This article, written under my married name Kitty Hanson, was first published in All About Glass, Vol. XII No. 4, pp. 18-21, Jan. 2015.
Corning Ware: The Oops that Changed America!
The year was 1952 and Dr. S. Donald Stookey was working in his Research and Development Division lab at the Corning Glass Works in Corning, NY. While testing a type of glass plate used in early TV production, his furnace’s temperature control malfunctioned, causing the glass to be heated to 900 degrees C. The glass should have melted, but it didn’t. Instead it kept its edges and turned a milky white color! When Dr. Stookey took the hot, undamaged glass out of the furnace with his tongs he accidentally dropped it on the floor. To his astonishment, it didn’t break! He quickly named and patented the new glass as Pyroceram. It was first used in industrial and military applications and Corning Glass was soon producing the nosecones for three different missile manufacturers.
Corning Ware, a line of Pyroceram cookware, was introduced in September of 1958 and rolled out by November of that year. It was an immediate hit, thanks in no small part to an aggressive magazine and TV ad campaign. By Christmas Eve of 1958 sales so far outstripped inventory that Corning ran out of stock and announced plans to build a new factory in Martinsville, WV, that would produce only Corning Ware.
The first product line consisted of a skillet and three sizes of sauce pans (a/k/a casseroles), each with a lid. The original lids were also made of Pyroceram. The skillet lid featured a knob handle, but the sauce pan lids featured arched fin handles. These lids are exceedingly rare today and I’ve never seen even a picture of one. Sometime between 1958 and 1962 the Pyroceram lids were discontinued, replaced by clear glass (Pyrex) lids with fin handles. In 1962 the fin handles were completely abandoned in favor of the knob handles with which we are most familiar.
The first product line also included two accessory pieces: a metal cradle and a detachable handle, known today as the “P” style handle, that locked in place over the lug handles of the skillet and sauce pans. Corning Ware could be used in the oven or on the stovetop (that’s where the detachable handle came in handy), then used to serve the food at the table (that’s where the cradle came in handy), and finally used to store leftovers in the refrigerator. As one early Corning Ware ad said, “It makes no sense to cook in one dish, serve in another, and store in a third.”
The original Corning Ware cookware featured a little blue cornflower decoration designed by the Corning staff, but this, too, was a mistake, or at least a decision made in the name of expediency. Consumer research had indicated that people preferred a wheat decoration, but evidently the cornflower design already existed and a wheat design didn’t, so in their haste to get the new cookware to market, Corning went with the Blue Cornflower, which became the iconic trademark of Corning consumer products for the next three decades.
The Corning Ware product line expanded dramatically over the next several years, adding additional pieces of cookware in new sizes, such as roasters and dutch ovens, bakeware such as baking dishes, loaf pans, and pie plates, and serving pieces such as carving trays. Corning also produced percolators and Electromatic skillets, actually a thermostatically-controlled electric hotplate base to be used with the flat-bottom 8"-10" skillets.
The percolators, however, had a potentially dangerous design flaw. The metal collar/spout was glued on and after repeated usage the glue sometimes didn’t hold properly. If an unsuspecting consumer picked up the percolator by its handle only, neglecting to support it with a hotpad underneath, the whole top assembly could dislodge, resulting in possibly serious burns from hot coffee. Corning discontinued production of both its percolators and Electromatics in 1976, but I don’t know why the Electromatics were discontinued. I’ve found no documentation that they had any kind of a design flaw, and in fact I’m still using the old Cornflower Blue Electromatic I’ve had for decades.
The classic Cornflower Blue cookware was produced for only 13 years, from 1958 through 1971. Significant changes were made to its shape in 1972. The original cookware had somewhat flared sides, while the sides of the new cookware were considerably straighter, producing a more boxy appearance. In addition, the new lug handles were wider, requiring a new detachable handle known today as the “A” style handle. The Pyrex lids changed as well. The new ones featured a narrower rim and a larger knob handle (photo 12) surrounded by only one circle rather than the two concentric circles around the original Pyrex lid knobs.
Corning Ware also introduced its new Spice of Life (a/k/a French Spice) pattern in 1972, available in an extensive product line including casseroles, bakeware, Electromatics, and the new smaller skillets and sauce pans with attached handles. Spice of Life remained in production until 1987 and for those of us who are French challenged and never knew what the words meant, here’s a complete translation:
- Le Persel - Parsley
- La Sauge - Sage
- L’Echalote - Shallot
- La Marjolaine - Marjoram
- Le Romann - Rosemary
- Le CafĂ© - Coffee
- Le The - Tea
In 1976 Corning took advantage of the new microwave craze sweeping the nation and began producing products marked specifically for microwave use. Actually, Corning Ware had always been usable in a microwave, but most of us didn’t have a microwave to use it in until the late 1970s.
