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Mountain Home Magazine

Happy Birthday, Pyrex

Jun 16, 2015 07:11PM

Courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass

Imagine what pre-1915 kitchens looked and sounded like. You can get the effect by watching the goings on and the racket in Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen in Downton Abbey’s cavernous “downstairs.” Tin pans, aluminum and ceramic bowls, the blackness of cast-iron muffin pans and cookware clinking and clanging. Throw in the noise of metal spoons and ladles against the metal cookware—not to mention something less obvious—the interaction of acidic food with some metals. Phew!

All that changed in 1915 with the arrival of the first glass cookware—oven-safe Pyrex pie plates which were sold to America’s cooks with the help of advertising that showed an attractive young woman—with the piled-up hairdo so popular then—holding a Pyrex pie plate in front of her. Below it were the words “Look right through.” That woman worked in the local Corning office.

Those first pie plates were an instant hit and were followed by cake pans, all manner and sizes of mixing bowls, measuring cups, custard cups, and the like. Company archives have a photo of a railroad car filled with Pyrex products bound for Boston and the Jordan Marsh department store there.

From Science to Stove

Pyrex ware was initially developed for use in scientific lab ware, a market largely supplied by German glass companies. When World War I interrupted the supply of German lab ware it was “Corning to the rescue” to provide American-made heat-resistant lab ware: test tubes, flasks, beakers, piping, and (well, those of you who took chemistry in school will know what I mean) all the heat-resistant glass items that all labs needed...including bell jars.

Perhaps you’ve heard how the gifted Corning scientist, Jesse T. Littleton, looked at the shape of a newly formed battery jar and saw how the lower two inches had a shape like the metal cake pans in the kitchen at home. He had the bottom of a bell jar cut off, took it home, and asked his wife if she could bake a cake in it. She could, she did, and the experiment had excellent results. Corning’s Consumer Products were born.

It’s a wonderful tale and one I believe. On my tours of the city of Corning neighborhood for visiting friends I’d drive slowly by what in 1915 was the Littleton’s house and I’d point out the kitchen windows. I could almost smell the scent of sugar, butter, flour, and perhaps vanilla wafting into the air.

A Whole New Corning Department

I can understand how the lineup of Corning’s heat-resistant prep and cookware caused a sensation. It was new, clean-looking, and had a smooth easy-to-clean surface and was lighter than the heavy metal stuff that cooks were used to.

To develop recipes and cooking directions for this new cookware, Corning developed a Home Economics department—the first ever (I’m told) for a cookware company.

When World War II made metals hard to get for non-military use, Corning set about fiddling with the glass formula and developed Pyrex cookware that could be used (with care) on the range-top. Perhaps you’ve seen the saucepans with covers, the skillets (with detachable handles), the beloved coffee and tea pots, and the double boilers in antique shops. In order to make these pieces work on electric stoves, the Pyrex product was set on a triangular metal “spider” to spread the heat across the bottom.

Personally Speaking

I’ve been involved with Pyrex glass for virtually my entire working life in Corning, and last year was thrilled to receive a pin for fifty years of active and retired service. I started out in advertising and promotion for Corning’s laboratory products. After five years, I had a reputation for good cooking (thanks, Mom) and moved over to consumer products.

During the early lab ware days (’63 to ’68) my office was in the original main plant office building circa 1915 that was part of a string of Corning manufacturing plants along the banks of the Chemung River. Early on, one of my co-workers took me on a tour of what we called “B and C Factory” where extremely round-cheeked artisans (called gaffers) blew into tubes to turn gobs of molten glass into products specially designed to customers’ needs. The blown glass ranged from small globes to huge blueprint cylinders literally swung by the gaffer on a raised platform. It was a show I’ll never forget—the heat of the glory hole, the noise, and the camaraderie and teamwork of the workers.

Neither will I forget the periodic noise of glass breaking just outside my window. My office abutted a chute where glass “cullet” was sent down two stories into large dumpsters to be added back into future batches of the same glass. Like most folks, the sound of breaking glass provoked memories of childhood disasters: the softball that shattered our living room window was a clear memory. It took me months, and a move to the other side of the building, to get over the “shakes.”

How Do You Spell That?

Another “Pyrex memory” was the time a couple of us drove to a Rochester printer to do a final check on the printing of a Pyrex lab ware catalog. After thoroughly checking even the small type to assure sizes and prices were correct, we were about to give the “go” to start the presses to run off thousands of copies when I noticed something was not right about the cover.

The graphic designer had opted to put a giant PYREX across the cover with a much smaller “Lab Ware” below it. All of the company’s brand names are used only as adjectives and always with a superscript circle R. For once I could honestly yell, “STOP DA PRESSES!” That was about as close to a heart attack as I’ve ever come.

And since I’m talking lab ware, Pyrex pipe was put to a new consumer use in the ’80s when a brilliant marketer thought a section of it could make a dandy bread baker. Voilà! The Pyrex “Bake-Around” was born. It came with a metal cradle to facilitate handling, the bread had a crust on all sides, and the round shape was perfect for a salami and sliced tomato sandwich. Enjoy!

A TV Guide

My consumer products day job came under the broad heading of Public Relations. This involved making recipes using Corning cookware on local TV stations all over America (and abroad as well, to promote my appearances at stores later in the week). I’d wear an agreed-upon “look”: plaid shirt, knit tie, and an apron printed with my name, “Cornelius.” When I appeared in department stores I wore an apron that said “Cornelius for Corning.”

Doing those TV shows, I was sometimes pulled aside by a producer prior to the segment and warned not to say “Corning Ware” as it would be “too commercial.” Thank goodness our products were so distinctive that wasn’t a problem; besides, I’d stress the product’s “freeze—cook—serve” aspects. Funny, though, over the years I discovered that even on TV I could refer to the cover of the pans as “Pyrex.” Ditto the bowls for mixing the ingredients.

And that brings me to Julia Child. When her The French Chef show first appeared on WGBH-TV in Boston, the program was then-typical PBS-style: non-commercial and so much so that when Julia measured a cup of liquid, the word Pyrex on the side of those cups was covered with a strip of masking tape. Lord knows, Corning provided every piece of glassware and glass-ceramic cookware used on the show gratis. It warms my heart to see the TV cooks today, such as the Barefoot Contessa, blithely adding ingredients in clearly marked Pyrex measuring cups. You know, the ones with the open handles. A bit of bragging: I was the one who suggested this improvement to the glass engineers who made it happen.

The 13 X 9

That Pyrex cookware has become beloved by most cooks is easy to prove. Get on the Amazon “books” site and type in “13 x 9 Cookbooks” and you’ll come up with three examples. One of these is by no less than the folks at Better Homes and Gardens. Many cooks simply call that shape “my lasagna pan,” though it is used for such disparate dishes as coffee cake, stuffed bell peppers, stuffed cabbage, and baked fish. Not content to rest on the pan’s laurels, the product designers have made some dandy improvements to this classic...nice wider hand grips that accommodate oven mitts many chefs swear by.

Happy Birthday to a Good Cook’s Companion

Did you happen to catch the fairly recent segment of the Cook’s Country TV show in which they rated nine-inch pie plates? This was a repeat test because there were a few new designs in the category. Despite that, “old faithful” Pyrex pie plates were again named number one—and the price is still right.

For 100 years Pyrex products have meant a great deal not only to cooks but to the Twin Tiers. The brand has spelled good fortune in the economic sense, but, when we use these products in our everyday lives, we can appreciate how grim our time in the kitchen would be without these sparkling, clear helpers.

Just remember as you float through life: always read the small print and the large print. Happy cooking to you from Cornelius, still for Corning.