Blue Willow and the Star-Crossed Lovers

Just about everyone has a piece of Blue Willow china, whose deep cobalt color may have evolved from early Imari designs (blue survived the kilns better than other colors).

Blue Willow Teapot. Photo courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May, NJ

Blue Willow Teapot. Photo courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May, NJ

Many people also know the famous Chinese legend of the pattern:

A wealthy Mandarin had a daughter named Koong-Se, who fell in love with Chang, the family accountant. Naturally, Daddy didn’t approve, so he built a fence around his estate and chose a duke as his daughter’s groom.
Of course you can guess the ending: The accountant runs off with the bride, they hightail it over a bridge and onto a boat, but alas, they’re eventually killed by the duke. The gods feel bad and turn them into swallows.

Typical Blue Willow illustration of the "Chinese Lovers" story

Typical Blue Willow illustration of the “Chinese Lovers” story

OK, so it wasn’t a real Chinese legend.
It was a story probably cooked up by Thomas Minton or one of his minions in order to promote the company’s new porcelain. But that never stopped Blue Willow from becoming one of the world’s most loved china patterns – as well as the pattern with the longest continuous production! The gold-rimmed version was William Randolph Hearst’s mother’s favorite, and graced the tables of the famous estate in San Simeon. And it always seems to show up whenever a movie or TV show wants to portray rural or Western themes.

Antique gold rimmed Blue Willow Cup & Saucer Trio Set Photo courtesy of Aquamarine Dream, Etsy

Antique gold rimmed Blue Willow Cup & Saucer Trio Set
Photo courtesy of Aquamarine Dream, Etsy

About 90% of vintage Blue Willow was made in England, with nearly 200 companies getting into the action. Japan entered the field around 1930. Today, there are an estimated 500 makers worldwide.

Common types of Blue Willow.
Naturally, the cobalt pieces are the ones we’re most familiar with. But the pattern was also made in red (which looks pink); brown, black, green, yellow and even multi-colored.

The Paden City Pottery even made an unusual Blue Willow by embossing the pattern into their plates!

How can you tell if a piece is old?
The same standards apply to all Transferware, including Blue Willow:

Older pieces are entirely glazed to prevent stains. Even the “standing rims” on the bottom are virtually always glazed. Lids should be completely glazed, as well – with rare exceptions.

Look for glazing on the standing rim. Even my modern Royal Worcester plates do not have glazing in this area.

Look for glazing on the standing rim. Even my modern Royal Worcester plates do not have glazing in this area.

Scratches from utensils and faint crazing are normal.
If the piece is marked “England” or “Made in England” it is 100 years old or newer.
If the piece is marked “Nippon” it dates from before 1921 – it’s marked “Made in Japan” after that. It could be marked “Made in Occupied Japan,” the years immediately after WWII.
Check handles and other attachments. They were originally made separately. Newer pieces will be hollow, with a hole where they join the main piece (although some Chinese fakes now have separate attachments.)
Check the marks. Older ones tend to be smaller, and of course there are no copyright or trademarks before the 1950s – definitely not before the 1920s. And, of course, if it’s microwave safe it isn’t old.
No country? No company? Be suspicious. Older pieces carry the country of origin and maybe a pattern name. Newer ones may have a paper label saying “Made in China” that can be easily removed.
Beware of plates with “royal arms” and the name “Victoria.” No documentation has been found for these marks.
Damage always affects value. Tiny chips, hairline fractures and some crazing may not be significant. But a large chip could reduce value by half or more! (You can see a prime example in my platter below the story of the lovers.) That’s a good excuse to buy the item – you can use and enjoy it every day without worrying that you’ll devalue it further.
Johnson Brothers is still in the Blue Willow business, and some of the new plates are not cheap.

Check the provenance.
As you can see, it isn’t easy to date or value any piece of Blue Willow, and even dealers can be fooled. Always demand the “provenance” of the piece. Where did it come from? How long as it been in someone’s possession?

Partner with experts.
If you really are into Blue Willow, invest in a good book of patterns,or join International Willow Collectors. They probably know more about Blue Willow than anyone else, and would be happy to share information with you.

Finally, know WHY you’re collecting Blue Willow.

Do you want to use it everyday? Why not get a good modern set of dishes? Since new pieces may cost the same as vintage or antique versions, this may be your best bet.

But if you prefer older items (as I do), take the time to learn more about it. Compare a known antique piece with newer ones and you’ll soon get a feel for what’s real vintage and what’s modern.

If you love learning about antiques as much as I do, follow the blog so you won’t miss the next article.
And enjoy the hunt!

Next up: Flow Blue

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
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3 Responses to Blue Willow and the Star-Crossed Lovers

  1. LouAnn says:

    Would you happen to know anything about the very large piece of red tranferware used in the movie “Shenandoah”? It’s sitting on the table when the family is all sitting at dinner in the early part of the movie. It is a very beautiful piece and I just love it. I have been searching for quite some time with no luck as yet…to find out about it.

  2. Pingback: Blue Willow and the Star-Crossed Lovers | From the desk of Sara Thurston

  3. Pingback: About that vintage Fiesta butter dish… | Janvier Road: Where old becomes exciting and new

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