Blue Willow. They are common, everyday dishes. The pattern has been around since the 18th Century, massed produced in various countries, and widely used in diners and restaurants in the 1920s to serve up a hardy, inexpensive meal, commonly called “Blue Plate Special.” The plates are so familiar that unless you’re a collector, you probably wouldn’t give them a second glance at a second-hand shop.
Common in ubiquity. Common in color – blue image on white background. Common with an unvarying arrangement of objects. Common in terms of everyday functionality. Now, close your eyes. Can you recall the detail?
The Blue Willow pattern is actually complicated. It depicts a traditional Chinese waterside garden with images that tell a traditional folk tale of wealth, arranged marriage, forbidden love, honor killing and transformation. The lovers turn into the pair of doves prominently featured at the top center. The pattern is a feast for an imaginative mind.
The single place setting now in my possession could have been purchased almost anywhere in the early 20th Century. Maybe even today. But it wasn’t purchased. It was a gift from the Pungo River, nudged along with dozens of similar pieces, amazingly intact, to the water’s edge. It solidly served as the everyday tableware for the good folks who owned our house and inn about 100 years ago. Their descendants recently gave me this five-piece set. Yes, it’s complicated.
Not just any common Blue Willow plates, these particular Blue Willow plates, are among the things Linda Shavender Sluck remembers about her grandmother Ruth Wilkinson:
“She never used anything else. I remember standing at the sink and helping to wash them after a meal. Especially remember all of the delicious food that was prepared and served on them like her famous fried chicken.”
Linda was a little girl then, and her memories are more feeling than detail. “One thing I remember about staying on the street you live on was the predawn sounds of people coming to work at the crab house across the street,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes they would be singing.”
There are condos where the crab house once stood. The workers are long gone, but the river – the same one that delivered the special Blue Willow plates – still carries their tune. When it’s quiet. Before dawn.
These oh-so-common plates are neatly stacked in our living room — not a typical place for a set of dishes. They are there to remind me that the most familiar things deserve a second look and that an uncommon story can turn an everyday dish into a family heirloom.
Two birds flying high
A Chinese vessel, sailing by
A bridge with three men, sometimes four
A willow tree, hanging o’er
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands
An apple tree, with apples on
A crooked fence to end my song.
–A variation of a short Willow Pattern poem