The Mystery of the Blue Polish Houses

There’s a cute story going around the internet that houses in Poland used to be painted blue to indicate there was a girl of marriageable age living there. I don’t buy it for a second. It sounds like a story made up by a twinkly-eyed dziadek to confuse American tourists. Old houses painted blue are a common sight in the countryside around Krakow and I’ve often wondered why. In fact I’ve been vaguely wondering about this for two years now, so it’s time I got to the bottom of this. Let’s take a fascinating journey along with my train of thought.

blue-house-poland-1

A Polish blue house, now abandoned and fading

blue-house-poland-2

A much more vivid Polish blue house

blue-house-poland-3

A strange but not uncommon variation on the blue-house theme – only the caulking between timbers is painted

My first guess was that it was something to do with the Krakow flag. I had never seen blue-painted houses anywhere else in Poland and the blue was of a cyan hue that reminded me of the Krakow city flag colors.

krakow_flag1

Krakow’s city flag in all its glory. Why do Polish flags always have the color at the bottom?

krakow-tram

Older Krakow trams also have the city colors. But then so do some of my underpants. There isn’t necessarily a connection.

Then I got confused again when I discovered lots of other cities also seemed to have blue flags and their residents didn’t feel the need to paint their houses to match. Also there was the fact that houses in the city are never painted blue, it’s just houses in the surrounding countryside. Bang goes theory number one.

Eventually I got around to looking it up on the internet. That’s when I first discovered the “Hey, we’ve got a daughter—want to marry her?” theory. At first it seems perfect. It’s neat and appeals to a modern weakness for folksy rural tradition. As a theory it has a certain amount of plausible-sounding background to it. Blue is the traditional color of purity and chastity in Christian cultures, which makes it a feasible color for advertising a potential bride. The Virgin Mary is traditionally depicted wearing blue and blue was originally the color of wedding dresses—white wedding dresses are a recent invention. The connection between blue and nuptial virginity is echoed in the English wedding mnemonic “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” I’m not sure if this also exists in Poland other than as a borrowing from American films, mainly because it doesn’t rhyme in Polish.

blue-garter

A completely justified picture of a blue garter

virgin_mary

The BVM in full blue regalia

I filed the wedding theory in the “Problems solved” section of my brain and got on with worrying about other things, such as why I’m the only person in Poland foolish enough to buy cigarettes rather than just filching them off passers-by. On dark sleepless nights, however, the doubts returned. The more I thought about it the less the “Get-your-bride-here” hypothesis made sense. My objections are these:

1. Why would you need to advertise your daughter’s marriageability?

These are villages in southern Poland not the suburbs of Pheonix. There were a couple of hundred people living in them at most. These people certainly knew who had a daughter and how old she was. They knew what time you brushed your teeth, the color of your underwear and how often you beat your dog, they didn’t need a bright blue house to tell them young Magda had just turned 16.

2. Isn’t it a little dangerous to advertise you have have a nubile woman living under your roof?

The only kinds of non-locals who might have been wandering through these villages in days of yore would have been a) traveling merchants, b) rampaging Tatars, c) patrols of Austrian troops. Advertising the fact that your daughter just got her first bra to any of these people would probably have been a bad idea.

3. Why are they still blue?

I know for a fact that the first house in the pictures above was occupied up until the mid-1980s and the only resident was an octogenarian with no thoughts of marriage. Either this house hadn’t been painted for 60-odd years or it was repainted, at least a few times, in the same blue. If painting your house blue is really an old tradition connected with marriage, there shouldn’t be any blue houses around now. As far as I understand the theory of whitewashing plastered houses the point is that it has to be done regularly and often to protect the timber and caulking. Surely this would mean people have been repeatedly painting their houses blue for decades after their daughters had married the local deadbeats and/or been carried off by rampaging Musselmen and raised their own daughters.

I’m open to illuminating suggestions.

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61 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Blue Polish Houses

  1. odrzut says:

    Blue wooden houses are certainly not only in Kraków region. For example many old houses at Polesie and at Beskid Niski are blue (BTW – I’ve heard a song about blue house and it was an English song, maybe it’s international thing).

    I think it’s just fashion to have blue houses (maybe this color was cheaper than others, and better blue than not painted).

  2. Steven says:

    Yes, I agree, the picture of the blue garter was completley justified .You really are very good Island….

