Dining with Antiques – The Mid-Century Ease of Pyrex Casseroles

As the growing interest in Mid-Century Modern collectibles continues to sweep through many parts of the U.S., furniture and decorative arts from the 1950s and 1960s are being displayed in more and more living rooms and dens. The kitchen is a popular place to showcase retro items as well, as aqua appliances, atomic wall clocks and chrome storage canisters are making return appearances. And holding an honored place on the kitchen counter top is the iconic Pyrex casserole dish.

The eerie 1971 Corning Pyrex Moon Deco pattern. Red and black on white. Good luck in finding one of these.

Following the Second World War, women’s magazines promoted easy-to-prepare meals. The flexible casserole (which had previously been used to economically stretch meat) began to take on a new role—that of convenience. The “one-dish dinner—from stovetop to tabletop” needed very little preparation, required no watching and greatly decreased clean-up time. Casseroles could be made ahead and frozen for later use. Leftovers could go straight into the refrigerator. The casserole quickly became a comforting presence in American life.

Although Corning Glass Works introduced its thermal shock-resistant Pyrex dishes in 1915, the hardy tempered bakeware did not begin to appear in colors until 1947. The next year, Corning established a design division—staying in tune with the idea that cookware could double as a serving piece to take to the table. But the first patterns did not appear on casserole dishes until 1956, when the Daisy and Snowflake patterns debuted on Corning’s “decorator” casseroles—in pink, charcoal and turquoise.

Divided casseroles became available in 1958, so that a side dish could cook along with the main attraction (really reducing clean-up). And finally branching out, Corning introduced a new casserole pattern, Gold Acorn, in 1960. The ever-increasing designs that followed are a delight for today’s collectors, because they changed with the times—even appearing in pop art, psychedelic, Amish and Native American themes. Every spring and every fall, a one-time promotional design was also released, making a hunt for vintage rarities all the more fun.

One of the first patterns on Corning Pyrex cookware: the 1956 Snowflake pattern.

The 1958 Decorator pattern with custard background and black modern kitchen motif. Gold-tone cradle.

The common patterns can be very inexpensive to collect and can be found at most flea markets and garage sales. But Autumn Harvest’s shock of wheat just can’t compare to some of the harder-to-find patterns, such as Zodiac, with its gold-leaf astrological figures or eerie Moon Deco, with its sleek red and black orbs. It’s also difficult to find the go-along items that came with some of the dishes. Warming trays, basket and metal carriers, detachable wood handles, cradles and stands were often not marked and usually got separated. There are more than 70 casserole patterns to choose from, so a collector can spend many enjoyable hours searching for new discoveries.

The Mid-Century Birth of the Casserole
One-pot meals have been in existence for thousands of years, of course, but the term “casserole” is French in origin and first appeared in the English language in the early 1700s. Recipes for a baked combination of meat, cream sauce and noodles date to the 1800s. But the casserole peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, due largely to the light-weight Pyrex cookware available. It began to lose favor in the 1970s when gourmet cooking trends made casseroles seem unsophisticated.

The 1960 Gold Acorn pattern.

The 1961 Holiday pattern. White pinecones on red background.

The tuna casserole was among the first to champion the genre in a big way. Tuna was commercially available in cans in 1903 but was not widely used until the 1930s. The Campbell Soup Company introduced a cream of mushroom soup in 1934 and also advertised it as a quick and inexpensive substitute for homemade cream sauce. Campbell’s subsequent promotional material and cookbooks included many recipes for casseroles, with a tuna version appearing in 1941. Campbell Soup Company cannot be credited with inventing the tuna casserole, but it probably did the most to popularize it.

Pyrex doesn’t stain and is very difficult to scratch or chip. So, the vintage bakeware appears clean and fresh and can still be used for everyday cooking. Since it’s fun to serve vintage recipes with vintage pieces, enjoy your old cookware with the first known recipe for tuna casserole made from mushroom soup below.

The hard-to-find 1961 Zodiac pattern. Dark green with gold leaf.


Company Casserole
From “Easy Ways to Good Meals: 99 Delicious Dishes Made with Campbell’s Soups,” 1941

1 package (6 oz) egg noodles
1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup
1 cup milk
1/4 pound pimiento cheese, sliced
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1 can (7 oz) tuna fish
6 tablespoons flaked cereal crumbs, buttered

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender. Empty the soup into a pan and stir well, then add milk and heat. Add the pimiento cheese and stir until the cheese melts. Combine the noodles, eggs and tuna fish with the sauce. Put into a buttered casserole, sprinkle buttered flaked cereal crumbs over the top and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 25-30 minutes. Serves 8

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books. “Dining with Antiques” is a periodic feature in which she highlights usable collectible dinnerware, along with vintage recipes.

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