A Short History of Pyrex: The 100-Year-Old American Classic Glassware
What: Iconic glass kitchenware
Where: Corning, NY, and Charleroi, PA
If you’ve ever measured out milk for pancakes, melted butter in the microwave, scooped out a slice of lasagna at a potluck buffet, or even just dug into a bowl of popcorn while speeding through the entire season of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” you’ve likely had your hands on a piece of Pyrex in your lifetime. The sturdy, sometimes-colorful glass kitchenware has been around for an entire century!
That’s amazing enough, but did you know it’s always been manufactured right here in the United States? Here’s the lowdown on how Pyrex was born in Corning, NY, and is still made today in Charleroi, PA.
In 1908, Corning Glass Works started making Nonex, a thermally resistant “non-expansion glass,” for railroad signal lanterns and other industrial applications. This clear glass moved into the kitchen through the efforts of Corning employee Jesse Littleton. As the origin story goes, he brought a sawed-off battery jar home to his wife Bessie, and she used the shallow mold to bake a cake.
Capitalizing on the fact that the domestic sphere could benefit from the glass’s durability as much as the industrial world, Corning had a hit on its hands. By 1915, it was selling Pyrex pie plates, casserole dishes, and bakeware to the housewives of America. And despite the fact that many people hang onto their Pyrex pieces for a lifetime, it’s still selling and making its way into homes.
The unique properties of the glass made it unlike anything else on the market — it was able to withstand temperature changes, didn’t discolor, didn’t react with ingredients to change the taste of food (like cast iron), didn’t retain food smells after washing (like ceramics and earthenware), and because the original Pyrex pieces were see-through, bakers could watch the sides of their cakes, pies, and casseroles turn golden-brown as they cooked.
In 1936, Corning bought a glass factory in Charleroi, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh, which had the capability to produce colorful opal glass — a tempered opaque glass with the same heat-resistant properties as the clear glass coming out of Upstate New York. Again, although this opalware was originally used on an industrial scale (to outfit military mess halls during World War II), the technology trickled into the home kitchen with the release of the iconic primary-colored Pyrex nesting bowls in 1945.
As Pyrex collectors know all too well, Corning Glass Works took full advantage of the Charleroi plant’s capabilities, churning out more than 150 different patterns of bowls, casseroles, refrigerator dishes, and more in a host of shapes and sizes.
(The Corning Museum of Glass exhibition America’s Favorite Dish: Celebrating a Century of Pyrex, on view until March 17, 2016, shows a number of rare Pyrex patterns, including a half-finished version of the infamous Lucky in Love dish.)
Although the colorful opalware was (sadly) discontinued in the late 1980s, the factory in Charleroi is still making Pyrex pieces. World Kitchen took over the Pyrex brand in 1998, when Corning once again returned its focus to scientific glassware.
With around 50 million pieces of Pyrex produced a year in Charleroi, the brand is very much alive and well, and making the most of its 100-year-old heritage. In fact, the current clear glass lasagna pans, measuring cups, and storage dishes we see on shelves in Target today are closer to the original 1915 Pyrex designs than those lusted-over colorful midcentury pieces.
Coming up tomorrow: A tour of the Pyrex factory!