The bit of my job which I think I like the most is tracking down Pyrex for other people – of course I also love finding it for myself but I don’t have a big enough home to accommodate all the vintage Pyrex I’d like, so the next best thing is the vicarious thrill of searching it out for friends and customers! As with collectors of any type of object, I started off buying any Pyrex which looked pretty and it was only as my knowledge increased that I began to hanker after the rarer pieces, to some extent just because they were hard to find. Don’t get me wrong, I love all vintage Pyrex but not equally and there is one rare piece which I’m quite often asked to obtain for clients, which I seriously can’t see the attraction of! The customers who I find this for are always very excited when I tell them it’s mission accomplished and thrilled to bits when they actually get their hands on it but for the life of me I can’t see the attraction and don’t own one myself! I’m not going to tell you which piece it is as it’s probably against the Pyrex Hunter’s Code (and if such a thing doesn’t exist, I really think someone should write one!).
All the time spent traipsing round vintage dealers and forging links with other collectors really pays off when you are in search of that special item which someone needs to complete their collection, as quite often, if someone you know personally doesn’t know where something can be found, they have a friend of a friend who just might. This sometimes involves a bit of travel, which is also fun, as you get to check out vintage stores outside of your usual stamping ground.
Many vintage Pyrex collectors say they are “addicted” to adding to their stash and I’m no exception. The excitement I feel when I’m closing in on what I’m searching for gives me a real high, which is completely legal, if sometimes somewhat expensive! They say that nicotine is the most addictive substance known to man but all I can say is that vintage Pyrex must run it a close second although (unfortunately, I’m sure lots of partners of collectors would say) you can’t get a patch to wean you off it! I spoke the other day to the long suffering husband of a lady who has been collecting for years. He said they had Pyrex in cupboards, the attic, under the stairs, the spare room and even under all the beds! His wife has two and a half thousand pieces in her collection! I imagine that people reading this would have one of two reactions; complete horror or total envy. Although I guess if you’re reading this, we all know which camp you (and I) would be in!
Two things in the world of vintage Pyrex hunting never fail to amaze me. The first one is something we could call Jobling’s Law of Inverse Availability. Under this law, you will spend weeks virtually tripping over a particular piece wherever you go and every one will be pristine. You see so many of them that you become sick of the sight of them. It is guaranteed, however, that within an hour of a customer asking you to find that item for them, they will all have mysteriously disappeared, except for one poor little specimen with half a dozen chips, who has been fraternising regularly with the dishwasher. That’s ok because usually the request is not that urgent (alright, alright, I know the need for need Pyrex is ALWAYS urgent but you know what I mean, it’s not literally life and death!) and you know that in a few days you will manage to sneak up on one somewhere. I’m experiencing this at the moment as a client has requested a set of JAJ Cinderella bowls in an often seen pattern. The buyer is in the United States, so it is much easier for me to find a set than them but if only they’d asked a week earlier!
The second thing is that it never ceases to amaze me just how far really rare vintage Pyrex travels. You would think that you would be most likely to find a rare piece in it’s country of origin but, recently at least, I’ve found the opposite to be the case, with rare dishes turning up where they really have no business to be! Thank goodness that Pyrex collecting is such a sociable hobby and collectors such a friendly bunch, otherwise sometimes even the internet would not be enough to track down these rare items to their far flung locations.
The other thing I love about being a vintage Pyrex hunter is that it’s so educational! Very occasionally, you will be asked to trace something which you had no idea even existed. That’s happened to me twice and the first time I felt embarrassed that there was a gap in my knowledge but since then I’ve come to realise that part of the magic of vintage Pyrex is that just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes on the horizon!
Before we get going today, I just wanted to say I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for a while, the long Summer holidays, nail biting wait for exam results and providing long distance moral support to my sister as she wrote her Masters’ dissertation have all taken their toll. I’m back now and raring to go!
