Editor's Note: This article was originally published onNovember 21, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Once upon a time…..actually, this would be an ideal way to begin the story behind the Blue Willow design of dinnerware because it is an ancient tale. Its origins date back to feudal China. One version involves secret societies and invading marauders while another tells the tale of the early Buddhists who called heaven, The City of Willows. The design, originally called Mandarin, features a great Willow Tree in the foreground, a bridge with three figures on it and a walled temple in the background. Above a body of water are two doves eternally bound together.
The romantic version of the plate design tells a love story of a rich Mandarin whose beautiful daughter falls in love with his clerk. Forbidden to wed, they run away, are eventually captured and put to death. At this point, the Gods take pity and turn them into a pair of immortal doves. A great audio version can be heard here.
This story is said to have originated in England. The earlier, chinese designs of this pattern did not feature the doves or the wall around the temple and these may have been added later. The original design, which is elusive, depicted the tale of Buddhists receiving souls into heaven across a bridge which led to the City of Willows.
The tree featured is a Weeping or Peking Willow (Salix x pendulina and Salix x sepulcralis) native to northern China, and is a deciduous tree that grows to 20 feet but has a short life span. In 5th century ancient texts, Hippocrates the Greek physician wrote of its ability to remedy aches and fevers. In 1897 a new drug was developed from this tree and patented by A.G. Bayer. It is called aspirin.
Porcelain was first produced in China under strict secrecy and exported to Europe where it became known simply as china. In the early eighteenth century the secret was discovered by scientists at the Meissen Factory. Between 1720 and 1739 Meissen worked on replicating porcelain produced in China through a process that involved color fired into the ware called inglazing. They called it “onion china” because of its delicate transparency. The blue cobalt decoration on the plate could have been any design as the focus was to perfect the process. However, the floral pattern originally used, changed very little throughout its production.
Used for hundreds of years, this collectable pattern features a floral motif consisting of a grouping of Japanese peaches, pomegranates, stylized peonies, and asters. The stems wind in curves around the edge of the plate. Later reproductions from other factories have fewer of the original group of flora and what appears to be an onion, is actually the pomegranate fruit. There is no onion in the design.
Having very little to do with the design, "onion china" is important in its role as an early European discovery of the process of producing a strong, white, transparent porcelain with a unique cobalt blue inglazing. Thus, the combination of the blue cobalt dye on the “onion china” porcelain, led to the common name of “Blue Onion.”
In my efforts to recreate a 1950’s kitchen, I looked for a line of dinnerware that once sat high on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. A pretty blue color with a simple flower pattern, I thought it must have been very special for it was never used and only came down periodically for cleaning. Searching thrift stores and fleas I found a small piece which had the makers mark. Armed with this information I was able to go online to try to purchase more of the set. What I found amazed me.
What I was searching for was the Blue Tulip line of dinnerware made by the Cronin China Company of Minerva, Ohio. My efforts to contact them would be fruitless for they went out of business in 1956. Had I been around prior to 1956, I would still not have been able to purchase this set, because it was never sold.
In the early 1950’s a popular advertising campaign was give-aways. Supermarkets and chain stores would give away wares as a promotional tool. Coca Cola gave away bottle openers, gas stations gave away mugs and ashtrays, banks gave away toasters. Free items would run the gamut from calendars to TV’s. Dinnerware and kitchen items were very popular to attract shopping housewives. Today these items have become highly collectible and sought after.
My Blue Tulip ware was such an item, used as an advertising promotion for A&P grocery stores. It featured a stylized blue tulip on a turquoise background. There was an A&P supermarket near our house where my mother shopped and I’m certain that must be where she got her free set.
Looking back, I conclude that she got this free set, parked it above the kitchen cabinets and it became a decoration. I was able to find the pieces I wanted online and now I have my own give-away set although mine was far from free.
In conclusion, is there a real Blue Tulip plant? The closest I could find was Blue-Tulip (Moraea polystachya) which is actually an African Iris that is highly poisonous and has more of a resemblance to violet than blue. I will add it to my list after the Blue Coleus.