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It Was Gnome Surprise...

By May 21, 2010

Last night I was watching the TV show Bones with my adult nephew and sister. How wonderful it was! As Dr. Hodgins reveals that the site of some stolen article contained vitrified clay, some other stuff, and uranium 235, my nephew Wayne said, "It was a gnome!" At the same moment, I cried, "It was Fiestaware!"

My sister looked from one to the other of us as, yes indeed, we both were correct. The item in question was...wait for it...a rare, radioactive Fiestaware gnome.

FiestaŽ, also known as Fiestaware, was (and is again) created by the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia. The early Fiestaware used uranium as a ceramic colorant in the glazes, as did many other ceramic companies at the time. Uranium is best known (among potters) for its yellows, but can also be used to create reds, oranges, and browns. Such early Fiestaware is very collectible.

For those who may wonder if that gnome would really have been radioactive.... Yes. Uranium remains radioactive after firing, and since the glaze may contain up to 15% uranium by weight, the corresponding levels of radioactivity can also be significantly above baseline. Yet another good reason to know your pottery poisons!


May 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm
(1) Mick says:

Would the radiation really be enough to kill those bugs?

May 25, 2010 at 6:49 am
(2) PotterBeth says:

Ah!….But it wasn’t that it killed adult silverfish. Rather, it was enough radiation to render the eggs infertile. And from what I’ve been reading about the subject, some radioactive pottery *could* be potent enough to cause that effect. Especially because they were in long-term, continual contact directly next to the source.

Of course, I haven’t read anything specifically about rendering silverfish eggs infertile…. Maybe we should send it to the “Mythbusters” show! Mhahahaha! ;)

May 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm
(3) mari says:

IS there really a christmas gnome from fiestaware?? or was that made up by the writers?

May 31, 2010 at 10:45 am
(4) PotterBeth says:

Well, *I* haven’t been able to locate any info on whether or not the Homer Laughlin China Company made gnomes, or any other purely ornamental items. The closest seems to be their candlesticks, but even they have a function.

Please! Can anyone help answer this burning question?? My own curiosity is itchy as all get out. ;)

August 5, 2010 at 9:34 am
(5) RDW says:

Homer Laughlin did not make a Fiesta gnome.
-Source HLC

August 5, 2010 at 3:32 pm
(6) PotterBeth says:

Thanks, RDW! I thought that must have been “writer’s license” since I hadn’t been able to find anything out about it, but it’s good to know for certain! :D

September 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm
(7) Chris C says:

The radiation emmitted from fiestaware or even pure uranium 238 Metal is insufficient to kill silverfish eggs or anything for that matter. If it where radioactive enough to kill silverfish eggs it would glow blue and kill anyone who came in contact with it! The uranium glaze was just used to color the plate. As for the safety of uranium glaze fiestaware or pottery one can eat off of it without taking any risk of radiation or chemical poisoning. It is recommended that one does not eat acidic foods off of the Uranium glazed plates to avoid ingesting uranium compounds that may leach off of it. It is also recommended not to use uranium glazed plates if the glaze is flaking or chipping. Uranium oxides and uranium by themselves are no more toxic than lead. Enjoy radioactive Fiestaware plates and don’t worry.

September 6, 2010 at 8:45 am
(8) PotterBeth says:

Thanks, Chris C! Although I do have to say…I wouldn’t eat or drink off a lead-glazed piece, either. Of course, using red or white lead oxides is much more dangerous for the potter than the user of their ware, but there *is* leaching.

As you mentioned, this is most prevalent with acidic foods, but will still occur is other circumstances as well — including lead, barium, and other toxic elements leaching into potting soil and being drawn up into edible fruits (e.g. tomatoes).

As a potter, I don’t want to take those chances with those who use my pots.

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