The term “specialty glass” today refers to glass made from recipes that allow for new breakthroughs in products and services. Corning Glass Works introduced Pyrex as a specialty glass to the world with advertisements promoting how breakthroughs in the laboratory improved life in the kitchen.
When Jesse and Besse Littleton moved to Corning, New York from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1913, I’m fairly sure they had no idea their names would be tied to a revolution in bakeware that would span the century. Jesse Littleton was a young physics professor at the University of Michigan when Eugene Sullivan hired him to be a part of the first formal laboratory at Corning Glass Works. Corning had been collecting scientists as consultants for years, earning the company the local nickname, “Smokestack University.”
Corning Glass Works introduced a number of patterned Pyrex designs in the 1970s including Homestead, suggestive of old fashioned crockery; Old Orchard, combining the warmth of pottery with the practicality of Pyrex; Woodland, Autumn Harvest, Old Town Blue, and Friendship, all featuring nostalgic, folksy designs and lots of natural color. One advertisement for Old Town Blue described the pattern as “a breath of nostalgia in an air of fresh design.”
Pyrex advertising during the Christmas season focused on two groups: consumers (the obvious choice), and store buyers (less obvious, but certainly just as vital). Marketing to store buyers was important for Corning Glass Works because these business people were the ones responsible for closing the final sale with shoppers. Corning Glass Works offered promotions like counter cards and display kits to make stores into “Gift Headquarters.” They also periodically sent out inserts called “The Pyrex Sales Maker” in publications read by store buyers such as Home Furnishings Daily. These mini-publications offered display set-up ideas to increase sales.
In 1960s the test kitchen, now led by June Packard, the Home Economics department staff was busy answering more than 150,000 letters they received every year. Field staff from the Home Economics department traveled widely to spread the word about Pyrex. One field agent might travel as many as 200,000 miles a year promoting Corning products. Corning also introduced four Pyrex casserole server sets with a walnut tray base in the 1960s. Traditional opalware patterns such as White Golden Acorn, Berries, and Rainbow Stripes continued to be popular and more than 69 new patterns were introduced during the decade.
After the introduction of primary colored opalware post-World War II, new Pyrex colors (and later prints) poured out of Corning Glass Works for the next four decades. The 1950s saw the introduction of colorful patterns and new shapes, and specialty dishes for entertaining. Some would become standards produced for multiple years, while others were seasonal promotional items with a limited run.
In 1929, home economist Christine Frederick wrote that Henry Ford had been “brought to his knees by Mrs. Consumer,” whose purchasing power companies should ignore at their peril. Ford, who famously said his customers “could have any color [car] so long as it is black,” had ignored women’s desire for a variety of colors. Companies such as Chrysler and GM filled the gap. Ford was just one example according to Frederick of how companies must take an X-ray of the customer if they want to sell products.
Just as the Great Depression was drawing to a close, World War II was beginning. The economy had little time to rebound, and the Pyrex philosophy of “Bake, serve, and store all in the same dish” became even more a necessity. American consumers had to keep their purse strings tight, only buying the most efficient products.
In the 1930s, Corning Glass Works consumer products division was bubbling over with new product development, new manufacturing processes, and new ideas. In the test kitchen, Lucy Maltby and her staff of professional home economists were testing products, reading and responding to customer letters, and developing recipes and best practices for the use of Pyrex in the kitchen. In a memo to Corning executives, Maltby had targeted Corning’s book of Pyrex recipes for revamping. Maltby (with her mother) had painstakingly tested these recipes in her own kitchen for a week, concluding that the recipes resulted in higher grocery and gas bills, more time in the kitchen, and, most unacceptably:“The use of a ghastly number of dishes before the food is ready to go into the Pyrex dish and ‘be popped into the oven.’”
In 2010, The Corning Museum of Glass acquired a wonderful collection of Pyrex glass and research from Dianne Williams, who spent nearly a decade building her collection. She amassed 1000+ pieces of Pyrex Ware—including casserole dishes, bread pans, pie plates, ramekins, teapots, nursing bottles, platters, measuring cups, carafes, skillets, percolators and mixing bowls. She also collected original advertisements, displays, recipe cards and promotional items. These print materials make up the bulk of her research collection, “The Dianne Williams Collection on Pyrex, 1915-2010” housed in the Rakow Research Library’s Archives and Special Collections.
Many of these Pyrex advertisements date from the 1940s and 1950s, a time when the perception of the ideal American home included a white picket fence, a husband who brought home the bacon, and a wife who could whip up a tasty casserole on demand. The ads capitalized on this version of the American dream, demonstrating how a kitchen full of Pyrex could help young brides and housewives cook like pros. In today’s American family, where partners are often equal in breadwinning and bread baking, we’d like to think that women and men both appreciate a great casserole set.
Typewriters clattering, designers at drafting tables, phones ringing—all the sights and sounds of a typical 1930s office building, but in the offices of Corning Glass Works amid the typical business activity wafted scents of roasting chicken and baking cakes. Pyrex’s test kitchen, supervised by Lucy Maltby, the director of Corning Glass Works Home Economics Department, was located in the center of Corning Glass Works administration building. The test kitchen evaluated product designs, mined consumer reviews, suggested design innovations, and, as a result, sold more Pyrex.
The first years of Pyrex production were a success. More than 4 million Pyrex dishes were in kitchens all over America by 1919. The consumer division of Corning Glass Works continued to add new shapes and sizes, advertising over 100 different Pyrex styles (Good Housekeeping, February 1922). Ads assured American consumers that “no home can have too much” Pyrex. Corning’s sales department urged merchants to take an aggressive sales approach toward buyers who already had a few Pyrex products.
Pyrex became a reality when Bessie Littleton, wife of Corning Glass Works physicist Jesse Littleton, baked a sponge cake in a sawed-off battery jar made of Pyrex and proved glass could be used in the oven. From product testing to design to marketing, women were involved in Pyrex every step of its journey to the kitchens of America.
I'm a local girl. My great-grandfather blew the world’s largest light bulb at Corning Glass Works’ “A” factory, just across the river from where I sit at the Museum. The men and women behind the glass fascinate me. So, when I came across early Pyrex brand teapots, I couldn't wait to share my findings. The renowned designer Frederick Carder designed the first Pyrex teapots in 1922. He had begun his glassmaking career at Stevens & Williams in England and co-founded Steuben Glass Works with Thomas G. Hawkes in 1903. He would become the art director of Corning Glass Works in 1932.
My name is Whitney Birkett. I'm a curatorial intern assigned to do research for the Museum’s 2015 exhibition that will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Pyrex cookware. We're all familiar with Pyrex brand glass. It’s in our kitchens. We bake with it. We measure with it. But did you know that Pyrex kitchenware was developed by Corning Glass Works in 1915? The brand has been shaped by countless people and events over the past century.