Why Pyrex Matters: A Protofeminist Prototype

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Open your cabinets and fridge. Take a look. I bet you Pyrex glassware—or, more accurately, low-thermal-expansion borosilicate glass—is everywhere. It’s holding your leftovers and measuring your stock. In the winter, it’s providing convenient, consistent convection for your casseroles. Its little glass custard cups hold your snacks. It’s functional, stackable and smart; these days, Pyrex is like a sensible pair of shoes. (Let’s be honest—no self-respecting kitchen really needs the flash and danger of cooking in high heels.) Environmentally friendly ahead of its time, it’s all glass, with no pesky estrogenic compounds to leach out of it, as with plastic. Contemporary Pyrex is a utilitarian workhorse, an inoffensive add to the average kitchen that’s unlikely to disrupt anyone’s color palette.

Perhaps the glassware’s ubiquitous, automatic presence is why interest in the brand’s patterned opalware—you know, the opaque refrigerator dishes, bakeware, mixing bowls and casserole dishes loaded with colorful patterns—have seen a cult-like revival. These products elevated to the epitome of kitsch cool, collectors scour Etsy or Ebay from sellers specializing in vintage kitchenware, or well-stocked antique stores with extensive mid-century collections. Of course, Corning, the company that created Pyrex, didn’t set out to build an icon with any of these products. It was just trying to make the domestic duties of modern American women easier and more convenient. Form follows function—that old adage.

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Pyrex is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, complete with a special exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. What was born out of scientific experimentation has turned into an instantly identifiable brand known the world over.

Pyrex became possible thanks to the development of those famous railroad lantern globes, marketed in 1909 as Nonex or CNX (Corning Non-Expansion), and designed to resist heat and frequent breakage. As the story goes, a few years later, Bessie Littleton, the enterprising wife of Corning scientist Jesse T. Littleton, baked a sponge cake in a sawed-off Nonex battery jar. The results indicated what those of us who rely on Pyrex glassware already know: a short bake time with uniform, consistent results—and a visible vessel for monitoring the cake’s progress, a distinct advantage over metal pans and tins.

With this bit of serendipity, Corning launched the brand as Pyrex in 1915 with a line of a dozen glass ovenware dishes. The brand name has several possible origins according to Regan Brumagen, a co-curator of the exhibit at the Corning Museum. “The most widely accepted version is that Corning scientist William Churchill came up with the name Py-Right, because the first dish produced was a pie plate and ‘pyr’ (Greek for fire); however, there was a tradition of naming glasses at Corning with the “ex” and so others in the company lobbied to change the name to Pyrex, leaving in the play on pie and the thermal resistant properties of the glass (Pyre).” By 1919, more than 4 million pieces of Pyrex had been sold to consumers and its product line had grown to 100 different pieces.

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The synergy with contemporary American culture catapulted Pyrex items into nearly every woman’s kitchen. Home economics was just starting to emerge as a profession, and with savvy Pyrex began to expand and study its market in earnest by partnering with home economists at Ladies Home Journal and the Good Housekeeping Institute—garnering those endorsements created trust in its readers and tapped into a large, engaged audience. In 1929, Pyrex hired home economist Dr. Lucy Maltby to head up the consumer affairs division. They also created a test kitchen and produced cookbooks for dishes that look comically unappetizing to the modern eye, such as a “rave” fondue with four eggs and macaroni, and a hot potato salad with ½ cup bacon fat. “Lucy Maltby was a big proponent of using recipes to entice customers to purchase more Pyrex,” says Brumagen.

What’s most intriguing though, is the canny way Corning appealed, over and over, to the needs and concerns of women—and the way in which they consistently launched Pyrex products around wedding season, Mother’s Day, and the holidays. (Some Australian ads even included young girls in them, helping mom or doing the cooking themselves.) There were so many women involved in its genesis—from product testing to design, marketing and sales—and those women knew how to market to themselves. You simply can’t separate women from the success of Pyrex; they’ve been an integral part of the narrative since its inception, even, remarkably, on the product development side. Early ads featured an image of a Corning physicist named Evelyn Roberts, circa 1917-18, pouring boiling water over an ice-covered Pyrex dish, demonstrating its structural integrity. (She and Jesse Littleton even co-authored a scientific paper about working with heat and glass, published in 1920.) Across the board, Corning’s ability to canvass and corral women to improve, use, promote and sell Pyrex products—with huge success—is protofeminism incarnate. It’s also an early example of crowdsourcing.

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The Corning Museum launched a specific site in conjunction with this exhibit, which includes a pattern library of its popular opalware, a tempered soda-lime glass. In 1936, Corning had merged with the MacBeth-Evans company, which had a factory in Charleroi, Pennsylvania and had been making opal tableware. Corning then developed a stronger, more durable version, produced under the Pyrex brand, which was first contracted for use in military mess halls. Shortly thereafter, Pyrex launched a consumer line of opalware in 1945, which was thinner and more of a pure white, starting with nesting mixing bowls in primary colors. The rest, as they say, is history.

Scrolling through the offerings demonstrates a snapshot of the shifts in design history over time. The first pattern, according to Brumagen, could be considered Desert Dawn, which has a speckled look. The 1950s and early 60s look like a transition from happy homemaker conventional conservatism (flowers, farm imagery) and by the mid-to late 1960s, stripes, simple patterns and dots show up. Once the ’70s hit, it’s all earthtones, all the time: the Pyrex colors of my childhood kitchen. Opalware was produced until 1986, most likely because Corningware (made from Pyroceream, a glass-ceramic) had usurped it in popularity. (Want to dive into this more deeply? For more esoteric, hard-to-find opalware, check out Hot for Pyrex; for standard, promotional and specialty patterns, check out Pyrex Passion.)

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