Why were Corning Ware coffee percolators recalled?  Which types were affected?

There were two percolator recalls, the first in 1976, and the second in 1979.  Eventually all Corning Ware percolators with a chrome spout were found to be potentially defective.  The colour of the spout is the only feature to consider when identifying a recalled percolator.  It does not matter whether it is an Electromatic or a stovetop model, and visible screws on the black handle make no difference either.  The defect often is described loosely as "the handle can fall off", but this is not entirely accurate.

 

1960s 9 cup percolator with chrome spout, Blue Cornflower.
Blue Cornflower 9 cup stovetop percolator with a chrome spout, the usual style of the 1960s, with a well-defined ridge around the outside of the collar.

For chrome-spout percolators, the connection between the black handle and the metal collar is not the problem, the fault lies with how the metal collar is attached to the glass-ceramic pot.  They are glued together, and in time the glue will shrink and crack after repeated heating cycles and exposure Corning Ware Electromatic percolator, P-80, image from 1971 Sears catalogueto moisture.  The seepage of coffee, water and detergents into the overlap between the pot and the collar is particularly destructive.

(Photo: P-80 Electromatic percolator.  Image from 1971 Sears catalogue.)

When the glue deteriorates, the result is a "separation problem", where the pot will drop away from the metal collar when it is carried by the handle.  If it drops off while it is full of hot coffee, the user can be scalded badly.  There were many reports of injuries concerning burns and lacerations, and half of those required medical attention.

             

Why were they designed that way?

In 1959 the first Corning Ware percolator debuted.  This pot flared out at the top with a white glass-ceramic spout, and the handle was attached to a metal band below the rim, tightly gripping the narrowest part of the pot.

Quickly it was discovered that the rim and spout were susceptible to chipping during washing and other daily handling, since it stood out so prominently from the body of the pot.  This vulnerability was solved in 1960 with the full metal collar design.

 

Stovetop percolator from 1959 with a white spout.
Blue Cornflower 6 cup stovetop percolator with a white spout, the first style of Corning Ware percolator introduced in 1959.  There is an 8 cup size too.  This type is not held together with glue.

 

When did the problem become apparent?

From the beginning, the metal collar was attached to the glass-ceramic pot with glue, but reports of failures did not flood in until 1974 when two changes were made to the E-1210 Electromatic percolator.  The shape of the joint where the two parts meet was altered, and a new type of quick-drying epoxy glue was chosen.

This new adhesive was assumed to be the very best because it was used in military jets, a seemingly demanding application.  But military jets are not brought to the boil and washed in hot soapy water every day, and it became evident that the epoxy was inadequate for the extremes that coffee percolators face.

 

What action was taken?

Manufacture of the affected models was halted in December 1974, and it was suggested within the company that a recall should be organized.  But instead, procedures for curing the epoxy were improved and a correction was made to the way the pieces fit together.  Production of the E-1210 resumed, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was not informed of the flaw.  Initially the attitude was taken that the failure rate was very low and a recall was unnecessary, but some key employees were disappointed and felt that this decision lacked integrity. 

Finally a report was filed with the CPSC in June 1976 and a recall of the 360,500 E-1210s manufactured in 1974 was announced.  Corning endeavoured to make it the "best recall ever" and publicized it in newspapers, on local television news and with in-store displays.  About 15,000 units were returned and replaced.  Although this compliance rate seems low, both the CPSC and Corning regarded the effort as a success.

But the Commission eventually learned that the company knew about the defect in 1974 and had failed to act in a timely fashion.  The CPSC handed out a $400,000 penalty for a lack of "timeliness", but a settlement was made for $325,000.  At the time, it was seen as a large and unprecedented penalty, particularly considering that the defect did not result in any fatalities, as some product failures do.

 

E-1210 electric percolators; Spice O' Life, Blue Cornflower, Floral Bouquet.  Image from 1973 catalogue.
E-1210 (10 cup) Electromatic Immersible percolators, Spice O' Life, Blue Cornflower, Floral Bouquet.  Image from 1973 catalogue.

 

How did the 1976 recall work?

First, it was necessary for the consumer to identify whether their electric percolator was included in the recall.  The affected model numbers were specifically reported as E-1210, E-1210-4, E-1210-8, but the "-4" and "-8" suffixes only indicate the pattern, with -4 as Floral Bouquet, and -8 as Spice O' Life; no suffix means Blue Cornflower.

Upon verifiying that the unit was an E-1210, the metal collar to the right of the handle was checked for a serial number.  If there was no serial number, then examining the capacity markings on the inside was the next step.  If there was a dot to the left of the 8 cup or 10 cup mark, then the percolator was part of the 1976 recall.

Owners were advised to consult their local retailers to learn the details of the recall procedure.  They were instructed to keep all of the parts, and mail only the pot to Corning, who would send a new replacement pot, plus a cheque reimbursing the postage cost.  Those with Floral Bouquet percolators had to choose between Blue Cornflower and Spice O' Life since their original pattern had been discontinued.

 

What happened after the 1976 recall?

