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Blue Willow at Chaffee

Historical architecture and meaningful objects surrounded the girls of The Chaffee School from the moment they first stepped onto the Palisado campus. From the colonial-era hearths of the Chaffee House to the Blue Willow tableware on which lunch was served each day, the details of the school’s environs evoked a rich and intriguing past.

The Loomis Institute’s Girls Division arrived on the Palisado Green in 1927 after a two-year legal battle concerning the institute’s fulfillment of its responsibility to educate girls, and a one-year stint in the small quarters of Poq Inn, formerly a tavern on Poquonock Avenue in Windsor. Shortly after the 1926 school year began with the Girls Division holding classes at Poq Inn, Mr. Batchelder and the Loomis trustees were pleased to learn that a 15-room, 18th-century brick home on Palisado Green had come available for purchase. Not only was this house one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture built in colonial Connecticut, but its original owner, Hezekiah Chaffee, was grandfather to Abigail Chaffee Loomis, mother of the founders of the Loomis Institute. Hezekiah’s great granddaughter, Abigail Loomis Hayden, penned her name to documents of the founding of the school and pledged her estate to the fulfillment of the progressive ideas put forth in those papers. With little hesitation, the trustees acquired the Chaffee House along with two adjacent homes, planned for the relocation of the girls to the Palisado campus in the fall of 1927, and officially changed the name of the Girls Division to The Chaffee School.

A LOG article of October, 1926 heralded features of the Chaffee House: “paneling of admirable workmanship,” a “beautifully ornamented” staircase, a seven-foot wide kitchen fireplace and a “secret closet” that was reported to be an amazing two and a half stories high. While the writer incorrectly suggested that the house had a connection with the 17th-century military career of Windsor native John Mason, he was unmistakably impressed with the prospects of connecting the future of the Loomis Institute to the history of Connecticut’s first town. Just a few months after settling into their new school, Chaffee students were likewise intrigued, and in one of the LOG’s earliest “Chaffee Columns” the girls shared research findings on the Chaffee and Sill Houses, information that focused mainly on generations of the houses’ female residents.

It’s not surprising the first Chaffee students wondered about these earlier women. Three rooms on the first floor of the Chaffee House had been transformed into the school’s dining room with the paneling, interior window shutters and hearths of red sandstone left intact. Students and faculty gathered for lunch at tables set in this richly evocative historic interior. The noon meal was a time for polite, intelligent conversation, lessons in etiquette and turns shared at waiting on table. Present at every table were blue-and-white transfer-printed ceramic dishes. These plates, cups and saucers were decorated in the Blue Willow pattern:  a garden landscape featuring a pagoda-style castle, willow trees, three human figures standing on a bridge over a moat, a ship and two turtle doves flying above the scene. Described by one 1920s Hartford Courant advice columnist as “practical, inexpensive dishes in good taste” the pattern also suggested the romantic intrigue of a legend about forbidden love. The writer continued, “the quaint picture has a great appeal, especially when you think that the pattern came to England from China by the East Indian traders. If you own the china, you are bound to wonder what the scene depicted means.” Could this wondering have made its way into lunchtime conversations at Chaffee?

Josiah Spode, a potter working in Staffordshire, England, is credited with originating the Willow pattern around 1790. He sought to reproduce a centuries-old design used by skilled porcelain painters in Canton, China, and to use technological advances to create and decorate inexpensive dishes for English consumers who found that the political climate of the times restricted the availability of imported Chinese goods. Spode’s factory produced wares requiring a fraction of the talent and time of the revered blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain and, in actuality, only minimally referenced the original hand painted landscapes. The Willow pattern was immediately successful, and its vast appeal encouraged other potteries to follow suit; dozens of English, French, German and American companies produced Willow in the 19th and 20th centuries. At some point during this long run of success, a legend appeared to accompany the pattern. Depending on how it’s told, this story is a cautionary tale about a wealthy father’s wrath over his daughter’s love for the gardener’s son or a more modern, gentle story of true love that defeats all odds.

By the time The Chaffee School opened in 1927, Blue Willow dishes had been used by generations of New England households; some owners remarked that these objects inspired nostalgic thoughts of female ancestors. Others may have known that the much earlier hand-painted Chinese porcelains signified the status of their owners and connected these eighteenth-century families in New England and the Connecticut River Valley, such as the Chaffees, to global trade networks and to lands and people far from the working hearths of New England homes. No matter what meanings the earliest Chaffee students attributed to their Blue Willow place settings, these objects and the building that housed them played active roles in honoring the past—imagined or real.

Blue Willow dishes

 

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