Twenty years ago, when I set up adult housekeeping, my mother gave me a blue Pyrex mixing bowl.
The bowl is a turquoise four-quart capacity mixing bowl with white scrolled trim. Such bowls, often in nesting sets of three or four, were commonly found in most American kitchens from the ‘40s through the ‘80s. My blue bowl is approximately 40 years old, special not for its age, but because it belonged to my mother’s mother, who died when I was 13.
My grandmother was an uncommonly gifted cook. I realize many people say this about their grandmothers. I can only offer it was the truth. At my grandmother’s funeral, relatives milled around, muttering “Belle sure could cook.”
My grandmother did not fetishize kitchen equipment. Her silverware was stainless steel. She cooked in Farberware pots. And she had Pyrex bowls, a nesting set of three, one of which, the blue four quart, came to me.
The blue bowl has always been imbued with a certain talismanic status. I allow nobody else to handle it. That way, if it breaks, I cannot blame anybody else. During the many moves of early adulthood, the blue bowl was never packed with the rest of the kitchen equipment. Instead, it rode shotgun with me, tenderly tucked beside the tranquilized cat.
Because my grandmother used it, I consider the bowl especially good-natured. Foods prepared in it are likelier to come out well than if I used another, equally serviceable bowl. Muffins, scones, bread doughs, hamburger, chicken, a new recipe: down comes the blue bowl. But I never prepare pork in it. My grandmother kept strictly kosher. Thirty-two years after her death, I will not desecrate her memory by desecrating her bowl.
Perhaps you, too, anthropomorphize certain possessions and can empathize with my feelings about my bowl. Or you think me mad. Either way, I will reiterate: this bowl is Pyrex. I have a newer Pyrex bowl, a three quart in clear glass, useful for the pork or salads. I also have a nesting set of four bowls, purchased at an antique shop for $50.00. This set, like the blue bowl, is in constant use.
I have always prided myself on not being a collector. My small house has virtually no tchotchkes. Because I am a cat lover, people tend to give me cat things, figurines and jewelry and vases, which I promptly give away. I love cats, not representations of cats.
Growing up, I had a friend whose mother was so obsessed with penguins that she bought a ten-foot penguin restaurant icon and installed it in her yard. Her guest bathroom sported a wicker penguin garbage can. Another woman, a friend of my parents, overran her exquisite home with ceramic frogs.
I have too many books, and a collection of bookmarks to keep their places. I am fiendishly picky about my cookware, but have only a few select pieces. And the blue bowl, and its friend the nesting set, which is brown, patterned with a cream wheat sheaf.
I have always liked older things, particularly older kitchenware, but it wasn’t until I logged on Etsy recently that I got into trouble. Page after tantalizing page listed loads of vintage Pyrex, the kind our mothers and grandmothers used. There were platters, plates, mugs, a complete set of dishes including the serving pieces, bakers, butter dishes, casseroles, and, of course, bowls. Dozens of bowls.
Most pieces were shockingly cheap, ranging from $8 for a single bowl to $50 or $60 for a rarer set. I lit on a one-quart pink bowl with a flat glass lid, recognized the grip of a nascent mania, and set about educating myself.
I trolled the internet and was naïvely stunned to realize each Pyrex pattern had a name, and that I was far from alone in my enthusiasm. Two excellent websites, Pyrex Love.com and Corelle Corner.com, set me straight on pattern names and dates of manufacture. A visit to Pyrex.com, the company’s official website, offered a brief history of the company, while Barbara Mauzy’s Pyrex®: The Unauthorized Collector’s Guide offers an in-depth excursion into all things Pyrex.
Pyrex began in 1864, when Amory Houghton, Sr. founded Corning Flint Glass Works. The company manufactured “tablewares, thermometer tubing, and conventional glasswares.” Houghton, Sr. lost controlling interest in the company, but his son, Amory Jr., regained it. With brother Charles, Amory Jr. manufactured railroad signal glassware, pharmaceutical glassware, and the first light bulbs for Thomas Edison.
Pyrex glass went on the consumer market in 1915. Developed by Amory Jr.’s son, Alanson, the product was valuable then for the same reason it is now: the extremely durable glass has incredible tolerance for temperature variances and is nearly indestructible. Pyrex glass moved from railroads and pharmacies to kitchens, where it remains.
