A simple science experiment evolved into a range of cookware that’s all glass, writes Chris Pearson.
When Jesse Littleton, a young physics professor, and his wife, Bessie, moved to Corning, New York, in 1913, they had no idea they would cook up a revolution in bakeware. Jesse had been employed by the Corning Glass Works to explore uses for Nonex, a heat-resistant non-expanding borosilicate glass, which until then had been used for industrial battery jars and railway lanterns.
In a lightbulb moment, Jesse sawed off the base of a battery jar and urged Bessie to bake a cake in it. A simple sponge emerged steaming from the oven and, after a little tweaking in both lab and test kitchen,
12 items of glass bakeware, including casseroles, dishes and pie plates, rolled off the production line in 1915.
The newcomer’s virtues were literally transparent. Not only was it tough and heat-resistant, it didn’t discolour, it didn’t taint the food, it produced uniform heat and, as it was see-through, you could see your dinner sizzling tantalisingly in the oven.
Originally called Pyright (from the Greek pyr, meaning fire), the bakeware was renamed Pyrex as all the company’s
products ended in ‘ex’. Sales sizzled.
By 1919, four million pieces, across 100 product lines, had been sold in the US.
Pyrex was breaking new ground in another way too. In an era when women were generally behind the hotplate, the company actively engaged them in marketing, sales, testing and product development.
Capitalising on a trend towards oven-totable convenience, from 1945, Pyrex launched white opalware, a tempered soda-lime glass. The new ranges were beguilingly translucent and provided opportunities for decoration to complement kitchens and dining tables. Marketing targeted style-conscious housewives. Accordingly, the patterns reflected the times – 1950s bucolic flowers and farmyards in muted hues yielded to bold, colourful geometrics in the 1960s, while earthy tones teamed with stylised motifs appeared in the 1970s.
Opalware continued until the late 1980s, when the company fired up production on CorningWare, made from an even tougher glass-ceramic, Pyroceram, used for bakeware from the 1960s. A spin-off of Corning, Corelle Brands, acquired both Pyrex and CorningWare in 1998. From 1926, Crown Crystal Glass produced clear Pyrex in Australia, while also importing clear and opal Pyrex from the UK and the US.
From 1961, it introduced its own opalware, including the collectible Flannel Flowers, Black Rose and Golden Pine ranges. Crown Crystal Glass underwent several name changes, such as Crown Pyrex, resulting in different backstamps – which can perplex the
WHAT IT MEANS TO US
Pyrex lives on in the clear glass bakeware available from both supermarkets and specialty stores. And flamboyant opalware still remains highly desirable. Just ask Stan Savellis of website That Retro Piece and author of Dots and Diamonds, both of which trace the contribution of many countries, including Australia and New Zealand, to the archive.
Stan began collecting Pyrex in 2010; today, he has 3000 pieces, the most prized being a Lucky in Love casserole, a test item for Pyrex US and one of only a handful in the world. His favourite pattern is Flannel Flowers, he says, “because the flowers are native to Australia and the dishes come in such beautiful vibrant colours – yellow, turquoise and pink”. Why the passion for Pyrex? “I love the colours and patterns, but there’s a nostalgic element too,” he says. “I remember Mum serving family dinners in a dish featuring Pyrex
UK’s Chelsea pattern in the 1970s. She still uses that dish today.”
FROM TOP A 1950s advertisement shows Pyrex’s clear and colourful ranges. Flannel Flowers casseroles, c. 1960s. A Carnival casserole dish brings vibrant colour to the kitchen. Stan Savellis’ book, Dots and Diamonds.