The story of how the kitchenware brand Pyrex first entered America’s kitchens reads like a tall tale. The saga began in 1913 when Corning scientists were investigating new applications for the heavy-duty glass that was originally used for railroad lanterns.
In 1914, Bessie Littleton, the wife of a Corning scientist, took a battery jar made from Nonex—what Corning called its temperature-resistant borosilicate glass—and used it to bake a sponge cake. She marveled at how the cooking time was shorter compared to conventional cookware (which would’ve been metal or ceramic) and how the glass allowed her to monitor how the cake was doing on all sides.
“Corning has a long history of retooling things and moving them into different areas,” says Regan Brumagen, the co-curator of America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, an exhibition on view at the Corning Museum of Glass until March 17, 2016. Through personal narratives, over 300 objects, and vintage marketing materials, the show demonstrates how the brand made multi-purpose cookware that performed fantastically in a variety of circumstances, shaped the modern kitchen, and looked darn good in the process.
Corning tweaked and refined the material, and in 1915, the company launched the inaugural 12-piece line of Pyrex, which consisted of casseroles and baking dishes in assorted sizes.
“It was a hard sell at first since Americans thought cooking in glass was freaky-sounding,” Brumagen says.
When the product hit store shelves, it was well received, but regarded as a luxury object because of cost. To stoke sales, Corning retooled the formula and process to make production more efficient. It also ramped up marketing campaigns that emphasized the unique material properties that caught Betsy Littleton’s eye: that glass heated more quickly and evenly than metal and it was transparent. “You could literally ‘see what’s cooking,'” Brumagen says. “Pyrex also came out right before World War I and during the war metal was in short supply so there was a patriotic drive behind buying the product.”
Corning’s strategies worked and by 1919, the company sold more than 4 million Pyrex cookware items.
Pyrex’s spirit of innovation didn’t stop at material research. In 1929, Lucy Maltby, a home economics professor, joined the company. In 1931 she established a test kitchen that incorporated customer feedback into product development. For example, she advocated for practical modifications to products—like adding handles to cake pans and making cookware shapes that fit into ovens more easily—and basing design on the challenges that real-world home cooks (mostly women at the time) encountered.
The next shift in materials came in the 1940s when Corning introduced opal glass—which was initially used as military mess ware—into the product line. In a move to further boost sales, Corning launched colors into the product line. “It was a response to consumers who said, we love our Pyrex, but we’re bored with clear glass,” Brumagen says.
Pyrex’s durable yet refined materials, striking colors, myriad shapes, and decorative graphics helped to spawn the oven-to-table category of products.
“The most important change that came with Pyrex was the idea of going from the oven to the table, then from the table to the refrigerator, to the freezer,” Brumagen says. “Cookware could be utilitarian, but always beautiful. Making cookware become something you would be proud to present as a hostess was rare.”
Pyrex enjoyed popularity through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but Corning’s next material development was akin to a nail in the coffin for Pyrex. With the introduction of Corning Ware—oven-to-table pieces made from a glass-ceramic material that was more durable than Pyrex—and Corelle—dinnerware made from a glass-laminate—Pyrex became less popular. “Pyrex stopped being as profitable a line and petered out by the 1980s,” Brumagen says. “But who doesn’t still have a Pyrex measuring cup?”
Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a kitchen in the United States without at least one Pyrex product in it. Today, the brand is under license by World Kitchen, who manufactures products under the Pyrex name in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. In the 100 years since Pyrex launched, its products have become wildly collectible, and some are on the second-hand market in the ballpark of $500. Time to start rummaging through Grandma’s cabinets.
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