MILWAUKEE -- The sign said, "Everything 10 cents."
Kathy Holley made her way into the dim basement of the estate sale and saw a pool table loaded with housewares. Then she spotted them: Four egg cups. Bright red.
"I picked them up," she says. "I flipped one over. My hand started to tremble."
She looked at the sign again.
Dealers and "professional pickers" had passed them by, but Holley knew exactly what she had in her trembling hands: Fiesta Dinnerware egg cups.
No cracks, no chips. She paid her 40 cents and went home with the cups, which she figures are worth $40 each. Not that she would ever sell them.
"I don't collect for investment value. I collect for the joy of it," says Holley, who has cupboards of vintage and contemporary Fiesta ware.
A colorful world
This is the world of Fiesta ware, the collectible, iconic American dishware introduced by Homer Laughlin China Co. in 1936 as an affordable, colorful set of mix-and-match dishes for middle-class housewives.
On the brink of its 75th anniversary and despite a deep recession, Fiesta ware saw record sales last year, the manufacturer says. Collectors travel to an annual convention where the fate of old colors and the possibility of new ones are debated.
The sturdy dishware that prompts collectors to scour estate sales, rummage sales and eBay for the rare and sublime has even spawned a play, "American Fiesta."
The Renaissance Theaterworks production, which stars John McGivern and opened recently in Milwaukee, follows a collector named Steven and his quest for a vintage piece of Fiesta ware -- at the same time dealing with his parents' disapproval of his same-sex marriage.
Steven Tomlinson's play gives a vivid glimpse into the mind of a fervent Fiesta fan: "Its graceful curves, its distinctive rings, ripple across your memory: dewy tomato slices on a green platter, scrambled eggs steaming on cobalt. Steppingstones across the great gulf that separates you from what America was. And suddenly you're back at your grandmother's table -- safe and warm and well fed."
"I don't collect Fiesta ware -- not yet," McGivern says. But he's come to understand the attraction.
"The find, the transaction, the arrival and then the perfect place to display. It's about knowing it's out there, and finding it," he says. "It's about the hunt."
There are plenty of collectors willing to chat about the wonderful world of Fiesta, in all its glorious colors, and the powerful memories it conjures.
Dedicated to dishes
Consider Fred Mutchler of St. Louis Park, Minn., who built an 800-square-foot addition to his Minneapolis-area home to accommodate the Homer Laughlin dishes he and his wife collect, much of it Fiesta. He figures they have 1,500-1,800 pieces of Fiesta.
"It's literally in every room, including the bathroom, the kids' bedrooms," says Mutchler, who helped found the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, which has 1,100 members, most of them Fiesta collectors.
Mutchler is drawn to Fiesta by the work of skilled ceramist Frederick H. Rhead, who designed the original Fiesta dishes in 1936.
"To design a (mass) production piece that emulates that hand-thrown quality, with the concentric rings -- that has a great appeal to me," Mutchler says. "And the colors of the vintage Fiesta are literally just a tribute to the colors of the day."
And consider Holley, whose Racine, Wis., home has a seasonally rotating lineup of Fiesta ware. How much does she have?
"It would frighten me if I counted," she says. "It's probably over 1,000 pieces. I have cupboards full."
She explains the draw: "It's everyday art. I open my cupboard, and there are happy colors looking at me. The shapes are sculptural. It's like my very own museum display. My loaded dishwasher even looks good."
Holley's passion was sparked in 1992, when a friend inherited her grandmother's vintage dishes.
"She would throw dinner parties with these beautiful dishes that had been her grandmother's," Holley says. "I was intrigued that she had these dishes that survived all these years."
The 'dish sisters'
Holley is a frequent contributor to The Dish, a quarterly publication of the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, and a regular at the HLCCA annual convention. Through collecting, she's met dear friends, whom she calls her "dish sisters."
"Fiesta's really impacted my life -- the circle of friends it's opened me up to," she says. "My avatar online is 'Live every day with color.' That's my attitude, and it becomes your lifestyle. I'm not going through life beige."
Since its introduction, Fiesta has come out in 41 hues that have tantalized collectors. Which color is Holley's favorite? "Oooh. That's like asking which of your kids is your favorite," she says. "I really love the chartreuse."
Fiesta introduces a new color each year and retires old ones that aren't selling well. The new color is paprika, a deep orange-red. Evergreen and cinnabar were retired. "The collectors have lobbied for some time for a hot pink," Holley says. "We want a fuchsia."
Fiesta prices have flattened slightly since so much is available on the Web. "If you want to build a collection overnight, it's pretty easy to do," says Mutchler, who began collecting before he was married.
They may be prized collectibles today, but Fiesta ware is solidly rooted in middle-class America, a big part of the appeal for collectors.
"All of it was under $1 (per piece) when it first came out, with a few exceptions," Mutchler says. "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."