Pyrex: enduring and collectible midcentury kitchenware
Vintage Pyrex has a loyal cadre of enthusiasts and collectors. A fixture in generations of kitchens, the vaunted line began with clear glass bakeware, but its enameled opal ware soon became ubiquitous.
Pyrex was developed by researchers who hoped to create a glass that would not expand in heat, so it could be used in lantern globes and battery jars without breaking. When one researcher gave his wife a casserole dish made from a cut-down piece of the experimental glass, its merits as a cooking tool were immediately apparent.
In an October 1915 ad in Good Housekeeping magazine, the manufacturer of Pyrex, Corning Glass Works, announced the debut of its clear glass wares with a bold headline: “Bake in Glass!” The dishes could withstand hot ovens and made it possible to cook and serve meals in the same dish. The most expensive item shown in the ad was the two-quart lidded casserole vessel, priced at $1.75.
Corning later released a line of mixing bowls that were opalescent and enameled on their exteriors in solid colors: red, blue, green and yellow.
By the 1950s, the most popular pieces of Pyrex had silkscreened pattern decorations on their enameled surfaces. “Between 1956 and 1987, Corning released over 150 different patterns on Pyrex opal ware,” according to a Corning Museum of Glass blog.
In 1998, Corning divested itself of its home consumer products, and licensed the Pyrex brand to another entity. While the new maker of Pyrex still offers CorningWare® bakeware in plain white, most of its contemporary products are only available in clear glass.
In its 20th-century heyday, Pyrex was offered in a nearly endless variety of colors, forms, patterns and variations. There are so many small and subtle differences it would be almost impossible for a single collector to possess all of them, although a few people have tried. Pyrex mixing bowls, cookware and baking dishes, particularly the large handled casserole dishes, have long been prized. Some lucky cooks inherited their mother’s or grandmother’s Pyrex, while others scoured flea markets and thrift shops to acquire their treasures.
Good pieces of everyday vintage Pyrex tend to sell for prices between $10 and $100, and less common examples can command several hundred dollars. Taste is subjective, of course, but there are certain Pyrex patterns that remain consistently popular, including Butterprint, Gooseberry, Dot, Rainbow Stripes and Snowflake. There are also rare color variations such as Orange Butterprint and Pink Stems, both thought to have been issued in limited runs as promotional items.
Melanie Hartman, director of catalog and specialty auctions at Cordier Auctions & Appraisals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, explained that the Pyrex Gooseberry pattern is not rare, but it is so beloved that few collectors are willing to part with it. Perhaps the most coveted shade of this highly coveted pattern is Pink Gooseberry, a 10-piece set of which realized $350 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019 at Cordier Auctions & Appraisals. “I think its desirability is due to the fun, attractive pattern and the vintage feel [while avoiding] some of the typical vintage kitchen colors – i.e. sunset, avocado green, and the like,” she said. “The neutral pink fits into most modern decor.”
Besides the nostalgia factor, Hartmann said Pyrex resonates with collectors because it “comes in a wide variety of fun colors and patterns and is very practical as well as pretty – the mixing bowls stack nicely in a cupboard.”
Blue is a favorite color in many kitchens, and the pleasing dark hue of the Snowflake pattern, released in 1956, made it an instant classic. The line produced in turquoise blue was also celebrated. A group of vintage Snowflake and Floral Colonial Mist Pyrex dishes achieved $575 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Scheerer McCulloch Auctioneers, Inc.
Pyrex deftly combined function with aesthetics. Casserole dishes boasted pretty patterns as well as handles that made them easier to remove from hot ovens. Also, Pyrex lids could be placed upside down in the dish, allowing for easy stacking of pieces.
Another Pyrex favorite arrived in 1957 with the release of the Butterprint pattern, which is also known as the Amish print because the decoration pictures an Amish-looking couple, sheaves of wheat and other farming imagery. A set of Butterprint nesting bowls in white on turquoise and turquoise on white realized $375 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022 at Main Auction Galleries.
Christmas is a prime marketing opportunity for many firms, and Corning embraced it. The company offered Pyrex in several holiday-inspired patterns, including snowflakes and garlands, pine cones and ones that simply read “Season’s Greetings.” A green so-called “Cinderella” mixing bowl decorated with holly leaves and the words “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” in script along the side sold for $425 plus the buyer’s premium at Embassy Auctions International in September 2021. Reportedly, the Cinderella nickname for this Pyrex form arose because it appeared close to when Disney re-released the movie.
Most Pyrex lids were plain glass. Worth their weight in gold are lids with matching enamel decoration, such as a green Spring Blossom casserole with cover that sold, along with three sets of mixing bowls, for $225 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Curated Estates Auctions.
According to The Pyrex Collector, one of a handful of websites devoted to the collectible wares, while Pyrex dishes were hardy enough to move from the fridge to the oven in quick succession without suffering damage, hand-washing was, nonetheless, the best way to maintain them. Some claim vintage Pyrex is dishwasher safe, but others have personally witnessed how multiple sessions in the machine’s steamy, sodden racks fade cheerfully-colored enamels to drab shadows of their former selves. It is safer and smarter to keep older and more precious pieces of Pyrex out of the dishwasher. It’s unclear exactly why, but hand-washed vintage Pyrex tends to keep its color and luster longer, and thus retains its value.