Today I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my vintage Pyrex career. Obviously I have an online shop and I want people to buy things from it but I absolutely shrink from the idea of selling! You know what I mean, I love shopping (in fact it’s my middle name!) but I hate it when people try to sell me things. Don’t you just hate it when you go into a shop and the salesperson pounces on you as you cross the threshold? They then follow you around the store giving the impression that they are either desperate to make a sale or that they think you look a bit shifty and might be a shoplifter, neither of these options being conducive to giving you an enjoyable retail experience! So, I was quite dismayed when I realised that an important part of running a successful shop is promotion. Fortunately we live in the age of the internet, so I can talk to people on social media and am spared the indignity of walking round in a sandwich board or dressed as a giant Cinderella bowl. I don’t like advertising – maybe it’s a British thing but it seems tantamount to showing off, so I tend to try and amuse people with what I post and hope they’ll then be kind enough to visit my shop. That is how Pyrex Party Pixie got its first full-time employee and brand ambassador (posh, huh?!) Timmy the Turtle.
Now I’d like to say that Timmy was the result of a long and thoughtful creative brainstorming session but in fact he only exists because I like doing childish things with my Pyrex! During a photo shoot for my shop, I noticed that an upside down Cinderella bowl looks quite like a turtle shell… I’m very keen on the sea and in protecting it from pollution and turtles, who are particularly vulnerable to plastic waste, have been on my mind a lot. I like to post on social media about marine conservation and I thought PyrexPartyPixie could do with a sea creature mascot. I hadn’t realised that vintage Pyrex turtles are so ambitious though, as after Timmy came into being he decided being a mascot was a bit beneath him and demanded a full time job instead!
We could, of course, have opted to use CGI to create Timmy but as a vintage retailer, we decided that Timmy should be more traditional, so apart from his shell, he consists of a decorated wooden spoon (I hope I haven’t shocked you all, I know you thought he was a real turtle!!!). Rather like Pinocchio, Timmy soon took on a life of his own and demanded a lady friend! So Tabitha, or Tabby was born. She’s almost identical to Timmy, except for her pink ‘shell’ and penchant for bright pink lipstick!
Timmy and Tabby like to do their photo shoots on a Friday, which leaves them the weekend free for Ocean Activism. They also like to get involved in local beach cleans although, moving at turtle speed, they usually only manage to collect to collect one piece of trash each before it’s time to go home. They also enjoy candlelit lettuce dinners for two and doing crossword puzzles. They also enjoy quiet evenings in front of the TV, their favourite shows being The Blue Planet and re-runs of The Great British Bake Off (they refuse to watch the new ones as they are both #TeamMaryBerry!).
We recently had a family day out. Most people go for days out at the seaside or perhaps to a theme park. We went combined vintage Pyrex/Medieval graffiti hunting! That may sound a little odd but I wanted to check out the antique centres in our nearest city and my sister, who is doing a Masters in Medieval History, wanted to examine the cathedral to look again at it’s fine graffiti. Neither of us can drive, so mum came as chauffeur! Things got off to a bad start when not too far from home but just long enough to be in the countryside, the car started making a very weird noise and bumping along as if the wheels were square. Fortunately, there was a service station not too far away, where we limped to a halt to survey our pancake like tyre. After much frantic searching on the internet and conferring with the petrol station owner, we found a lovely man who came out right away from the nearest market town, replaced the tyre and charged us much less than we’d expected! It was lucky he came immediately as we were in the middle of a heatwave in the UK and if he’d delayed, we might have melted!
After that false start we were on our way again, finally arriving at our destination in the early afternoon. I can’t help thinking my sister had the better side of the deal as I’m sure the cathedral must have been a lot cooler than wandering about the antiques centres of the city. Two hours, two cups of tea and a strawberry ice cream later, we were on the way back to the car with a large box of bubble wrapped vintage Pyrex. This was only possible after dragging my mother away from a lot of old Tupperware, that had it not been for my prompt and decisive action, would now have been cluttering up our kitchen.
