivory dinnerware. The secret lay in a unique and expensive ingredient that lent its vibrant hues to the glaze – uranium. Astonishingly, Fiesta ware was, in fact, radioactive.
The presence of uranium, albeit for non-leisurely purposes, led to the eventual withdrawal of Fiesta ware by its manufacturer, the Homer Laughlin China Company. Notably, this move was not driven by health concerns, as the debate on the safety of uranium in consumer products remains ongoing. Instead, it was rooted in national security imperatives.
In 1944, during the throes of the Manhattan Project’s quest to develop an atomic bomb, the United States government desperately required uranium for its classified efforts. Consequently, any available uranium, including that owned by the Homer Laughlin Company, was seized. This led the company to discontinue the red variant of Fiesta ware that year.
After a hiatus, the red Fiesta ware resurfaced in 1959, but this time with a crucial alteration. Instead of using natural uranium, it was crafted from depleted uranium, which possessed significantly lower radioactivity.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that vintage Fiesta ware, particularly the more radioactive varieties, is still listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as emitting “elevated levels” of radiation, making it a consideration for collectors and everyday users alike.
Fiesta ware, introduced in 1936 by the Homer Laughlin Company of West Virginia, offered consumers a choice of five colors: red, blue, green, yellow, and ivory.
Remarkably, red was the company’s inaugural selection during the product’s design phase, followed closely by blue, which coincidentally were the colors favored by Andy Warhol in his Fiesta ware collection. The concept behind the product was to encourage the mixing and matching of dinnerware, necessitating compatibility among the five color options.
Interestingly, Fiesta red, despite being the most expensive color option, remained the most popular. Its elevated cost was attributed to the expenses associated with raw materials and the meticulous control required during the firing process.
The unique red hue was achieved by incorporating uranium oxide into the glaze, with estimates suggesting that the glaze could contain up to 14% uranium by weight.
The precise amount of glaze applied per plate remains unclear, but it has been approximated that a single plate contained about 4.5 grams of uranium. Additionally, some experts estimate the glaze thickness at 0.2mm.
The role of uranium in Fiesta Red posed a direct threat during World War II when the U.S. government requisitioned the company’s uranium stocks for the atomic bomb project. As a result, Fiesta Red disappeared from the market until 1959 when production resumed, this time using depleted uranium, which was residual from uranium enrichment for weapons.
However, in 1969, the entire Fiesta ware line was discontinued, and replaced by Fiesta Ironstone, which was exclusively available in Fiesta Red, also known as Mango Red.
Regrettably, this line had a short-lived existence, being discontinued in 1973, marking the end of Fiesta Red’s presence. Years later, in 1986, a new line of Fiesta ware was introduced, devoid of the distinctive red color.