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!
Since I’ve been collecting Pyrex, several of my friends have decided to give it a go too. I’d love to say that that is because I’m a natural leader or because I have an innate ability to forecast trends but I’m afraid to say it’s neither of those things, it’s simply because we’re all now getting to an age where we actually enjoy cooking almost as much as eating or are equipping our own kitchens for the first time and vintage Pyrex is of course a modern design classic. Anyway, as I’ve been collecting a little longer than they have, they tend to ask me questions and the same ones crop up all the time, so I thought I’d answer them on my blog.
The first question is often “What sort of Pyrex should I collect?”. This strikes me as a rather odd question, in that if you’ve decided to collect it, you must have seen some pieces which you particularly like, so that would surely be your starting point! I think some people feel that as Pyrex collecting is becoming more popular, that there are specific things which they ‘should’ look out for. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it, as it would certainly drain the joy from hunting for your next piece. Obviously some items are harder to procure than others because they had a limited release, were a short-lived promotional pattern or because they are from a different country but it’s always better to stick to what you like. As well as building your collection on the basis of the designs you prefer, your budget will also play a part. Prices of vintage Pyrex vary enormously but one of the plus points of collecting something that in it’s heyday was extremely popular (and let’s not forget virtually indestructible!) is that there is something to suit every pocket. I personally don’t collect Pyrex tea sets or dinner sets as I prefer the casserole dishes and mixing bowls, so concentrate on them but I have one friend who particularly likes the tea sets and also collects the coffee jugs. You can gradually build up a tea or dinner set over time quite cheaply. If you plan to use your vintage Pyrex (and there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t, as long as you don’t commit the cardinal sin of putting it in the dishwasher), then you could collect pieces which fit with your style of cooking. If you would rather retire them from active duty and simply display them, you might like to collect around a specific colour scheme or pattern. The variety of styles, colours and patterns is huge and it would be virtually impossible to collect an example of every piece ever produced, so it would probably save your bank balance, not to mention your sanity, if you specialised in some way!
Another FAQ is where should I look for new pieces? You may have heard the expression “hunting for Pyrex in the wild” – this simply means finding it at a charity shop, a car boot or yard sale or as part of a house clearance, as opposed to in a specialist shop (I know, I know, the delightful images the phrase conjures up of little Pyrex dishes frolicking in a meadow somewhere would be a much nicer explanation!). It is possible still to find pieces like that, although the renewed interest in vintage Pyrex does mean it’s not as easy as it used to be. Having said that, half the fun of collecting is tracking an elusive item down and whether you find it tucked away in the corner of your aunt’s kitchen cupboard or on Etsy, the buzz is the same. Asking around your family and friends will often turn up nice vintage pieces as most kitchens in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s had several pieces of patterned Pyrex at least and that can be a nice way to start your collection and perhaps give you a theme or pattern to concentrate on. When my collection was complete (well…not complete as I haven’t really begun to scratch the surface of worldwide Pyrex yet but I’ve nothing, well, virtually nothing, that I’m searching for personally right now!), I found I couldn’t give up the chase, so started my Etsy shop and such shops are another happy hunting ground for collectors.
The last general question about collecting that I’m often asked is what should I look out for in terms of condition? When I first started collecting, I was determined that I would never buy a chipped or cracked piece or one with ‘flea bites’ (am I the only person who really detests that expression?!) and I’ve stuck to that, although I do have pieces with small scratches or patches of colour loss, almost inevitable with kitchen equipment half a century old. That said, I can foresee occasions where I would be prepared to overlook a very tiny chip (I refuse to say it!), as long as the chip was smooth and barely noticeable and it was a piece I really wanted. To some extent it depends what you are going to do with your Pyrex; if you’re going to use it, you probably wouldn’t want a piece with cracks or chips but if just for display purposes, as long as it’s not really visible, it wouldn’t matter as much.
The world of Pyrex is one of infinite variety and can be confusing when you first start to collect, over my next few posts, hopefully I’ll be able to answer some of the more specific questions collectors have but don’t like to ask as everyone else already seems to know!
