America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, on view June 6, 2015 through March 17, 2016 celebrates the 100 year anniversary of Pyrex, developed by Corning Glass Works in 1915. Born out of scientific discoveries in glass, and the emerging science of home economics, Pyrex was shaped not only by designers and engineers in Corning, but also by women consumers around the country. America’s favorite dish is showcased in this exhibition through versatile Pyrex-brand dishes on display alongside colorful advertisements, primarily drawn from the collections of The Corning Museum of Glass.
The production of Pyrex began at Corning Glass Works with the development of temperature-resistant borosilicate glass for railroad lantern globes. The new glass was marketed in 1909 as Nonex or CNX (Corning Non-Expansion). A few years later, Corning began to look for other uses for this glass. Bessie Littleton, wife of Jesse T. Littleton, a Corning scientist, baked a sponge cake in a sawed off Nonex battery jar. Her experiment revealed that cooking times were short, baking was uniform, the glass was easy to clean, and, since the glass was clear, the cake in the oven could be monitored–all advantages over metal bakeware. Initially, Corning produced twelve ovenware dishes under the brand name Pyrex, and kicked off a new Corning Glass Works division focused on consumer products.
At the same time Corning introduced Pyrex, home economics was emerging as a profession. Corning Glass Works embraced the idea of using these new domestic professionals to test and promote Pyrex, and hired several home economists, including Sarah Tyson Rorer, an editor at Ladies Home Journal and Mildred Maddocks of the Good Housekeeping Institute. Rorer, in particular, was well-known to American women for her cookbooks, magazine columns, and her role in establishing the Philadelphia Cooking School. Rorer’s cooking demonstrations at department stores around the country helped boost name recognition of Pyrex. By 1919, Corning had sold over 4 million pieces of Pyrex to consumers across America from a line that included 100 dish shapes and sizes.
After its initial success in the mid-1920s, sales of Pyrex began to plummet. In response, Corning asked the J. Walter Thompson Company, a pioneer in modern magazine advertising, to help them understand the problem. J. Walter Thompson identified several reasons why Pyrex sales were in decline. Primary among them were inefficient production processes that led to high retail prices and a marketing strategy that missed the target with potential customers. After 1929, with the help of Harvard Business School professor Melvin Copeland, Corning Glass Works began to act on these findings. A new manufacturing process automated the production of Pyrex dishes by machine-pressing glass into molds. Before this, glassblowers made Pyrex by blowing bubbles of glass, one by one, into dish shaped molds. The new automated process lowered Pyrex production costs.
That same year, Corning hired a full-time home economist and scientist to improve customer relations. Lucy Maltby was a Corning native and a home economics professor from Mansfield State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania. Her primary mission was to manage the company's new consumer services office that responded to consumer complaints and suggestions. Two years later Maltby established a test kitchen at Corning Glass Works to evaluate new products before they were put on the market, guiding the company from responding to customer feedback to proactively designing products with customers in mind. The Test Kitchen evaluated the design of products, assessed consumer reviews, suggested new design innovations, and as a result, sold more Pyrex.
By 1936, just when the borosilicate glass patent used in bakeware was due to expire, Corning Glass Works released a new type of glass under the Pyrex brand name: FLAMEWARE, an aluminosilicate glass that could be used on the stove top. FLAMEWARE boasted many of the same virtues as Pyrex bakeware, such as cleanliness, cooking efficiency, and the ability to cook, serve and store in the same dish, and was marketed in the same advertisements as Pyrex. The FLAMEWARE line included saucepans, frying pans, teapots, and coffee percolators.
Also in 1936, Corning Glass Works merged with MacBeth Evans Glass Company in Charleroi, PA, producers of an opal-glass tableware. Corning utilized the manufacturing equipment in Charleroi, to produce tempered soda lime opal glass, first used for military mess ware in the 1940s. One of the first products made for the public with this new Pyrex opal glass were a set of nested mixing bowls. The exterior of each bowl was enameled with a different solid color; red, green, blue, or yellow. The enameled surface was a perfect canvas for patterned decorations, applied by silk screen. Between 1956 and 1987, Corning Glass Works released over 150 different patterns on Pyrex opal ware.
Pyrex advertisements, when analyzed decade by decade, reflect Corning Glass Works' responses to American society’s changing social values and tastes. The advertisements of the 1920s evoke a sense of romance through richly colored illustrations of fairy tales and well-dressed women serving formal dinners and having tea. The ads from the 1930s, in a more muted color palette of red, white and black, reflect practical sensibilities by addressing Pyrex's virtues of cleanliness, efficiency, and lower costs. The 1940s Pyrex ads express ideas of patriotism due to World War II. The 1950s advertisements reflect conservative values and emphasize being the best cook and a gracious hostess. In the 1960s, references to international and space travel were seen as the space race heated up and global travel became more commonplace. Although Pyrex advertising began to wane by the 1970s, ads feature collective values of creativity and nostalgia. And the 1980s Pyrex advertisements appealed to busy working families by showcasing microwave safe products.
Pyrex was the first brand name manufactured by Corning’s Consumer Products Division. But there were several other brands and types of glass produced by this division over the last century. Primary among these were Corning Ware, a Pyroceram product; Corelle, a line of lightweight dinnerware made with a glass-laminate called Vitrelle; and Visions, a transparent amber-hued Pyroceram glass called Calexium. In 1998, Corning began to focus primarily on scientific and technical glass and sold its Consumer Products Division to a company now known as World Kitchen. The Pyrex brand continues to be produced by World Kitchen today.
Pyrex has become an icon in most American homes, in the forms of clear borosilicate bakeware, sets of patterned opal ware, and stovetop FLAMEWARE. Layered into the history of the Pyrex brand are the personal histories of families and individuals who have used, loved, gifted, and collected America’s favorite dish over the last 100 years.
Published on November 24, 2014