The wonderful world of Pyrex
Oct 18, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
The simple things in life often bring the most joy – cuddles with pups after a busy day at work, getting a close parking spot at Target, eating a perfectly ripe peach, and the happy colors and patterns of vintage Pyrex. When I was helping my grandma clean out her kitchen, she gifted me with a beautiful set of brightly colored Pyrex. They have become a staple in my day-to-day routine and their cheery colors brighten my day. Let’s explore the wonderful world of Pyrex and find out more about this beloved (and collectible) brand.
Pyrex’s origin story is a familiar one for us vintage enthusiasts – a happy mixture of fate and circumstance. In 1914 one of the physicists at Corning Glass Works was working diligently on the company’s project for railroad lanterns. His formula was focused on temperature resistance and his wife Bessie decided he should think outside the box. She was tired of her casserole dishes breaking in the oven – why couldn’t they re-purpose this fancy temperature-friendly glass for kitchen use? Her devoted husband modified one of the battery jars, she made a cake in it, and Corning pivoted their business plan to Pyrex (the name is inspired by the idea of fire glass). This new brand created a fundamental shift for consumers. Glass became part of the new age of exciting materials on the market.
Pyrex’s early offerings included casserole dishes, pie plates, loaf pans, and even engraved dishes. Ten years after Pyrex launched they introduced their first measuring cup. As much as we think of it today as a sensation, consumers weren’t quite as quick to catch on to this brand-new invention. New technology can be a bit expensive when first developed, before the process can be automated for cost-savings. Beyond being a bit expensive for the average consumer, there was also a matter of timing – it was the 1920s and a lot of households didn’t yet have electricity which allowed Pyrex to shine. From hot to cold – it was the wonder dish that could do it all!
Following the first World War, Corning knew something would have to shift for this new venture to become a success. They took advantage of the fact that women were getting college degrees (like the gals we profiled in our article on intrepid inventors). In the late 1920s they hired a dedicated scientist in a miss Lucy Maltby. Lucy’s vision and management put Pyrex out of left-field and into center stage. She employed an army of product testers and their brainstorming fueled a period of frenzied development for the company. Their tweaks to the engineering department’s designs were so helpful the executives had a saying “What does Lucy think?”
Manufacturing improvements in the 1930s meant Pyrex could finally be cost-effective as well as innovative. With the cost-savings that automated processes brought, anyone could now have Pyrex in their homes. To celebrate their coveted place in America’s kitchens, the company kept pushing the boundaries of glass’ typical capabilities. Their Flameware line was meant for the stovetop. Glass over open flame?! Consumers were initially wary, but that apprehension didn’t last long as the Flameware line was sold for another four decades!
The second World War meant a material and utilities shortage – much more extreme than that faced in WWI – American-made and sourced Pyrex kept the home fires burning, so to speak. Glass’ ability to clean up easier and cook things faster meant less power being used in America’s home, thus supporting the war effort. The nesting design, which saved storage space, also meant they were at home at the front – being used in military kitchens around the world.
Despite the patriotic zeal the brand created, trouble may have been brewing on the horizon. With the popularity of the new wonder-material, plastic, Pyrex stepped up their game, incorporating fun and festive colors. Nobody puts Pyrex in a corner! The shades from the 1950s are particularly popular with enthusiasts (not to mention those quirky patterns!). Next time you get ready to prepare a tasty treat, think about using Pyrex to add a little more joy to your day. Tell me dear reader, what are your favorite colors, patterns, or memories with Pyrex? Share your stories in the comments and keep on baking with glass!