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How Pyrex Transformed Every Kitchen Into a Home-Ec Lab

What’s not to love about Pyrex? The cookware is tough, versatile, easy-to-clean, and you can see through it! Pyrex cookware turns 100 years old this year. And Corning didn’t even invent Pyrex to cook in; tempered glass was developed for industrial uses, such as railroad lamps.  

“The story is that Dr. Jesse Littleton was discussing it over dinner with a colleague and with his wife, Bessie, who suggested that maybe this glass could be used for bakeware,” says Brumagen. “One of Bessie’s earthenware casserole dishes had just shattered in the oven, and she was annoyed because it was only the second time she had used it. So Dr. Littleton brought a sawed-off piece of a Nonex battery jar and Bessie made sponge cake in it. She ended up making custards in lamp chimneys and lots of other things to test them out for the company.”

Bessie’s experiments revealed that the borosilicate glassware heated quickly and evenly, its transparency made it easier to monitor the progress of a dish while baking, and it was easy to clean. The company soon created a new division focused on consumer products and launched its Pyrex line with 12 clear ovenware dishes in 1915. “It was a challenge to convince people to use Pyrex,” says Brumagen. “All the early ads say things like, ‘Yes, you can cook in it!’ or ‘Bake in glass!’ It was just a foreign concept to consumers, so Corning had to do some persuading.” In its early Pyrex marketing, the company purposefully used the jarring imagery of open flames visible through the clear glass to convey the potential of its new products.

The brand’s scientific-sounding name was chosen to fit with the company’s industrial lines, as several already ended in “ex.” “When they developed the Pyrex formula, the first dish they made was a pie plate,” says Brumagen. “I think it was Dr. Sullivan who wanted to call it ‘Pierite’ but was eventually overruled, and it became Pyrex since that fit with the family of products they already had—and, of course, ‘pyr’ is the prefix meaning ‘fire.’ The first ads had a little tag line underneath in quotations that said ‘fire glass,’ but they dropped that pretty fast.”

It’s hard to put yourself into the shoes of someone encountering a new product 100 years ago, but imagine someone trying to tell you that you could drop a glass dish on the floor without breaking it or even put it in the oven! Corning came up with a novel way to sell Pyrex cookware: employing women to develop products that were actually useful. What a concept! Read the story of Pyrex at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: the Corning Museum of Glass)


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Nearly twenty years ago we went to Edinburgh Museum, which at the time had decade-themed rooms, one of which (50s, I think) had white pyrex cookware with red roses on. We both said "Oooh, we had them!" The first instance of seeing something we grew up with in a museum. As the years have passed, we've had it happen a lot more often.
Best place for it is the Land of Lost Content http://www.lolc.org.uk/ which collects the sort of things that don't get kept in museums. You can lose yourself for a whole day just remembering things. It's not far from us - must go again.
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At least we in Europe still get proper borosilicate glassware. Pyrex brand in the US is no longer proper heat-resistant glass, as a number of customers have found out to their cost. It's toughened - but not properly heat-resisting in the way it used to be, and the way the european brand is.
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