Some of my favourite Pyrex dates from the ‘Fifties and it seems to me that some of their most timeless (in that they never appear dated but always up to date) pieces were introduced then, such as the Gooseberry Cinderella Bowls and the Gaiety Range. I began to wonder what ‘Fifties kitchens, the first homes of some classic Pyrex, were like, so I decided to do some research and discovered that the 1950’s really did see a revolution as far as kitchens and their equipment was concerned.
First of all the actual structure of the kitchen workspace began to change with the introduction of fitted kitchen units. Of course not everyone got a fitted kitchen overnight but the new trend became the norm and the vast majority of homes now have them. Simply having fitted units must have made cleaning easier but the icing on the cake (naturally whipped up in a Cinderella Bowl) came with the advent of Formica – a wipe clean, heat resistant surface for units and tables. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of worktops but thinking about it, life in the kitchen must have been much harder without easy to clean heat resistant surfaces – just the thought of all the splinters you could have got while trying to scrub them clean is enough to make me glad I’m a 21st Century girl!
As far as major appliances were concerned, most houses on both sides of the Atlantic had fridges by the end of the decade, although this process happened more quickly in the United States. This was probably due to the fact that the UK took longer to recover financially after World War II (rather than my mother’s assertion that we had ‘proper’ weather then – i.e. cold – rather than the ‘ridiculously hot nonsense’ we have now, she doesn’t quite date back to the ‘Fifties, so I wouldn’t take her word for it!). Refrigerators in the United States also began to be produced in colours other than white in this decade. Here in Britain, we seemed to feel that it bordered on the impolite to have something as loud as large coloured appliances in our homes and they took much longer to catch on! Dishwashers were also introduced, again initially catching on more quickly in America. Obviously they were seen more as a luxury appliance, unlike fridges. You couldn’t put your Pyrex in them, so you weren’t missing much if you didn’t have one! Microwave ovens also became available for the first time in the 1950’s but were prohibitively expensive on both sides of the pond.
Some smaller appliances were making great strides too. Electric kettles with thermostats which automatically shut them off when the water reached boiling point were introduced. As a nation of tea drinkers, this particular development was celebrated in Great Britain, where we all live by the simple rule of “If in doubt, put the kettle on and have a nice cup of tea”. It’s how we’re coping with Brexit! The Kenwood Chef was introduced in 1950, quickly making it’s inventor, Kenneth Wood, a millionaire. Another new invention was the non-stick pan, rapidly taken to the hearts of housewives everywhere. There, I’ve said it, the ‘H’ word! I was trying to be non-gender specific but that’s quite difficult when talking about this decade as kitchens were almost exclusively the preserve of women, who in most cases did not work outside the home as well as inside it.
Thinking about it, some of these newfangled ideas must have made significant improvements to the 1950’s woman; the Fridge meant she wouldn’t have to shop so often, wipe clean worktops and non-stick pans made cleaning a little easier and quicker and the Kenwood Chef meant she wouldn’t get a huge bicep on her cake mixing arm!
Of course I’ve left the best ‘til last! Some of my favourite and in my opinion, the most stunning Pyrex pieces debuted in the ‘Fifties. It’s ironic really that one of the selling points of early Pyrex, which was all clear, was that cooks could see what was happening through the dishes whilst in the oven because Pyrex only became an object of desire, as opposed to merely utility, when it was produced in opaque colours. The first coloured Pyrex came in the form of mixing bowls in bright primary colours towards the end of the 1940’s. No doubt they were particularly welcome in a drab and depressing post war world, where function had had to be prioritised over form for so long. The end of the ‘Fifties saw the release of Cinderella bowls, in an array of gorgeous colours and the Gaiety range, also in different colours and different patterns. Although many lovely colours and designs were to follow, these items seem to be the ones which have really retained their appeal. As my sister says, you’d never know from looking at them, that these pieces hadn’t been designed and produced yesterday.
It seems to me that the ‘Fifties must have been quite an exciting time to be using a kitchen. Even if you were a cook through necessity rather than choice, new inventions meant you could spend less time cleaning and shopping, leaving you more time to put your feet up and have a cup of tea, or if you enjoyed cooking, more time to create great new dishes in beautiful Pyrex!