I have an appreciation for things with a story behind them. Way back in the 1930’s at the dawn of the atomic era, some clever chemists at the Homer Laughlin Company found that one could make a uniquely beautiful, orange-colored ceramics glaze from the oxide of a newly understood metal called uranium. Uranium oxides had been used for ceramic glazes since pre-history. In later times it was extracted from pitchblende, a side-product from silver mining, which was predominantly used in glass making to impart green or red colors. But let’s get back again to the chemists at Homer Laughlin. These guys worked out a way to concentrate the uranium oxide from pitchblende to a high enough purity to make plates vividly orange-red colored, and that was cool. They knew uranium was radioactive, but it was not understood at the time that radioactivity was dangerous.
So several thousand families received these lovely Fiestaware sets as gifts for weddings and baby showers. They then proceeded to raise families who would all eat dinner off of these plates, every night. The Homer Laughlin chemists also had not anticipated that the emissions from the uranium oxide would over time degrade the integrity of the glaze, causing it to become more gritty and sandy feeling to the touch. If they ate off of these plates long enough, these families would eventually be eating fine particles of uranium infused glaze with every meal. Untold numbers of people got cancer. I personally met someone who grew up eating off these plates who had Leukemia at the age of 8. Ironically it was World War 2 that halted the sale of these plates as the US government redirected all uranium supplies to the Manhattan Project. In the late 50’s, the Fiesta-red line was reintroduced but now with depleted uranium instead (you know, to be safe). It wasn’t until the late 70’s that industry began to understand that uranium probably should not be paired with dishware and the lines were entirely discontinued.
Of course, that does not mean these ceramics disappeared. As families aged, they often donated their old dishes to local thrift stores or divested them through estate sales. Many of these antique ceramics would find their way into antique stores, and that’s where one of my hobbies began to blossom. There were several imitations of the Fiesta-ware line that were difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Some time ago I bought an old 1950’s era Geiger counter of the kind normally kept in fire and police stations for civil defense after the commies attacked. If in my travels I ever came across an antique store which I had not previously visited, you could be assured I would be there for a visit the following week with my Geiger counter in a knapsack. One experience I had at an antique store across from Eastern Market in DC was representative.
The store was small, very cluttered and poorly organized. Low quality pantings were stacked 6 or 7 deep on the floor in places, old dresses and uniforms were in other places thrown in piles. Antiques shelves lined every wall without any regard to the placement of windows. The shelves were crowded with Hummel figurines, small toys, tchotchkies, souvenirs, junk and of course, glass and dishwares. By now I knew that most antique store owners were vaguely aware that some of the Fiestaware they carried was radioactive, but none that I had encountered ever thought much of it, having never been presented with direct evidence.
“Hello, I’m looking for any red Fiestaware you might have. I heard some of it is radioactive and I think that’s an interesting story.”
“Oh yes sir, very interesting, I think we have some toward the door there, and maybe some more in back, would you like me to get it?”
“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you. I would also like to ask if you mind if I test it.”
“Yes, you see, I have a Geiger counter in my backpack here, I would like to use it to ensure it is the kind I’m after. I understand imitations have been made which are not radioactive.”
At this point the reactions were universally similar. They would smile with mild amusement and curiosity when I took off my knapsack and produced my scary Geiger counter, looking like something directly out of a Godzilla movie. I once was asked to sell my counter, itself an antique.
I went about my business scanning things in the store but with the counter speaker off so that I could be alone in my awareness of what was and wasn’t radioactive by the dial pinging off the red Fiestaware. Regardless of sticker price, I gathered all the highest quality items in the store, by intensity of radioactive emissions and by aesthetic appeal, and brought them to the front counter. At this store the proprietors were a classily-dressed middle-aged woman who fit in well with that part of the rapidly gentrifying Eastern Market neighborhood of Capitol Hill and a younger guy, dressed in work clothes who was obviously there to do all the heavy lifting of antique furniture. After having watched me for a while and hearing nothing of concern, they still had an amused expression but now tinged with a certain smugness – all part of my plan.
I waited until they were about half done tallying the total before I placed the counter next to my haul with the speaker still off and asked, “So, would you like to know what I’ve found?”
“Nothing that will turn us into little green monsters I hope, ha ha”
“I”m not so sure.”
I switched the speaker on.
The tell-tale screeching of high-frequency clicks all running together in a steady stream that speaks of high-tech danger is a sound I will always cherish for its ability to transform those half-smug expressions to ones of pure, shocked alarm. I made sure to keep my eyes fixed on their face, as this was where my amusement began, at the expense of theirs ending. The ovals of the older woman’s eyes did not relax too much before she managed to compose herself enough to finish the tally.
“Uh, that will be 170 dollars… are we safe standing here in front of these?”
“Sure, so long as you wash your hands after you are done touching them. I wouldn’t suggest keeping these under your pillow either.”
I took my wallet out as she turned to the younger fellow, “How long have we had these here?”
“I don’t know, they were all here when I started six years ago”.
It was time to execute the last part of my plan, “Oh shoot, I forgot to go to the cash machine, I only have 40 bucks on me, I guess I’ll have to put some of these back”
“Oh, uh, you know what? That’s fine sir, we’ll let you have it all for 40. Would you mind using that machine of yours to scan the rest of our stuff which you think might be radioactive? We’ll let you take that too for no extra charge if you like.”
“Oh I couldn’t, that’s too generous of you.”
“Don’t think anything of it, we’re a community store. I’m sure they will be better with you than with us.”
And that’s the story of how I relieve antique stores of all their radioactive dishware at steep discounts so I can add to my odd collection. These days I just keep most of them in a box in the garage until my daughter gets a little older and I can feel confident she won’t be compelled to touch them. If you come over for a dinner party and ask nicely, I might take them out and let you give them a scan with the counter for fun.