Chrome-spout percolators, both electric and stovetop, continued to be made until 1978, but their discontinuance had nothing to do with product defects.  In the mid 1970s automatic drip coffee machines were the newest trend with coffee drinkers, and demand for percolators simply dwindled away. 

Despite recalling the troublesome 1974 Electromatics, complaints about "separation problems" continued to come from consumers who owned other models of chrome-spout percolators, some of them dating to the early 1960s.  More injuries were reported and lawsuits were filed as well.

Finally it was realized that any type of glue would fail with enough time and usage, and the problem was not confined to just one model.  With the company's reputation at risk again, it was decided that an even wider recall should be launched in September 1979. 

 

1970s 10 cup stovetop percolator, Spice O' Life.
Spice O' Life P-149 (10 cup) stovetop percolator with a chrome spout.  The smooth metal collar is the typical style of the 1970s.

 

What about the 1979 recall?

Corning had sold an estimated 18.5 million percolators since 1960, and nearly all of them were the chrome-spout type.  It was not expected that every one of those units were still in use, but even so, it was the biggest product recall ever undertaken.  Advertisements were placed in newspapers and magazines, and announcements were prepared for radio and television. 

The newspaper advertisement read as follows:

"AN URGENT MESSAGE TO OWNERS OF CORNING WARE COFFEE PERCOLATORS.  Some Corning Ware Percolators, both electric and non-electric, can be dangerous to use.  The metal band may separate from the white glass-ceramic pot without warning.  The handle will not necessarily appear loose.  If you have a Corning Ware Percolator, please fill out and return the coupon below.  STOP USING THE PERCOLATOR FOR ANY PURPOSE, BUT KEEP IT UNTIL YOU HEAR FROM CORNING.  We will send you further information and a special offer.  Illustration depicting the separation problem.Note: Do not return the percolator to a retail store.  We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you, but we are concerned for your safety.  Thank you for your cooperation."

(Image: Illustration issued by the company depicting the separation problem.)

In Canada, the advertisement was worded a bit differently:

"AN URGENT MESSAGE TO OWNERS OF CORNING WARE COFFEE PERCOLATORS.  STOP USING THE PERCOLATOR for any purpose.  Some Corning Ware percolators can be dangerous to use.  The complete metal top may separate from the white glass-ceramic pot ... without warning.  The handle may not necessarily appear loose.  Percolators may be either rangetop or electric.  If you have a Corning Ware percolator with a metal top (pouring spout), please fill out and return the coupon below.  DO NOT RETURN the percolator to a retail store or Corning Canada Inc. BUT KEEP IT UNTIL you hear from Corning.  We will send you further information and a special offer.  We regret any inconvenience; however, we are concerned for your safety.  Thank you for your co-operation."

The bottom half of the advertisement was a form to clip out and mail in with details about the capacity, model number, and the serial number, if present.  With this information, Corning staff would determine whether the percolator was part of the recall, and reply to the customer with further instructions.

If their unit was a recalled one, owners were given a choice between receiving a cash refund indexed to the age of the percolator, or a 50% discount on the purchase of another product.  They were not asked to return the coffee pot this time, but were required to send back the lid and discard the remainder of the unit.

 

6 cup percolator with white spout, from 1982.
Blue Cornflower P-166 (6 cup) stovetop percolator with a white spout, introduced 1982.  This new shape appeared when interest in percolators rebounded.  It was discontinued in 1985.  Other patterns: Spice O' Life, Wildflower, White.

 

Which percolators were not recalled?

Any Corning Ware percolator with a white glass-ceramic spout was not affected by the recall.  This includes the very oldest percolator introduced in 1959, and the newest one introduced in 1982.  Also, there are at least two different 4 cup percolators with white spouts that were produced between the mid 1960s & early 1970s.

According to a 1995 document from Corning, a specific group of E-1210 Electromatic percolators were declared to be acceptably safe to use.  They can be identified by the presence of a three-digit number engraved on the metal collar, just to the right of the handle.  These units were manufactured after the 1976 recall, and employ a better method of joining the pot and collar.  Any E-1210 that does not have a three-digit number on its collar cannot be assumed to be safe.

There are some unusual electric percolators with colourful spouts and bases.  Two models have Corning Ware bowls and two have clear Pyrex bowls, but all four have plastic spouts.  Their construction is quite different from chrome-spout electric percolators, and they were not included in the recalls.

Additionally, Flameware percolators and teapots, Pyrex percolators, carafes and drip coffee makers, and Corning Ware drip coffee makers and teapots were not recalled either.

 

Corning Ware Percolator, 4 cups, white spout
Blue Cornflower 4 cup stovetop percolator with a white spout.  Four cup percolators do not need chrome spouts because they are smaller and easier to handle, so they are less prone to damage on the spout and rim.


Sources:

The Generations of Corning, Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross.

Corning and the Craft of Innovation, Margaret B.W. Graham and Alec T. Shuldiner.

Consumer Product Safety Act Section 15 and Substantial Product Hazards, M. Stuart Madden.

Newspaper Archives - various.

CPSC website.


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