What is ‘Blue Willow?’

What is ‘Blue Willow?’


This familiar pattern was first designed by Thomas Minton in England around 1780. It is the most famous china pattern in the world, and the longest continually produced pattern in history. The willow pattern has its roots in China and is most often seen in blue and white.It was and continues to be made by hundreds of manufacturers (including in the United States). Examples may vary slightly but all have key features: a willow tree, an apple or orange tree, two doves, people on a bridge, a boat and a pagoda (tea house).
Supposedly, the original willow pattern was inspired by a fable. There are several versions but they are similar. A wealthy Chinese man lived in a magnificent pagoda under the branches of an apple tree near a bridge over which a willow tree drooped.  His beautiful daughter was the promised bride to a wealthy merchant when the first blossom fell from the willow tree. However, she fell in love with her father’s bookkeeper. The father found the two of them together and pursued them across the sea to a cottage on an island and was planning on putting them to death but the gods intervened and turned them into doves, symbolizing true love.
Blue Willow is a type of transferware. Developed in the mid 1700’s by an Irishman named John Brooks, transferware is a method of which a design on a copper plate is transferred to the china thus allowing pieces to be mass produced. Chinese potteries were exporting their hand-painted blue and white china to England and sold to wealthy customers. Transferware made the blue and white designs affordable to the masses.
The best way to tell if you have an old piece is to see if it is marked. If it has a country of origin mark it was made after 1891. A lot of pieces are unmarked and they could be old or new. Because of this and the sheer volume produced, prices for blue willow vary greatly.  There is helpful information on collecting and identifying willow on the International Willow Collectors website: www.willowcollectors.org.

Karen Waterman is a fine art, antique furniture and decorative arts appraiser in the East Bay area and will answer as many questions about your own “hidden treasures” as possible. By sending a letter or email with a question, you give full permission for use in the column. Names, addresses or e-mail will not be published and photos will be returned if requested. Send e-mails (digital photos are encouraged) to [email protected] Send snail mail to East Bay Newspapers, attn. Karen Waterman, P.O. Box 90, Bristol, RI 02809.