  3. Kasia says:

    Blue houses were in region of Lubelszczyzna, also grandfather’ s old house was painting in blue. My grandmother said that this water color was able to fright spiders or other insects

  4. Ania says:

    I heard that if a girl was fit to marry, they would paint the window frames to celebrate it. But that’s different from the whole house.

  5. Paweł(me) says:

    And why Swedish houses are orange?

  6. Kiki says:

    Hello Island, great post, that’s the first time I hear about these blue painted houses around Krakow, and thank YOU for that.
    I am from the North, and never really explored the southern region. Fantastic tradition I think, and there must be a reason behind it.
    The only weak point in the theory of virigins living there is the colour itself….
    Normally we use PINK for girls and blue for boys ( in terms of clothes for example , babies etc, ).. but it also may differ in regions…

    By the way – in Kaszuby, a region around Gdansk, the original Kaszubian houses are painted in “seledynowy” – electric yellow-green colour, honestly !
    WHY I never managed to find out, but there must be an explanation for that. The colour is horrific , and i can’t understand it at all –
    but these blue houses in Krakow, I find absolutely charming!

  7. guest says:

    Look at this Island

    Zamosc
    h ttp://farm3.static.flickr.com/2431/3734799394_e4337e626c_b.jpg

    Lublin
    h ttp://farm3.static.flickr.com/2666/3792729420_f93e742d0e_b.jpg

    Poland is full of them. Not only Krakow.

  8. news says:

    In Lithuania, rural wooden houses are almost universally canary yellow. Not sure why.

    Interestingly, in rural areas where Poles live (such as around Vilnius and , Šalčininkai) wooden houses are often painted brown or blue (like near Krakow.) In mixed areas, one farmhouse can be yellow, its neighbour brown and the next one blue.

  9. Kiki says:

    Island, I just remembered that this blue paint could have had someting to do with wood preservation ( and they found that blue colour in the nature ) and something to do with the insects – to prevent them from eating the wood and getting into the house?
    I remember that the reason was purely practical and the legend of the virgins etc, must have been created later on….

    Probably the same with the “seledynowy” that I mentioned before –
    must have some killing factors in it –
    at least it killls me every time I see it !! :))

  10. island1 says:

    That is interesting. Is there any historical connection between Lithuanian Poles and southern Poland in particular?

  11. island1 says:

    Not really the same thing. Many old cities have brightly colored buildings, but they’re all different colors – the fact that some of them are blue is just coincidence, it’s not a particular style I think. The rural buildings I’m talking about are either blue or nothing. Though there are a few yellow ones as well.

  12. island1 says:

    You’re welcome.

    I have seen a few bright yellow rural houses down here too, but they’re the exception. Interestingly one place I have seen yellow houses is Lanckorona, which has an architectural style quite different from the rest of the region and was supposedly founded by German settlers.

  13. island1 says:

    Sounds like a Protestant thing. Orange for Protestants, blue for Catholics? I can’t help but think there must be a religious connection somewhere.

  14. island1 says:

    I can understand walls or window frames or chimneys or whatever might be painted a certain color to celebrate a wedding, but I’m still not convinced by the “fit-to-marry” theory.

  15. island1 says:

    Could this be a predominantly Małopolska tradition then? Or a Galician thing? Something to do with Austro-Hungarian influence perhaps.

  16. island1 says:

    Never miss an opportunity to include naked female flesh in a post, and if there isn’t an opportunity do it anyway.

  17. island1 says:

    Hmmm. Polesie is a little outside the range of my Małopolska/Galicia theory (see Kasia’s comment above) but the Low Beskids are right in it. I wonder if there are blue house on the Slovakian side or in southern Ukraine.

  18. island1 says:

    Those sneaky spiders, if they’re not laying eggs in your bananas they’re trying to eat your house!

    I like the idea that it has a practical origin, that makes sense to me. I read an interesting explanation for why Greek island houses are painted blue and it was all to do with the coincidence that a widely available coloring (from a cleaning product) happened to be blue.

  19. Ania says:

    I read that too – the name can have something to do with a german knightly family of rider-robbers, Landeskrone who were in the service of Polish Piast Dukes of Silesia. Dukes I think – Prince is Królewicz, right?

  20. BB says:

    Yellow was from mustard plants, in Germany you see a lot of pink – pig blood pigment, blue – corn flower or some such thing – blue garters – well………….

  21. Ania says:

    Not so unreasonable. In the old times unmarried people were ‘children’ and one became an adult by marrying. So becoming a maid was a thing to celebrate.
    I heard that people in the USA celebrate when the girl had period for the first time. