The Average Cinderella

Cinderella bowl? “Why not? Have to name it…something,” was the laconic answer that came from Corning’s archivist, Kristine Gable. But it seems unlikely that a thriving company like Corning would not put a lot of thought into naming a new product within its most successful line, Pyrex. Barbara E. Mauzy–a woman who has been collecting Pyrex for decades and published a collector’s guide, Pyrex: The Unauthorized Collector’s Guide, in 2000–was more communicative. “You know, Pyrex marketed completely to women,” she said, “I would suspect, calling it that way would say as much as, ‘This is the cooking wear that makes your dreams come true.’ The subliminal message was that Pyrex was going to make women happy.”

Cinderella is certainly a character whose dreams came true. When the Cinderella bowl set was introduced in 1957, the average woman could relate to the fairy-tale figure in more ways than one. Just as the unhappy girl from the tale, she had to clean the house, wash, cook, take care of kids and pets, serve her family and friends. And yet, she had to charm her husband with beauty and finesse. The colored four-piece bowl set combines the same qualities: functional use and physical attractiveness.

Pyrex introduced its first translucent dishes in 1947. The so-called opal glassware was a direct outcome of Corning’s wartime research and development, where the company had applied its technology to the breakage problem in military kitchens. In December 1943, Corning ran an ad in both Time and Business Week, presenting its work for the US army. “Months ago,” the text says, “the armed services asked Corning to develop a glass out of which messware could be made on a fast production basis. Naturally the product had to be tough and strong because the average K.P. or galley detail isn’t noted for gentleness in dishwashing. The result surprised everybody–even Corning. The dishes are smooth and nice looking. And surprisingly tough. … Right now, Corning and the rest of the American glass industry is engaged in showing Hitler what free enterprises can do.”

While the GIs were out here (armed with Pyrex), women had their duties on the home front. In the popular women’s magazine McCall’s, Pyrex ran an ad showing a woman preparing homegrown vegetables in her Pyrex ware. “This is a Victory gardener… Shouldn’t she be proud?” it says, “she should indeed! And Uncle Sam is proud of her too for making food fight for freedom. She’ll be prouder still when she sees her garden in sparkling Pyrex Ware! … You don’t have to waste a single hard-won carrot, because leftovers can be stored, reheated, and served again in the same Pyrex dish.”

Once the war was over, the public’s focus shifted away from patriotic duties, pointing at a flawless ideal of domestic existence instead. Pyrex–an accurate mirror of American society–went along with that shift. Now, women were proud of their gadget-filled kitchens, where they collected tools for every purpose: egg slicers, onion slicers, automatic potato peelers (“no work, no waste, no peels”), potato cutters, barbecue sandwich toaster, the Super-Market Quick-Adder–and, of course, all sorts of Pyrex dishes. The glassware was so ubiquitous, it even appeared in ads other than its own, for instance in an Edison Electric campaign that ran in Life and other popular magazines. It was also featured in editorials by magazines such as Good Housekeeping. Corning glass had continuous ad coverage in that magazine which, in return, tested and guaranteed to its readers the claims made in its ads.

The lifestyle of the 1950s required colorful accessories, and so Corning introduced colored and patterned opal dishes–among them, in 1957, the Cinderella bowl set. Unlike the motley crew of single-purpose gadgets, Cinderella was an all-rounder. Instead of ordinary handles, the bowls had two lips: a wide one that served as a grip and a narrower one that was used for pouring. This feature made the dishes a nice alternative to batter bowls, while also usable for baking, serving and storing. Cinderella was introduced as a set of four perfectly hemispherical bowls, neatly nesting in one another; and albeit showing so many talents, it was soon extended with other dishes, such as casseroles, square baking and serving sets as well as oven, refrigerator and freezer sets.

A collector’s guide published in 1993, Pyrex by Corning: A Collector’s Guide by Susan Tobier Rogove and Marcia Buan Steinhauer, credits the famous architect Philip Johnson for the design of the Cinderella bowl set. Given that the original drawing is signed “JPJ”, however, this is probably a misattribution. The architect’s full name is Philip Cortelyou Johnson. And while Cinderella’s form and functionality might have argued for the famous architect’s contribution, there is one clear clue against it: Cinderella was introduced in two rustic patterns. Gooseberry–rather self-explanatorily–shows gooseberry leaves, flowers and berries and came in pink and white or yellow and black. Butterprint was originally introduced in white and turquoise, a very trendy color in the 1950s, and later supplemented by pink/white and orange/white. The pattern alternates on the various bowl sizes with color on white and vice versa; and it shows an Amish country scene, featuring a farmer and his wife holding a bushel of crops. They are surrounded by crops in the field, wheat sheaves, roosters and corn plants.

All of that is not exactly Philip Johnson’s universe. But it is our perfect housewife’s universe who, though suburban, spent her days in a rustic kitchen with wooden paneled cabinets, decorative wickerwork and copper pans. What did she dream of while she completed all the housework and prepared her family’s dinner, maybe pumpkin pie, in a Pyrex glassware?  The average woman in 1957 certainly did relate to Cinderella in more ways than one.

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