I rang my sister and she soon met us back at the car, suggesting we all pop back to the nearby indoor antiques market for a drink before heading home. In retrospect, agreeing to this was a huge mistake… My sister, although not technically a Pyrex collector herself, is starting to get into it (inevitable really I suppose) and it didn’t take her long to spot a tiny white with black pattern, Snowflake dish. As you may remember, I don’t collect vintage Pyrex tableware and I believe this is a piece of tableware. It’s very tiny, smaller than a dessert bowl and my sister fell in love with it. She asked me what it was and I facetiously replied that it was a special casserole dish for babies! She immediately went “Awwwww” and went and bought it! Naturally it didn’t have a lid (nor do I think it should have one but more on that later!). This purchased we finally started for home, deciding to stop on the way at our local supermarket to pick up a few things.
The journey back was uneventful, as was the supermarket trip, until we were going round the roundabout outside, finally five minutes from home! Suddenly my mum started going on about baby rabbits, came off the roundabout, drove to the next one and went right round it until we were back at the original one again! She then told my sister and I to keep our eyes on the roundabout and there, right at the edge by the busy main road, was a baby rabbit, nibbling away on a half cabbage which had thoughtfully been lobbed to him by some Good Samaritan! There then arose a spirited debate about what could be done for said infant creature – mother insisting we had to do something, me saying I didn’t see what we could do and I certainly wasn’t going onto a roundabout in rush hour to run around trying to catch a baby bunny (I can hear you all thinking how mean I am but then I wouldn’t need to do it because my sister is always the first one up for such challenges!) and my sister saying she would get it BUT they carry myxomatosis, so she couldn’t possibly! By this time we had actually arrived home but mum was so anxious about the “poor little thing” that we turned round and drove back, having decided to ring the RSPCA if it was still there. Weirdly, when we got back, the cabbage had been abandoned and Bugs had gone. This was a bit of a relief, as I’d had visions of my sister attempting to secure the bunny wearing some sort of hazmat suit improvised from whatever we had in the car!
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!
Until I began collecting vintage Pyrex, baking for me was quite a lacklustre experience (the resulting cakes were spectacular, of course!), mainly because of the drab selection of mixing bowls we had. Two medium sized plastic ones, completely useless because they had no weight to them, one medium sized clear Pyrex one, better but still not great and certainly not nice to look at and one enormous one which is white inside and beige with a raised pattern outside. I think lots of households have one of these and you constantly see them in television dramas (especially period ones), some of them are family heirlooms with lots of history, stories and memories of the delights of cakes past, which is brilliant. Sadly, ours is not such a romantic one, my mum having bought it about twenty years ago as she needed a decent mixing bowl. I don’t want to disparage these bowls because they do the job well but I don’t think anyone would ever describe them as pretty.
Then I discovered JAJ Pyrex Cinderella bowls and all others were consigned to history! Cinderella nesting mixing bowls were first introduced in 1957 and it is said that they were called Cinderella because Walt Disney had just re-released their animated hit ‘Cinderella’, which was undergoing a renewed phase of popularity (so apparently not because they were made of glass and transformed the dull world of mixing bowls into a fairyland filled with happy bakers and gorgeous cakes…). The design of these bowls was revolutionary and I would go as far as to say has not been bettered since. This incredible improvement was a simple one but makes a world of difference to someone who bakes a lot. Pyrex added a pouring spout on one side and a handle on the other, which makes holding onto the bowl while you empty your cake mix into the pan so much easier. I have heard the bowls described as having two spouts but the design was for a spout and handle, although if you want to use the handle as an alternative spout good for you! The fact that the bowls came in sets of four was handy, as you would always have a decent sized bowl for the job and therefore wouldn’t have to wash them until the end. That they were nesting was also useful when space in the kitchen was scarce. The other advantages to the Cinderella bowls could also be applied to standard vintage Pyrex mixing bowls; they were heavy enough to do the job, were very durable and looked gorgeous while doing all these other things!