Various company mergers and buyouts led to Corningware and Pyrex separating. Pyrex is still manufactured in the United States, at a plant in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Since its debut, Pyrex has been widely licensed other manufacturers, leading to Pyrex parts in coffee and teapots, filigreed servingware, baby bottles, and plates. In the ‘40s, the company released its first set of nesting bowls. The Colored Bowl Set, from largest to smallest, are yellow, green, red, and turquoise.
These bowls remain one of the most coveted collector’s items: an intact set can cost over $100. Single Colored Bowls are far cheaper, often less than $20. A patient collector could assemble a relatively inexpensive set over time.
My blue bowl is a Cinderella four-quart, so-called for its handles: one is a regular “ear”, while the other can act as a spout. The pattern is Snowflake; it was manufactured in 1972. My four-piece brown set is called Autumn Harvest. It debuted in 1979. My most recent acquisition, the one-quart lidded casserole in Pink Gooseberry, dates to 1958. It set me back $8.
During my childhood, my mother had a nesting bowl set in Amish Butterprint, so called the for stylized farm couple depicted on the bowl. They are dressed in old-fashioned clothing; He wears overalls, she, a bonnet. The man holds a shovel, the woman, a rake. Between them they hold a basket of what appears to be wheat and corn. As a child I thought of these as “the rooster bowls” for the rooster also appearing on the pattern. They are most commonly found either in turquoise with a background white or vice versa.
If you are a certain age, you know exactly which bowls I am talking about.
Over the holidays I had the opportunity to rummage in my sister-in-law’s kitchen cabinets (I asked first). There I found an incomplete Colored Bowl set—green, blue, and red, and one small Early American refrigerator set piece, minus lid. They had belonged to her mother-in-law. Those pieces, casually mingling with more recent kitchenware, made me realize Americans take Pyrex for granted. Given the numerous mentions of it in my English cookbooks, it may be the British share our casual attitude.
Bee Wilson mentions Pyrex measuring cups in her Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, while Simon Hopkinson, writing about his father’s Sunday morning kidney breakfast in Week In, Week Out, mentions “A small, special oval Pyrex dish that was brought out (only, but only used for Dad’s kidneys)” (italics Simon’s).
Stateside, Pyrex remains ubiquitous. It seems that everyone’s mother had the Amish Butterprint bowls and matching refrigeraterware, squared off for ease of storage. Those square storage containers with their ridged glass tops went from fridge to oven, important before microwave ovens became common. None of this was especially long ago.
Even now, totting up my growing bowl collection, I realized I had plenty of Pyrex I never considered. Three glass bakers, a lidded glass casserole, and three glass mixing cups are in constant use. It made me wonder how many of us have stray pieces of this indispensable cookware, tossed indifferently into the cupboard, hand-me-downs from parents or picked up from the drugstore.
Pyrex is breakable only by hurling it with all your might or placing a blazing hot dish in icewater. When we were small, my sister accidentally broke one of the Amish Butterprint bowls. She was standing on the counter to reach a high kitchen shelf and dropped the bowl. It’s the only time I have ever seen Pyrex break.
I now find myself in the grips of obsession, and am limiting purchases to once monthly. I am jonesing for an Amish Butterprint butter dish, and hope to eventually invest in a set of Royal Burgundy dinnerware, as it matches my ‘50s red Formica kitchen table.
Mind you, I fully intend to use my finds. The folks at Pyrexlove.com suggest using all but the rarest pieces, which I am unlikely to purchase. I live in earthquake country. To collect breakables is to anticipate their demise. Besides, I don’t want a stiff, untouchable wall of collectibles, mounted purely for dusting. If the collector’s bug must bite, let it bite usefully.
The official Pyrex website happily notes the heirloom nature of their cookware. And although today’s Pyrex remains sturdy and practical, aesthetics have given way to expenses: the colored bowls and embossed designs of yore are gone in favor of clear, cheaper glass that will never acquire the vintage patina of its ancestors. Lacking in personality, individuality, or even color, today’s Pyrex does not engender emotional attachment. That Sandra Lee, she of the “semi-homemade” foods, is the official Pyrex spokesperson, does nothing for their status.
We’re a long way from Pink Gooseberry and Amish Butterprint.
Collecting Pyrex is like any other collecting, a niche activity that, if left unchecked, can border on insanity. I’m not suggesting you take up hoarding items from the past. I am asking you to appreciate a thing well-used, perhaps well-loved, in reach of everyone, so well-made that 50 years later, you can pick up a piece online for under ten dollars, admire the bright, undimmed colors, then tuck your onions into it and place it on your hideous modern granite countertop.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.