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In Pursuit of Pyrex

Once upon a time, there was a tag sale one town over from the EstateSales.NET offices, carrying nothing but Pyrex dishware.

It’s a tale told at least once a month around here, and there’s a glimmer in every storyteller’s eye, not unlike a sea-salty fisherman recalling his biggest catch, as if to say “Aye, I remember that fateful day.....”

The line on opening day, I’m told, was formidable. The selection was overwhelming. The prices were low. A perfect estate sale storm. The crowds battled, and shoppers emerged victorious.

They understandably wax nostalgic for that sale. The thrill of the hunt is hard to resist. It’s a feeling many seasoned Pyrex collectors already know.

Some seek out a pattern that calls to them, and work to collect the full set—bowls, casseroles, refrigerator boxes (lovingly referred to as “fridgies”), and their coordinating lids. Others seek out a certain dish—chip & dips, perhaps, or #401 bowls in every pattern possible. Others are content to scoop up any pieces that pique their interest.

Others, still, like to seek out the rare and hard-to-find, like the elusive “Lucky in Love,” a white casserole dish featuring green grass and clovers made only in 1959, most likely a limited release product or test piece. Some look beyond the borders, to JAJ Pyrex from the U.K. or Agee and Crown Pyrex from Australia, which have their own patterns, colors and styles.

Pyrex collecting comes in all forms and takes all kinds.

And when the hunt is through, their prized catches are brought back to home kitchens, where they are put to work or put on display.

Corning Glass Works started producing Pyrex in 1915 in the form of clear bakeware made of borosilicate glass. The dishes were durable, clear enough to monitor meals as they bake, and appealing enough to go from counter to oven to table. In the 1940s, the company introduced opal ware—opaque pieces made of tempered soda-lime glass. They started with colorful mixing bowls, and by 1959 they introduced their first silkscreened pattern: Gooseberry.

For more than two decades the company produced patterned pieces, introducing new designs and discontinuing older ones. There was a pattern for every kitchen, a dish for every recipe. And now, with their varying degrees of availability, Pyrex collectors can choose to seek out the most elusive patterns, or find pleasure in the more abundant ones.

More people join the Pyrex hunting club every day, drawn in by nostalgia and aesthetically pleasing patterns. But new collectors would do well to keep a few things in mind.

Not all bakeware is created equal
The patterned Pyrex bakeware is made by Corning, but not all Corning bakeware is Pyrex. It’s an easy mistake to make, one I made myself when I found a dish with the blue cornflower pattern I recall my mother using when serving cauliflower to her family of six. The pattern is so ubiquitous, turning up with unrelenting regularity at estate sales and antique malls (which is good news for collectors), I had assumed it was a popular Pyrex pattern. But turn the dishes over, and you’ll see only “CorningWare.”

In addition to other Corning-produced bakeware, there were other companies on the midcentury market producing eye-catching patterned dishes. Fire-King, by Anchor Hocking was another Pyrex-like product made with borosilicate glass (and later with tempered soda-lime glass). They are collectors’ items in their own right—particularly in their line of Jade-ite restaurant ware. Fortunately, most dishes are clearly identifiable, with Pyrex branded into the piece along with other identifying markers. On other vintage products now sought by collectors, like carnival glass and china, makers’ marks inconsistently used, and product molds were passed between manufacturers. In this way, Pyrex (and Fire-King and Corelle and Fiestaware, etc.) collectors have it easy.

Quality counts
Where they don’t have it easy, necessarily, is in seeking out pieces in good condition. Pyrex is durable, to be sure, but not indestructible, particularly when it comes to the all-important pattern. The bakeware is microwave- and oven-safe, but a dishwasher will damage a Desert Dawn and fade a Friendship beyond recognition after numerous washes. Some scratches may be acceptable, especially if it’s a particularly rare or hard-to-find item, the missing piece in one’s personal Pyrex puzzle, or a piece they plan to use regularly, rather than put on display. But collectors are naturally looking to find the best examples available.

Where to look
Pyrex makes appearances at thrift stores and antique malls all the time. Online resale shops also carry vintage pieces with regularity. But estate sales are one of the best places to find the piece you’re coveting. Pyrex retired all its patterns in 1986, choosing instead to focus on the clear glass bakeware it started with. Which means every Pyrex pattern that’s going to exist is already out there. (Though there is a line of bakeware “inspired by Pyrex” on the market right now.) And while collectors have a good amount of it, much of the bakeware is still in use by those who bought it originally, many of whom are at a point where they’re retiring and downsizing, which often involves an estate auction or tag sale.

I have yet to start collecting Pyrex, but nostalgia’s siren song is a melodious one. My own mother had cabinets full of mismatched pots and pans when I was growing up, but the only one I can recall is her behemoth of a Pyrex bowl. A Bright Yellow #404, if you want to get technical. (Which you do, I’m sure.)

That bowl meant homemade pizza on the day after Thanksgiving, when we would come home hungry after a day of Christmas tree hunting, the smell of freshly-risen dough filling the house.

That bowl meant multiple batches of cookies were about to be baked on a mid-December weekend.

That bowl meant tuna noodle salad every Friday of Lent….Well, not all food memories can be magical, I suppose. There is nothing whimsical about tuna noodle salad. Nothing. Sorry, Mom.

So if that #404 shows up at an estate sale near me, I will buy it. And from there, the next logical step would be falling down that slippery slope from nostalgic admiration of a brand to competitive hoarding.

And I, for one, look forward to it.

Header image: 2010.4.386, Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York

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