Do you have any “Blue Willow” dinnerware in your cupboards, or maybe tucked away in the attic? The “Blue Willow” pattern in dinnerware is one of the most popular patterns ever produced. At one time, most every household in the U.K. and U.S. had a set. Early on, it was used only for special occasions, but then as pieces were lost or broken, damaged or chipped, it ended up relegated to the kitchen cupboards. I know, growing up, we had a set (and I still have a few cups and saucers in my attic).
This dinnerware was not delicate porcelain or bone china, but a more sturdy, mass produced ceramic ware, with an infinite number of pieces, from salt and pepper shakers and gravy boats, to butter dishes, creamers, pitchers, teapots, etc. Today, Blue Willow dishware continues to be very popular, but now as a highly popular collectible … even Martha Stewart boasts of having a cupboard full of antique pieces.
Although called “Blue Willow”, this nostalgic dinnerware was not always made in ‘blue’, occasionally it was also made in red or brown. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “blue plate special” typically used in diners to indicate a great meal for a low price. Yup, Blue Willow was the plate!
I actually remember “dish night” at the movie theaters. A very popular promotional event where movie theaters would give away a dish to get theater goers to come in on a slow night. If you went to the movies often enough, it was possible to collect a complete set. In the 1970s supermarkets used this same type of promotion with “Blue Willow”, giving away a different piece each week based upon how much money you spent. Before long, you had the complete set. Blue Willow wasn’t the only pattern given away. Another very popular chinaware was various scenes from Currier & Ives, as well as Blue Liberty.
You may have pieces of Blue Willow and love the detailed Asian pattern, but do you know the romantic legend behind the design? Simply put, it is the story of a beautiful daughter of a powerful Chinese Mandarin. The daughter fell in love with her father’s clerk, but the father felt the young man was not worthy of his daughter and erected a fence to keep the two apart. The young man came by boat and found the young woman on a bridge looking for him. The couple escaped and settled on an island. The father eventually found them and ordered the young man killed. Upon hearing this, the young woman killed herself. The gods, touched by their love and devotion, transformed the couple into doves and they flew off into the sunset. (The original legend follows.)
Neither the pottery, nor the design, however, was made in China. The pottery originated in the UK in 1779 by Thomas Turner at the Caughley Pottery Works in Shropshire. Turner, a creative artist, designer and engraver, took over the pottery factory in 1754 and made it into a well-respected manufacturer of fine china, specializing in finely detailed blue transferware on white plates.
This particular Chinese-inspired design was created by Thomas Minton on copper plate. The original of which is on view at the Coalport China Museum in Shropshire. The intricate image needed a romantic legend and so the story of the two star-crossed lovers was created. The pottery became a huge success and wanted by everyone. By the end of the 18th century, not only the Caughley Pottery Works made it, but several other English potteries. Since that time, it has been determined that there have been over 400 manufacturers of Blue Willow worldwide … and still available today. Take a look at Amazon!
If you have some of original English-made Blue Willow, it does command a hefty price at auction. Weather you are buying or selling, turn the piece over and take a look at the potter’s mark or back stamp. There are many sites which will give you information on each mark, and if the piece is in good condition, with no chips or glazing, you may have yourself a little treasure.
~~ The Willow Legend ~~
There was once a Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter, Koong-se. He employed a secretary, Chang, who, while he was attending to his master’s accounts, fell in love with Koong-se, much to the anger of the Mandarin, who regarded the secretary as unworthy of his daughter.
The secretary was banished and a fence constructed around the gardens of the Mandarin’s estate so that Chang could not see his daughter and Koong-se could only walk in the gardens and to the water’s edge. One day a shell fitted with sails containing a poem, and a bead which Koong-se had given to Chang, floated to the water’s edge. Koong-se knew that her lover was not far away.
She was soon dismayed to learn that she had been betrothed to Ta-jin, a noble warrior Duke. She was full of despair when it was announced that her future husband, the noble Duke, was arriving, bearing a gift of jewels to celebrate his betrothal.
However, after the banquet, borrowing the robes of a servant, Chang passed through the guests unseen and came to Koong-se’s room. They embraced and vowed to run away together. The Mandarin, the Duke, the guests, and all the servants had drunk so much wine that the couple almost got away without detection, but Koong-se’s father saw her at the last minute and gave chase across the bridge.
The couple escaped and stayed with the maid that Koong-se’s father had dismissed for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang and the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang when he caught him.
One night the Mandarin’s spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river and the Mandarin’s guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned. Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se’s maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety.
They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him. Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.
Thus they both perished and the gods, touched by their love, immortalised them as two doves, eternally flying together in the sky.
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References: The Willow Collection, Home & Garden, Country Living, Simple Most, Food Notes, Wikipedia