As pandemic restrictions that required mask-wearing and limited capacity for businesses of all kinds wound down over the past several months, I’d be lying if I said the first thing I wanted to do was go to a restaurant. Instead, I’ve been longing to spend my days safely wandering the dust-draped aisles of small-town antique stores and junk shops of all kinds in search of vintage Pyrex.
Many of us likely remember some iconic piece of Pyrex glassware in a mom or grandma’s kitchen. The avocado green casserole dishes in the “Spring Blossom” print and classic mixing bowls, sold in sets of primary colors, have held countless top-secret family recipes and decorated the dinner tables of multiple generations. Now, the timeless serving dishes are having a renaissance of sorts, thanks to a thriving secondary market powered by antique malls, intimate circles of collectors, and of course, eBay.
Whether it’s the resurgence in the mid-century modern aesthetic, a collective obsession with all things vintage, or the fact that many believe in its superior quality, there’s no denying the enduring appeal of Pyrex.
Pyrex made its debut on the consumer market in 1915, when Corning Inc. revolutionized the at-home glassware market with the introduction of borosilicate glass. Thanks to the addition of boron trioxide, borosilicate glass is described as “low-expansion,” which means it’s less likely to explode in high-heat environments like a ripping hot oven. It’s also less susceptible to thermal shock, or breakage that occurs in extreme temperature disparities. With the introduction of Pyrex, home cooks could now prep, cook, serve, and store their favorite dishes all in the same bowl.
The first Pyrex tableware to hit the market was made from clear glass. In 1936, Corning acquired the Macbeth-Evans Glass Company in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, and began producing the opaque white “opal glass” that is now coveted by collectors. Initially, though, these products weren’t intended for the home — instead, the glass was produced as a durable line of “messware,” or tableware for soldiers, for the United States military. According to the Corning Museum of Glass, this messware was so difficult to break that Harvey Littleton, an Army sergeant and son of early Pyrex developers Jesse and Becky “Bessie” Littleton, was known for betting his fellow soldiers a dollar that he could hurl the Pyrex glass at walls without it breaking.
Starting in the 1940s, during and after World War II, Corning began courting homemakers with a new line of Pyrex available in a wide range of colors. The first iconic pieces, introduced in 1943, are a set of mixing bowls in classic primary colors — red, blue, green, and yellow. Those initial colors were selected by Lilla Cortright, head of the Pyrex test kitchen. After those first bowls came a slew of new pieces — dinnerware, refrigerator containers, casserole dishes, and more — in a wide range of colors, including the iconic pink and turquoise, and pastel yellow.
According to Jennifer Ashley, author of an exhaustive Pyrex book called Shiny Happy Pyrex People, the company capitalized heavily on the post-war frugality of Americans, many of whom were buying their first homes in the midst of an economic boom. The brand’s refrigerator dishes, stackable glass dishes with lids, were touted as a way to save leftovers and reduce food waste, while the glass’s superior heat retention quality could be described as an early way to be energy efficient and use less fuel during cooking. The Pyrex dinnerware was promoted as more durable than other glass plates, so much so that sales representatives hosting live demonstrations in department stores and supermarkets would climb ladders and drop plates from the top to show potential customers that their new purchases wouldn’t break.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Pyrex continued to produce new colors and patterns for its glass at an impressive clip. The first patterns, called Pink Daisy and Snowflake, were introduced in 1956. After that, the company began to roll out new patterns regularly. From 1956 to 1983, Pyrex produced 170 distinct patterns with fanciful names like Golden Honeysuckle, Lucky in Love, and Pineapple Party. For collectors, the Pyrex sweet spot runs from the 1950s to the late 1970s, a period of time in which the dishes were still made from borosilicate glass and produced in some of the most popular patterns.
Throughout this time, other glass producers, like Hazel Atlas and Anchor Hocking, saw their own success producing opaque tableware emblazoned with pretty patterns. Many of those items, like cups and saucers made from Fire King jadeite glass and mixing bowls decked out in cheery polka dots, are still collectible today. But Pyrex remains the dominant name on the market, largely because of the wider range of distinct, and visually striking, dishes Corning produced in comparison to its competitors.
In addition to Pyrex made in the United States, the molds used to produce best-selling pieces were also used in other countries, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Argentina, and France. Those pieces are especially popular among collectors today because they’re more rare and aesthetically distinct from American Pyrex.
In the mid-1980s, production of Pyrex opal glass in the United States all but ceased for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps opal glass was no longer profitable for the Corning Glass Company, or maybe interest in the brightly colored dishes had waned. In 1986, the company began producing clear glass bowls that were painted with solid colors and patterns, and sold some U.K-produced opalware in the States. In 1998, Corning sold off its housewares division to focus on producing glass for other industries, like scientific research and technology.
What happened next is the source of some major controversy. Following the sale of the Pyrex brand to World Kitchen, Inc., now known as Corelle Brands, some Pyrex fans say the formula changed dramatically. After 1998, all Pyrex products were made with soda-lime glass, which many believe to be vastly inferior to the strength and thermal-shock-resistant properties of borosilicate Pyrex. Whether or not that is the case is up for some scientific debate. Fast forward to two decades later, and Pyrex was slapped with a class-action lawsuit in 2019, alleging that the soda-lime glass products were prone to breakage and even exploding.
