Radioactive Red

In the 1930s, a certain brand of dinnerware was all the rage — Fiesta ware. Unlike most dishes, which were mostly white, Fiesta’s came in a variety of colors — blue, ivory, green, yellow, and the orangeish-red seen above.  The popularity of these dishes was beyond comparison, with Fiesta being able to include famed artist Andy Warhol among its legions of fans.  And it was also difficult to copy.  Fiesta’s red and, to a lesser extent, ivory dinnerware required a special, expensive ingredient in order to make the colored glaze.

That ingredient? Uranium.  Fiesta ware was radioactive.

And of course, the presence of uranium led its manufacturer, the Homer Laughlin China Company, to eventually pull it off the shelves.  No, not for health reasons — that is still debatable — but for national security ones.  In 1944, the United States, under the Manhattan Project, was trying to develop an atomic bomb, and needed uranium.   The government seized any and all uranium it could find, including that owned by Homer Laughlin.  The company pulled the red offering from its product line that year.

In 1959, the red Fiesta ware made a comeback, this time using depleted uranium instead of natural uranium, the former being much less radioactive. As for the vintage, much more radioactive stuff, it may be okay to keep as a collectible, but the EPA lists it as emitting “elevated levels” of radiation — so collector (and certainly, everyday-meal-user) beware.

Bonus fact: Red M&Ms aren’t radioactive — but they, too, have a story.  In 1976, the popular red food coloring amaranth was pulled from shelves due to fears of it being carcinogenic.  While red M&Ms did not use amaranth, Mars, Inc. nevertheless removed red M&Ms from the packaging to avoid confusion and fear.  In 1987, red came back, using a coloring called Allura Red AC, which may cause hyperactive behavior in younger children.  (On the whole, however, this conclusion seems somewhat alarmist.)  Because of this, in some areas — most notably, parts of Europe — red M&Ms are colored with cochineal dye.  Cochineal dye is produced by a certain type of insect (the cochineal, from where the dye’s name comes), and to extract it, the insect is reduced to a powder and boiled.

From the Archives: Gone Bananas: More radioactive stuff in your kitchen, as noted in the bonus fact.

RelatedTen pounds of red M&Ms.  At $90 and change, it seems like a bad deal.  (One can get over 15 pounds of regularly packaged M&Ms for about $63, although getting the red ones only would require a lot of waste and a lot of sorting.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.