In 1915, Corning Glass Works, Corning, NY, introduced the first glass ovenware, Pyrex, made of a new, clear, heat-resistant material. In 1952, quite by accident, Dr. S. Donald Stookey of Corning’s research and development division, invented Pyroceram, a white ceramic-like material capable of withstanding enormous variations in temperature. While he was testing a type of glass plate used in early TV production, a furnace’s temperature control malfunctioned, causing the glass to be heated to 900 degrees C. It 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 amazement, 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. The first product line consisted of a skillet, three sauce pans, and four covers. (The original lids were also made of Pyroceram and featured a fin handle. These were quickly followed by fin-handled clear glass lids, and in 1962, Corning Ware abandoned the fin handles 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. The cookware could be used in the oven or on the range (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 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 trademark of Corning consumer products for the next three decades. Corning did produce a wheat design later on, but those items are quite difficult to find today.
Corning Ware 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 product line continually expanded, adding additional pieces of cookware in new sizes, as well as percolators and an Electromatic electric skillet (actually an electric “hotplate” base on which the flat-bottomed 11” skillets fit). The Electromatic and all percolators were discontinued in 1976.
The original Cornflower Blue cookware was produced for only 13 years, from 1958 through 1971. In 1972, significant changes were made to its shape. The sides became much straighter, producing a squarer look, and the lug handles became larger, requiring a new “A” style detachable handle to fit them. The new clear glass lids featured a larger knob. Corning Ware also introduced its new Spice of Life (a/k/a French Spice) Corning Ware pattern in 1972, which remained in production until 1987. By the way, for those of us who have never known what the French words mean, here’s a complete translation:
Le Persel - Parsley
La Sauge - Sage
L’Echalote - Shallot
La Marjolaine - Marjoram
Le Romann - Rosemary
Le Café - Coffee
Le The - Tea
In 1976, Corning Ware took advantage of the new microwave craze sweeping the nation and began producing products specifically for microwave use. (All Cornflower Blue casseroles and skillets, both original and as modified in 1972, had always been usable in the microwave, likewise the Spice of Life casseroles and skillets introduced in 1972, but most of us didn’t know that until we actually got our first microwave in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s!) The French White (a/k/a Everyday Gourmet) pattern was introduced in 1978, and the Heat ’N’ Eat line in 1979. These were small, handy pieces that came in pure white, Cornflower Blue, Spice Of Life, and the Wildflower pattern that had been introduced in 1977.
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. In 1990, the French Black, Silk and Roses, and Abundance patterns were introduced, as well as Corning Ware’s beige line of cookware, the first non-white pieces, 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 1970's, 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 1980's and soon the Martinsburg, WV, plant was producing Visions as well as Corning Ware. However, the Visions fad was short-lived. By 1988, sales had dropped off dramatically 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 1980's, Corning’s entire Consumer Products Division, consisting of Pyrex, Corning Ware, Corelle, and Visions, was in trouble. In 1994, Corning Ware began offering a rapid-fire succession of new Corning Ware patterns in an attempt to still make a profit from an aging product line. Over the next four years, 13 new patterns were introduced, compared to only five during the first 10 years of production. But sadly, Corning Ware’s outstanding versatility and 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 privately held and is 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.)
The original pyroceramic version of Corning Ware was removed from the U.S. market in the 1990s, but World Kitchens reintroduced it in 2009. Their website says their StoveTop products, available in Cornflower Blue and 3-4 other patterns (apparently not including Spice of Life), are safe to use in the freezer, a broiler, a microwave, and on the stovetop. But a word of warning:
DON’T use ANY Corning Ware pieces on the stovetop unless you’re absolutely SURE they’re made of pyroceram and/or their bottoms say they can be used that way!
Obviously there was a 10+ year period during which World Kitchen’s Corning Ware was NOT made of pyroceram, and pieces from that era are NOT safe to use on the stovetop. I’ve read more than one account of cracking, breaking, and even exploding! On the other hand, all Corning Wear cooking and baking pieces of whatever age are safe in the microwave and in the oven at temperatures of 350 degrees or less.
Authentic 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 1960's couldn’t live without it and we’re still using our trusty old pieces eagerly bought 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 gatherings or church dinners 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!
List of Corning Ware patterns by date
Cornflower Blue - 1958-1987 - most popular with collectors
Black Starburst - 1959-1963 - rare (percolators only)
Black Trefoil - 1960-1965 - rare (Electromatics, percolators, buffet dishes)
All White / Just White - 1966- ??? - uncommon
Cookmates - 1968 - ??? - uncommon
Avocado Round - 1968 - ?? - uncommon
Butterscotch - 1969 - ?? - rare
Wheat - < 1971 - ?? - rare
Harvest Gold - 1971 - ?? - (square version of Butterscotch) - uncommon
Avocado Medallion - 1971 - ?? - uncommon
Merry Mushroom - 1971 - ?? - uncommon
Floral Bouquet - 1971-1975 - common
Medallion - 1972-1974 (a promotion piece for Shell Oil Co. - never sold in stores) - rare
Spice of Life - 1972-1987 - 2nd most popular with collectors
Country Festival - 1975-1977 - rare
Blue Heather - 1976-1977 - rare
Indian Summer - 1976-1977 - rare
Wildflower - 1977-1884 - uncommon
French White (Everyday Gourmet) - 1978-1998 - common
French Bisque - 1982 - rare
French Bleu - ca 1982 - rare
Jardin - 1985 - ?? (one of the patterns in the Crown Corning Classic Elegance line) - rare
Pastel Bouquet - 1985-1988 - uncommon
Shadow Iris - 1986-1993 - common
Peach Floral - 1987-1990 - rare
Country Cornflower - 1988-1993 - uncommon
French Black - 1990-1993 - rare
Forever Yours (beige) - 1990-1993 - uncommon
Symphony (beige) - 1990-1993 - uncommon
Silk and Roses - 1990-1994 - rare
Abundance - 1991-1994 - rare
Orchid Rose - 1992-1994 - rare
Blue Dusk - 1994-1998 - rare
Garden Harvest - 1994-1998 - rare
Lyrics - 1995-1998 - rare
English Breakfast (beige) - 1995-1998 - rare
Rosemarie - 1995-1998 - rare
Sunsations - 1996-1997 - uncommon
Summer Blush - 1996-1997 - rare
Friendship - 1996-1997 - rare
Fruit Basket - 1997-1998 - rare
Fresh Cut - 1997-1998 - rare
Blue Violet - 1997-1998 - rare
After Corning Ware was spun off to World Kitchens in 1998, the new company produced additional patterns, but I’ve made no effort to document them since collectors are interested only in the actual Corning Ware patterns.
As a final P.S. to my now waaaay over-long Corning Ware Story, here is a list of Corning Ware’s gift lines. These pieces were produced in very limited quantities and are exceedingly hard to find today.
Platinum Filigree - 1966-1968
Renaissance - 1970
Nature’s Bounty - 1971