A few weeks ago, someone suggested to me that an interest in collecting vintage Pyrex was incompatible with feminism (worse still it was said by a woman). That is just wrong on so many levels! First of all, it seems to imply that collecting Pyrex is a hobby only undertaken by women, which is a huge assumption to make. I personally know several male vintage Pyrex collectors and have seen evidence of many more on social media. Secondly, it says more about latent sexism in the person who made the comment – surely we got over the gross misconception that only ‘girly’ girls are interested in cooking and baking long ago. Any doubts about this could be easily resolved by having a quick look at the contestants on Best British Home Cook or Great British Bake Off, where it seems to be a roughly fifty-fifty split between the genders. An interest in cooking or indeed in home decor, as many collectors simply want some cool looking accessories for their kitchen, is by no means reserved for women. Presumably the person concerned would have been much happier if I’d been collecting model trains or something and here was me thinking feminism was supposed to free us from old gender stereotypes, not force us into new ones! Hopefully we’ve now established in the twenty-first century, that anyone can be interested in whatever they like without having to be judged for it. Sorry, I’ll stop ranting now but I was a bit put out (as you could probably tell!).
However, it may make you feel better to know that Pyrex, as we know it today, would not have existed or been anywhere near as successful as it was/is without the input of women. The original idea of using glass for ovenware came from Bessie Littleton, who was married to a physicist who worked for the Corning Glass Works. The story goes that Bessie had quite a new ceramic oven dish which had cracked, which understandably irritated her somewhat and that she persuaded her husband to give her a sawn off Pyrex battery jar so that she could conduct some experiments of her own in the kitchen. Bessie successfully baked cakes in the jar and felt that Pyrex clear glass bakeware would appeal strongly to other cooks as it would allow them to keep a closer eye on the baking process. Corning agreed with her and steps were taken to make prototypes. Closely involved in this process was another physicist working in the Corning Lab by the name of Evelyn Roberts (I know Evelyn is a gender neutral name but our Evelyn was female!), we’ll hear more about her later.
As everyone who collects or has ever used vintage Pyrex knows, a premium was always placed on design, items might look good but first and foremost they had to be fit for purpose. Corning tested their prototypes rigorously and when they were finally satisfied with them, decided that it would be helpful to get the input of some experts in cookware. They chose to approach two highly influential women in the domestic journalism sphere; Mildred Maddocks and Sarah Rorer, who worked for Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. The women road tested the products, so beginning the exhaustive testing and evaluation to which Corning was to subject all future products and designs. The avid combined readership of Maddocks and Rorer gave Pyrex an excellent start in the US.
I expect you’re wondering where Evelyn has got to during all this?! Well don’t let anyone ever tell you physics isn’t fun – although most of Evelyn’s work probably consisted of quite technical stuff, she did get to do some (literally!) very cool stuff as well. In 1917 Evelyn became part of an advertising campaign for Pyrex ovenware, when she was photographed atop one of the buildings at the Corning Glass Works pouring boiling water over a Pyrex dish encased in ice – so demonstrating it’s resilience in the face of thermal shock! I’ve seen the photos and she looks like she’s enjoying it, although I suppose if you were part of the team who developed it, some of the novelty must have worn off! I suppose you could say it was a bit sexist of Corning to choose Evelyn to do the photo op but times were very different then – most men, regardless of class, wouldn’t know their way around a kitchen at all, as most homemaking duties fell to women. You have to ask yourself, if you’d been around then and were interested in purchasing some new oven dishes, who would you have preferred to demonstrate the finer points of this new, miraculous material, a female physicist or a man who might not know the first thing about the thermal endurance of glass? When Evelyn worked at Corning, although she is listed as a physicist, her first degree was in maths. After leaving Corning, Evelyn did obtain a Masters in physics. Huge achievements at a time when hardly any women made it to university.
With the recruitment of Dr Lucy Maltby in 1929, Corning extended its product research, as Dr Maltby was to found a test kitchen, which would put the product to the test as a practical piece of kitchen equipment which led to many crucial design improvements, such as the addition of measuring marks inside mixing bowls. Initially, Dr Maltby used the test kitchen to educate male Pyrex salesmen on how to use their product, they were taught how to do basic cooking and make simple cakes. Dr Maltby felt that the salesmen could not possibly understand consumers needs unless they had personal experience of using the product. Dr Maltby sent some of her staff out around the US to get feedback from the consumer and she corresponded with many Pyrex users to gather information about what worked well and not so well. The Pyrex brand has always led, rather than followed in terms of design and Dr Maltby’s test kitchen helped to ensure this. Lucy Maltby remained at Pyrex until she retired in 1965 and she, more than anyone, was responsible for the vintage Pyrex which is so highly prized today. She was even responsible for the introduction of coloured and patterned Pyrex, based on feedback from consumers. After all, if you’re going to use something on a daily basis for years, why not make it look attractive?
Although it’s true that during its heyday, Pyrex was more likely to be used by women than men, women were also at the heart of its production from planning to execution and beyond. It should be no surprise then that vintage Pyrex is eco-friendly, durable, able to withstand almost anything, practical, efficient and beautiful – after all, look who made it!