Back in the 1910s, rail companies had a problem. The lanterns on their trains were very hot, and when they went through colder climates, the glass globes would burst. Scientists at Corning Glass were charged with creating a heat-tempered glass that could withstand the fluctuations in temperature.
According to Pyrex brand manager Mike Scheffki, scientist Jesse Littleton brought home a casserole-sized piece of the glass for his wife Bessie to try out in the kitchen.
“She could actually see the cake baking, it was nice even baking, the temperature was easily controlled,” Scheffki said.
Littleton brought the feedback to his colleagues, and the Pyrex line of kitchenware was introduced by Corning in 1915. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It sort of became an overnight sensation in the kitchen, and it’s very interesting to trace it all the way back to the railroad industry,” Scheffki said.
For nearly 60 of those 100 years, Pyrex products have been manufactured in Charleroi, a town of about 4,000 residents nestled along the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh. This Saturday, the community and the company will celebrate the brand’s centennial with a festival featuring a pancake breakfast, pie-baking contest and of course, new and vintage Pyrex pieces for sale.
The festival kicks off a cross-country tour in honor of the 100th anniversary of Pyrex, but Scheffki said the celebration is more about the people than the brand itself.
“The generations of workers, not just in Charleroi, but in the entire Mon Valley, who have literally made Pyrex the brand it is today with their hands," Scheffki said. "(It's) American craftsmanship. We want to honor those folks.”
Scheffki said Pyrex continues to be made out of the same type of glass used back in 1915, but cooking trends have changed, and along with them, product offerings.
He estimated that about 80 percent of American households have at least one piece of Pyrex in rotation. Prices for vintage models range from $20-$2,000 on Ebay, and there is even an online community of Pyrex lovers who help each other identify the patterns on older kitchenware.
“If you trace back to the original 12 Pyrex pieces, some of them are completely unrecognizable,” Scheffki said. “They’re shaped for cooking that has long been out of style, yet some of them resemble the modern-day pie plate or the modern-day loaf pan.”
Scheffki said sales of Pyrex products have picked up in recent years, because consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing durable, reusable products. He called Pyrex the original green product, “before ‘green’ was a thing.”
“You do buy vessels and they last for 10, 20, 30, heck we’ve heard 40, 50, 60 years,” Scheffki said. “You think about the number of disposable bakeware and disposable plastic storage options out there, it really is an economical but also a green alternative to those different lines.”