How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenware

This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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Vintage Fire-King dinnerware is a prime example of antique glass that is affordable and usable. It is complementary when paired with more contemporary dinnerware patterns; vintage glass can easily be found in any number of styles from simple Restaurant Ware in plain, opaque white to fancy florals and bright geometric kitchenware. However, as the glass collecting market grows, fake Fire-King pieces are a cause for concern

Anchor Hocking Glass Corp. of Lancaster, Ohio, began producing low-cost, ovenproof, borosilicate low-expansion glass dinnerware marked “FIRE-KING” in 1942. Production ran through 1976, creating a plentiful supply of affordable table and oven wares for households all over the country. It could be bought in sets or as single pieces; Fire-King items were often given away as grocery store premiums inside packages of pantry and cleaning supplies.

Collectors often have fond memories of Fire-King from their youth, resulting in growing interest in the marketplace. Buyers are taking advantage of the ability to gather up affordable vintage pieces and using them to reconnect with a bit of the past.

fire-king swedish jadite mixing bowl set How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenwareThe current asking price for this set of four vintage Jade-ite Swedish Modern Tear Drop nesting mixing bowls is $520. Dealer Jay Hisle says a complete set is of Fire-King mixing bowls is rare and very hard to find in this near-mint condition. Jade-ite wares are eagerly sought in Japan. Photo courtesy Grizzly-Wolf-Fire-King.

Fire-King is affordable both because there is a plentiful supply and because it’s durable. It was produced around the clock for decades, so it can easily be found at estate and yard sales, as well as at auctions and online. Dealer Jay Hisle is a 30-plus year veteran of the trade who has been dealing exclusively in Fire-King for the last six years. He launched Grizzly-Wolf Fire-King on RubyLane.com, after he decided to quit eBay. Hisle carries many rare pieces, but has noticed the most interest in Jade-ite and turquoise blue, especially D-handled mugs.

Jade-ite is very popular in Japan because jade is believed to bring good luck, health and prosperity, he said. Hisle does so much business with clients in Japan that his Fire-King descriptions are also listed in Japanese.

“Restaurant Ware is also a really good seller in Jade-ite and white; white is much more valuable because there was a lot less of it made,” he said. Hisle reported instances of selling heavy Restaurant Ware C-handled mugs for $600 apiece, where a set of four mint-condition, C-handled Jade-ite mugs accompanied with their saucers is priced at $150.

A wide variety of advertising pieces, especially mugs, are available in the Fire-King brand. McDonald’s “Good Morning” stacking mugs, originally given away with a specified breakfast purchase in 1976, can be found selling for less than $5 apiece; but a D-handled “Burger Queen” mug will set you back considerably more, perhaps as much as $40 or $50. Mugs advertising many local businesses are plentiful and have been selling in the $5 to $10 range online.

vintage Fire-King iridescent coffee mug railroad Grande How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenwareThe Fire-King Rio Grande Railroad example has a black design on a 3 3/4-inch high Peach Lusterware D-handled mug. The design has the company motto (“Rio Grande the Action Railroad”) on one side and a map of the route through Utah and Colorado on the other. In overall good condition with minor use and wear, the mug sold for $30 when it was offered by Conestoga Auction Company during its Feb. 12, 2011, sale in Manheim, Pa.

Hisle urges caution when buying advertising mugs, because fakes abound. Some people are creating fantasy pieces by scanning in old logos from matchbooks with their computers and having them reprinted on old Fire-King mugs; they are being sold “for hundreds of dollars and buyers are being ripped off,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, but the graphics will be shinier. Older ones had a more matte finish.”

Ron Cantrell has been collecting non-advertising Fire-King mugs for 15 to 20 years. He recalls his earliest interest stems from his father’s favorite coffee mug: a plain ivory D-handled Fire-King mug. From that humble beginning, Cantrell and his family scoured estate sales and flea markets, searched online and ultimately expanded his collection to 560 different non-advertising Fire-King mugs.

Cantrell launched the informational website FireKingMugs.com when he was exploring the possibility of writing his own book on Fire-King mugs. In lieu of a book, Cantrell decided to keep and maintain the website to provide collectors with as much “rock-solid information” as he could about collecting non-advertising Fire-King mugs, including identification and rarity details. His advice to collectors, beginning and advanced alike, is simple.

“Buy the things you like and buy excellent condition.” he said. “Beginners need to collect common, so they can get a feel for it.”

vintage Fire-King Tom and Jerry glassware set How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenwareThis festive red and white Tom and Jerry set from Fire-King sold for $20 during Specialists of the South’s Sept. 24, 2011, auction in Panama City, Fla. The set consists of a milk glass punch bowl and six cups with “Tom and Jerry” and holly designs in red. Marked “Anchor Hocking Fire King Made in USA,” the bowl measures 8 1/2 inches in diameter by 4 1/2 inches high; the cups measure 2 3/4 inches high.