According to NBC5 Chicago, more than 850 instances of this new Pyrex glass exploding or shattering were reported to the Consumer Protection Safety Board over the past decade, though Corelle Brands insists that its products have an “excellent safety record,” and that soda-lime glass was sometimes used to make Pyrex throughout the decades. Litigation over the allegedly exploding glass is still pending.
But well before the exploding Pyrex scandal, the classic opal glass was finding a resurgence among collectors and those obsessed with the midcentury modern aesthetic. And as with the rest of the rise of mid-mod, Pyrex’s rising popularity can be owed in a single pop-culture phenomenon: the television show Mad Men, which spans the ‘60s through the lens of a Madison Avenue advertising firm. According to Ashley, interest in vintage Pyrex surged following Mad Men’s 2007 premiere, and only continued to grow as fans watched watched Joan Halloway prepare dinner with her Pepto-pink casserole dish and Betty Draper set out party snacks in poppy-red bowls.
“The friends I’ve made in the Pyrex community have been collecting for 20 or 25 years, they’re long term collectors,” Ashley says. “I think I’m late to the game, because they’ve said that Mad Men definitely brought some new interest. And then came Mrs. Maisel.” Ashley’s referring to Amazon streaming series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a rising comedian in the 1950s. In the show, titular character Midge Maisel serves her brisket in a Pink Daisy Pyrex casserole dish, the same favored by Joan in Mad Men, sparking renewed interest in one of the earliest Pyrex prints.
With increased interest has come seriously increased prices. According to Ashley, many early collectors were scoring rare pieces at thrift stores and garage sales for a few bucks each. “The market is definitely different,” she says. “You have more competition for each piece, especially among collectors, and thrift stores like Goodwill now have their own auction sites. They’re pulling things straight from the donation pile and sending them straight to auction instead of putting them out on the shelf for collectors to find.”
For Nate Smith, a guidance counselor at Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and a relatively new — but serious — Pyrex collector, the hunt is part of the appeal. His interest in the brand began in earnest last year, as he sorted through his mother’s belongings. “It was an accidental, generational obsession,” Smith says. “My grandmother and my mother both loved Pyrex, and as I started researching and learning more about different patterns — and different patterns made in different countries — I fell hard and fast.”
Since beginning his Pyrex collection last fall, Smith estimates that he’s accumulated close to 1000 bowls, casserole dishes, storage containers (or “fridgies,” as they’re known in the Pyrex world) and other Pyrex essentials. He’s pursued rare patterns and promotional items across the world, scouring online resale groups and auction sites for the pieces he seeks. Recently, he scored one of his most coveted pieces — a large casserole dish in the “Cloverberry” print. Smith wouldn’t dish on what he paid for the dish, but directed me to eBay, where recent sales figures indicate that the same casserole sold recently for upwards of $1300.
Smith is also a seller, who frequently re-homes vintage finds of all kinds — not just Pyrex — that he doesn’t want to keep via the online shopping platform Mercari. While antique malls, thrift stores, and other resale shops are solid destinations for Pyrex hunting, most collectors eventually have to turn to online outlets like eBay, Etsy, and Facebook Marketplace to find less-common pieces. “You might get lucky going into a thrift store or an estate sale, but if you want something rare, you’re going to have to shop online,” Smith says. “If you’re not willing to do that, you’re going to be waiting around a long time.”
Prices in the Pyrex market are set by the two factors that guide most markets: demand and rarity. Throughout the decades, Pyrex produced a slew of promotional items and limited-edition patterns in small quantities, and those are seriously coveted by collectors. Right now, Smith is in search of a rare casserole dish produced by Pyrex in 1962 to commemorate the opening of New York City’s Lincoln Center. Other promotional items were produced as part of stamp redemption programs like S&H’s Green Stamps, where shoppers at grocery stores would collect stamps as they purchased their milk and bread to earn mixing bowls and other housewares.
According to Ashley, there are some prints so rare that only one or two pieces of each have ever been seen by collectors in the wild, like an ocean-inspired pattern nicknamed “Angelfish.” Other rare, coveted pieces were prototypes that never went into full production, and there are also those that seem to have been produced by creative Pyrex designers given free-reign. “I think a lot about how much autonomy the designers had, and what they were doing in their downtime,” Ashley says. “Because there’s quite a few one-offs. It’s just a matter of the person who has it, and whether or not they want to share it.”
In what may come as a surprise, many serious enthusiasts never actually use their Pyrex to cook with, including Smith. “The people who bought them originally bought them to use them, because people of that generation in that time period may not have had extra money for show pieces,” he says, emphasizing that a lot of Pyrex users still see their collections as more practical than precious. “Now, considering that so many of these pieces are passed down from generation to generation, if somebody saw their parents using them, they’re going to use them. Over time, they see that the pieces are still okay and they use them again, or if one breaks, it’s not a big deal. Things can be replaced.”