I should just say at this point that the over-arching name ‘Cinderella’ was applied to other items, including casserole dishes but it only seemed to stay in use for the mixing bowls
Probably the best loved JAJ Cinderella nesting mixing bowls were the Gooseberry pattern ones (also a pattern used in the US). The sizes were 4.5 pint, 2.5 pint, 1.75 pint and one pint (or numbers 444, 443, 442 and 441 respectively). They came in five colour combinations; yellow and white, pink and white, duck egg blue and white, coral and white and turquoise and white. These days, it is probably easiest to find the yellow and white and pink and white versions. The coral and white is harder to find (a set in its entirety that is), the turquoise and white slightly harder still and I personally haven’t actually ever seen a duck egg set in the flesh (or glass!). Having said that, I have spoken to collectors who have been confused by the turquoise and duck egg, some people not realising they were distinct colours and assuming there was just blue and the difference between the two being caused by ageing and wear! Understandable really when you consider the variations in colour which can appear due to fading and that old foe of vintage Pyrex, the dreaded dishwasher! If you find clusters of small stars in the pattern of your Gooseberry Cinderella bowl this indicates that it is an early version of the bowl (which was produced for nine years in Gooseberry).
The most significant sets of JAJ Cinderella bowls apart from the Gooseberry ones, were the Carnival, pastel shades set of three bowls introduced in 1961, with a one pint yellow bowl, a 1.75 pint coral one and a 2.5 pint duck egg and the Hawthorn set of three (sizes as for Carnival), with a green leaf pattern on a white background also released in 1961. I’m not sure why these were sets of three as opposed to four, if anyone knows or has a theory, please let me know. There was also a June Rose set released in the early 1960s, which bafflingly (well to me anyway!) WAS a set of four! I’m not a huge fan of the June Rose pattern myself but it is a very popular with many collectors. I’ve seen an awful lot of June Rose but have rarely seen it on a Cinderella bowl.
Interestingly, the Cinderella bowl style was also used for the Clover Leaf Salad Set (popularly known as ‘Shamrock’). A large green bowl with a white leaf pattern and a smaller white one with a green leaf. These were joined with a bracket suspending the white over the green (this set up has led to it commonly being called a chip and dip set – which, quite honestly would make more sense!). These are very hard to find as a complete set, as is the white bowl by itself. There are more of the green bowls around but many of them seem to have suffered quite significant scratching and colour loss, perhaps more noticeable because it was such a dark colour to start with.
The Cinderella shape was also used for the 1964 Mix and Serve Set, one of my all time favourite sets! This set consists of a larger plain grey bowl and a smaller grey bowl, with an intricate white line pattern near the lip of the bowl and again should have a bracket which suspends the smaller bowl over the larger. This is a stunning set, which looks understated but beautiful, sadly this is very hard to find, particularly with the bracket.
JAJ did produce Cinderella bowls in other patterns too, although not as many as in the US where they seem to have been made in just about every pattern, very useful as then you could get all your kitchenware to match. It must be said however, that on the British side of the Atlantic at least, most vintage Pyrex collectors would think of the Gooseberry pattern first when it comes to Cinderella bowls.
If you would like a set of the harder to find colours or patterns, it’s probably a good idea, if you are patient enough, to build up your own set one bowl at a time. For instance, although complete sets of coral and white Gooseberry are very hard to track down, individual bowls of each size become available reasonably frequently but do check the size of a bowl before you buy as different people have different ideas about what is “large” or “medium-sized” and it’s not always possible to work out size in a photo. Also bear in mind condition when you buy. These bowls can date back sixty years, so some colour loss and scratches from use are inevitable and can actually add to the charm of a piece (a mixing bowl which has never been used and has just sat on a shelf for half a century would be quite sad) but chips, the dreaded “flea bites” and severe scratching should and can be avoided as there are a reasonable number of these bowls still around in great condition but again some patience might be involved. After all, the principle of ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince or princess’ can also be applied to collecting vintage Pyrex!