Maybe you picked baby carrots off the plates when you visited your grandparents’ house. Maybe your parents used the bowls to serve soup on Thanksgiving.
You wouldn’t be faulted for not knowing the set by name, but its likeness is practically synonymous with dinnertime in late-20th-century America.
I’m talking, of course, about the Butterfly Gold line of dinnerware from Corelle — perhaps the most popular consumer dining set in American history, and also the most mysterious.
If you grew up eating meals on Butterfly Golds, their image alone probably causes intense nostalgia to rise from your core. They were first introduced in 1970, but hit their peak in the late 1980s. Around that time, the bowls and plates were in 35% of American households, Corelle says. That works out to about 75 million families simultaneously eating dinner on the same set of cheap, white plates, night after night.
How did Corelle (then called Corning) manage to get its plates and bowls into so many households? It’s all because the company decided to ask 8,000 housewives a few questions.
In 1970, executives from Corning realised they shouldn’t make assumptions about what people wanted in their dishware, and figured listening to consumers would pay off in the long run. Although it involved some legwork, they sent representatives into people’s homes to spend time with them.
They learned some crucial insights. For one, housewives didn’t just want functionality out of their bowls and plates. They also wanted “good-looking, inexpensive everyday dishes” and “good strong dishes that don’t weigh a ton,” a Corelle spokesperson tells Business Insider.
Within a year, Corelle put out four designs of its so-called Livingware line. Set against “Winter Frost White,” the designs were Spring Blossom Green, Old Towne Blue, Snowflake Blue, and, of course, Butterfly Gold. The pieces were made of a specialised, hard-to-break glass called Vitrelle, and magazine ads highlighted the strength and affordability of the plates and bowls.
When they launched in 1971, a 20-piece set retailed for $19.95, or about $118 today, adjusting for inflation. (That cost has come down considerably in the years since — a typical 20-piece set now retails for $40 or less.)
The strategy worked, to put it mildly. In 1970, the company sold 425,000 pieces of dishware. By 1971, sales had soared to 38.9 million.
The boom held steady for the next 15 years. Families bought the sets in droves, filling their kitchen cabinets with a long-desired middle ground between paper plates and good china — until Corelle discontinued Butterfly Gold in the early 1990s to cater to more modern tastes.
It was only within the last several years, as 20- and 30-somethings began pooling their childhood memories on sites like Reddit and Twitter — “Only 90s kids will remember…” — that people started realising their dining experiences weren’t unique. In fact, they were quietly shared by millions of people across the country.
Butterfly Golds, the great and unexpected equaliser.