While we do love our fair city of Pittsburgh, we also love the fact that it’s just a short drive away from a lot of cool things that aren’t *quite* Pittsburgh. One of those things is the little town of Newell, WV, which is home to the final remaining large-scale pottery factory in the entire country, the Homer Laughlin China Company (better known to most as the makers of Fiestaware).
I first fell in love with Fiestaware back in 2011 during one of our theme drinking nights in which we also watched 2 Rick Sebak documentaries. (Rick Sebak, for you non-Yinzers, is the voice of Pittsburgh and does all the fabulous local programs we love to watch over and over.) The Fiestaware factory was featured in the documentary Things That Are Still Here (a follow-up to the nostalgia-inducing programs Stuff That’s Gone and Things that Aren’t There Anymore).
I’d never paid much attention to Fiestaware prior to watching that program, but once we learned about it, I started seeing it everywhere. It’s recognizable largely for its ultra-bright colors, but also for some of the line’s signature shapes, particularly in the mugs and pitchers.
The factory is Newell’s claim to fame. There’s also an outlet store, and it’s home to the famous tent sales (which is actually what the Rick Sebak documentary focused on: people who get to WV at 4am to get in line for soon-to-be-discontinued lines of Fiestaware).
So, some pretty cool stuff being made down in WV, and what’s even better? Tours of the factory are free!! You just have to schedule them ahead of time (2 tours daily, Monday through Friday, at 10:30am or 12:30pm) by calling.
The factory is about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. While you can tour year-round, they did mention that some tours are canceled in the summer due to extreme heat. I recommend going in the colder weather if you can, because I can’t imagine how hot that place must get in the summer! The tour takes about an hour and involves a decent amount of walking so you can see the whole factory.
There are no photos allowed on the tour (because you’re touring a functioning factory, makes sense), but you are permitted to take pictures in the museum at the end of the tour, as well as in the shop, so those are the photos we’ll be displaying in the rest of the post.
Fiestaware is part of the larger company, the Homer Laughlin China Co. They do a number of different lines (which you can view online at their catalog), but Fiesta is definitely the most famous, and it’s one of the most collected china sets in the entire world.
The tour takes you through all of the steps of the ware-making process. You get to see the giant kilns being used, the robotic technology that’s employed to move the ware along through its journey from clay to ware, and the automated machinery that creates the base of many of the products.
But what was most fascinating to me was seeing the hands-on nature of Fiestaware. Each piece truly has handcrafting as part of its journey. People do quality control, affix handles, hand-paint plates, apply silk-screen to mugs, and finish rough edges, to name just a few tasks. There are about 1000 employees at the factory and the majority of them are union workers from the glass, molders, & pottery union.
And apparently, it’s a pretty great company to work for. Many of the workers we met on the tour had been there for decades, and they were all super nice about answering questions and explaining each step of the ware-making process.
In addition to making their general ware that is sold at retail stores, HLCC does a ton of custom orders for restaurants, hotels, universities, the military, and political organizations. Many of these custom items are on display in their museum, like these plates that were made for hotels in Las Vegas.
Their most coveted discontinued lines are on display in this glass case in the museum. The lilac plates on the bottom right are the most rare collectors’ items, and some pieces have sold on eBay for as much as $1000. However, our tour guide Sheila explained that people often don’t know the value in certain types of ware, and you can find rare pieces for dirt cheap at flea markets and yard sales sometimes. (So there’s your tip, if you’re looking to play the Antiques Road Show home edition!)
I was on the hunt for a particular style of plate, inspired by my favorite Pittsburgh wine bar, the Allegheny Wine Mixer, which uses Fiestaware dishes as their bread plates.
And lucky me – they had one last set of this style of dish in stock!! (In a color that’s being discontinued no less, so I feel kind of like a Fiestaware collector now.) I also had to get a set of these super cute heart-shaped bowls so that I can serve up some aesthetically-pleasing Valentine’s Day treats.
If I was a fan of Fiestaware before the factory tour, I’m even more so one now. I loved the way they keep production local, and I loved the way that there’s always an actual person doing the final checks (and often much more) on the ware. And I also loved how unique everything is – I could look through their custom designs all day! If you’re looking for a fun (and free!) way to spend a morning, we highly recommend taking the trip down to Newell to tour the factory. Maybe next year we’ll make it to one of the tent sales and report back on that as well!