Am I Blue? Willow, That Is - by Paul Thompson
Updated: Sep 30, 2021
At my house nothing says “Sunday dinner” or “Thanksgiving” like a table set with Blue Willow china. I grew up with a mixed color set (some of it was green, some sepia), but it was always called Blue Willow. Later, when my wife and I were first married, my
mother-in-law bought Blue Willow by the piece for us at the grocery store, even though we were plentifully supplied with Corelle. Years later, the Corelle wore out or broke, but we still have a surprising amount of Blue Willow china left.
Is the China from China? Ask Thomas Minton.
Our 1980s era ware was made by the British company Churchill. It’s quality china, not fine by any means, but well finished and useful. The British invented Blue Willow, too. In 1780 English engraver Thomas Minton created the design and sold it to potter Thomas Turner. Chinese style (and pseudo-Chinese) was all the rage, and the quaint, decorative pattern was instantly popular. Since 1780 it’s been made all over the world, including the USA and Japan. Oddly enough, Blue Willow wasn’t made in China until the 1980s. They probably think of it as a nice old British pattern . . .
A little romance . . .
In spite of all the tales spun about the meaning of the scene, it’s just a picture, a bit of phony Orientalism by Minton, embellished later by other makers. The romantic tales inspired by the Blue Willow scene eventually inspired a 1901 opera, “The Willow Pattern.” A silent movie was also made about the reputed lovers turned into doves so they could always be together.
Ubiquitous, Blue Willow appears in many movies and TV shows as the epitome of the domestic table. It’s common to see it in Westerns and other historical dramas.
Blue Willow, as I said, isn’t always blue. It’s been made by over 400 manufacturers in green, red, and sepia. Oh, and the phrase “blue plate special” came about when diners would offer a set menu item on a Blue Willow plate.
What's it worth?
Being popular and widely made, Blue Willow isn’t rare, but early English examples made before Queen Victoria (pre-1837) can be valuable and collectible. Unusual serving or specialty pieces can have value as well. Minton’s chinoiserie scene has been used on clocks, cutlery, necklaces, and cloth patterns.
If your Thanksgiving (or Christmas) table is blue, remember it’s not only a family tradition, but a cultural one too. Not Chinese—Blue Willow is as English as brown ale and Cheddar cheese.