Corning began focusing heavily on new Corning Ware patterns in 1985 and retired the Blue Cornflower pattern completely in 1988. Pastel Bouquet was introduced in 1985, Shadow Iris in 1986, Peach Floral in 1987, and Country Cornflower in 1988.
French Black, Silk and Roses, and Abundance patterns were introduced in 1990, as well as Corning Ware’s beige line of cookware, the first non-white pieces. These were available in the Forever Yours and Symphony patterns. The older Avocado and Harvest Gold colors had been painted onto white pieces, but these new beige pieces were beige all the way through.
Corning had begun developing a transparent glass ceramic cookware in 1962 and accomplished that goal in 1966. But fearing that such cookware would substantially undercut the American market for Pyrex and Corning Ware, the project was left to languish and ultimately reassigned to a facility in Avon, France, where it was eagerly received. The French did considerably more stovetop cooking than Americans and their stoves were hotter, putting the existing Pyrex cookware at risk for breaking.
By the late 1970s Visions, a brand new line of amber-tinted transparent cookware suitable for the hotter French stoves, was introduced in France and became an immediate hit. Not until 1981 was Visions introduced in the U.S., the first pieces being imported from France. Visions became one of the hottest (no pun intended) American crazes of the 1980s and soon Corning’s Martinsburg, WV, plant was producing Visions as well as Corning Ware. However, the Visions fad was short-lived. Sales had dropped off dramatically by 1988 and even the addition of non-stick surfaces in 1989 and the new cranberry color in 1992 failed to save Visions.
In fact, by the late 1980s Corning’s Consumer Products Division, consisting of Pyrex, Corning Ware, Corelle, and Visions, was in serious trouble. Corning began offering a rapid-fire succession of new Corning Ware patterns in 1994 in an attempt to still make a profit from its aging product line. Thirteen new patterns were introduced over the next four years, compared to only five during the first 10 years of production. But sadly, Corning Ware’s outstanding durability (it rarely broke and therefore seldom had to be replaced) led to its own demise.
In 1998 Corning’s entire Consumer Products Division was spun off as World Kitchens, Inc. and acquired by Borden. As part of the sale agreement, the Corning name had to be shed within three years. The World Kitchens name was substituted in 2000, but World Kitchens filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was reorganized in 2002. Since 2004 it has been a privately held company located in Reston, VA. (World Kitchens also owns a bunch of other brands, including Pyrex, Corelle, Revere, Baker’s Secret, Magnalite, Chicago Cutlery, and OLFA.)
World Kitchens still sells similar-looking products under the Corning Ware brand name, but all “Corning Ware” pieces produced between 2004 and 2009 were made of white-glazed stoneware, not Pyroceram glass. These pieces most definitely CANNOT be used for stovetop cooking. They’re likely to break at best or actually explode at worst!
However, World Kitchens introduced a new StoveTop line of Pyroceram cookware in 2010. These pieces, which come in Cornflower Blue and 3-4 other patterns, appear to be the straight-sided shape. The World Kitchens web site says they are safe to use in the freezer, in the oven (including under a broiler), in the microwave, and on the stovetop. But a word to the wise: Don’t use ANY Corning Ware piece on the stovetop unless you’re absolutely SURE it’s made of Pyroceram and/or its bottom says it can be used that way!
Corning never made any of the Corning Ware accessory pieces except for the cradle, the detachable handles, and a candle warmer caddy. However, companies like Dispensers Inc. and Gemco (photo 31) produced salt and pepper shakers, sugars, creamers, spatulas, and even flatware.
Vintage Corning Ware pieces are highly sought after today, both for personal use and as collectibles. Those of us who discovered Corning Ware as young brides of the 1960s couldn’t live without it and are still using our trusty old pieces eagerly purchased 40-50 years ago. We continue to look for pieces we never had and always wanted, or replacements for pieces that never made it home from family dinners and church suppers over the years. Those of you who are our children and grandchildren grew up with this “stuff,” remember it fondly from your childhoods, and often desire a collection of your own. That’s perfectly understandable. After all, as one famous Corning Ware ad proclaimed, “The more you have, the more you want!” Truer words were never spoken!