Starting out by pursuing common pieces gives collectors much-needed experience for spotting cracks and flaws in authentic Fire-King, as well as what comes from the factory.

“Then they’ll have better sense for spotting fakes,” he said.

Unfortunately, the growing collector interest in Fire-King has blossomed into the burgeoning market of fakes, reproductions and fantasy pieces. Contemporary productions from Asia and Brazil are abundant in the marketplace; pieces marked “Fire-King Made in Japan” are new.

Buyers should educate themselves on shapes, sizes, patterns and details. Take accurate measurements and compare them to trustworthy references to make sure you have the genuine article. If the measurements don’t match, the piece may be a reproduction.

Authentic mugs have painted designs that are then fired on. Newer fakes and reproductions have a different, “softer” finish. Some of the fakes are even made by placing a super-sticky appliqué on a blank Fire-King mug. One example collectors should be aware of is the Disney Jiminy Cricket mug that is being reproduced with old Fire-King stock. Cantrell warns other Disney mugs are also out there that are just vinyl stick-ons; they don’t come from the factory that way.

Fire-King Snoopy character coffee mug How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenwareFire-King’s Red Baron mug with orange roof in very good condition earned $310 from a Nov. 27, 2011, eBay auction by seller “wisconsin-collectables.” The mug is marked Copyright 1965 United Features Syndicate, Inc.

An example of rare mugs that to Cantrell’s knowledge have not been reproduced and are still safe for collectors are children’s “ABC” mugs; however, they are very hard to find and usually sell in the $400 to $500 range.

Cantrell has sold off most of his collection, keeping only 20 to 30 of the rarest examples, including a yellow-glass Philbe pattern mug that is extremely rare and one he suspects may be a “whimsy” piece. There are only one or two known to exist, and he turned down an offer of $500.

“The Internet has changed the whole environment of collecting. Anything you want is a click away. It didn’t make sense to maintain a large collection,” Cantrell said.

There are millions of pieces of Fire-King out there, so condition is key when collecting. It’s important to check each piece of opaque glass very carefully, because cracks and flaws are not as easy to spot as on clear glassware; try running your thumbnail around all edges to feel for chips and flea bites. Hisle advises if you are buying over the telephone or Internet, ask the seller as many questions about the condition as possible.

“A chipped mug, for example, nearly kills the value entirely, and you’d only want one chipped if it is both rare and needed to start or complete a set,” he said.

Manufacturing flaws, such as minor roughness around mold lines, mold marks, dark specks found under the glaze and ripples, are common and shouldn’t affect the value, Hisle said.

“Fire-King glassware at its best was an imperfect glassware,” he said.

How to care for vintage Fire-King glass

vintage Fire-King turquoise blue bowls How to collect vintage Fire-King coffee mugs, bowls and kitchenwareThis set of five turquoise blue 6 5/8-inch Fire-King soup bowls in mint condition went to a new owner for $125 after eBay seller Tomkat Collectibles’ listing ended Sept. 27, 2011. Tomkat specializes in selling Depression glass, elegant glass, Fire-King, Pyrex, pottery and dinnerware.

Experts and collectors alike say Fire-King is still a great product — if its used properly.

“It was used in cafeterias, army bases and churches — if it’s hand washed and well taken care of, you’ll still get many years of use out of it,” Fire-King expert Jay Hisle says.

Fire-King should never be washed in an automatic dishwasher. Over time, the harsh detergent and high water temperature will “micro-etch” the glass, making it appear cloudy and ruining the finish. It may also strip off any applied decoration.

Whether Fire-King is microwave safe is debatable. Since much of it was produced before development of the microwave oven, it is not marked as ‘microwave save.” Hisle advises against microwave use.

“They used a lot of different chemicals that aren’t being used in this day and age; you don’t know how they will react in a microwave,” he said. But it’s up to the user. If the design includes metallic details, such as the Swirl pattern with 22-karat gold trim, then it absolutely isn’t microwave safe.

Be careful how you handle old Fire-King. According to Anchor Hocking, for the last 30 years manufacturers used soda-lime silicate to produce tempered, heat-safe glass. Both borosilicate and soda-lime silicate glass are durable and safe in conventional ovens; however, when borosilicate glass breaks, it breaks into larger, very sharp shards, while soda-lime-silicate glass, as manufactured by Anchor Hocking today, breaks into smaller, less sharp, and therefore less dangerous pieces.

Vintage Fire-King books and websites:

Karen L. Knapstein is Print Editor for Antique Trader. A lifelong collector and student of antiques, she lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Faye.

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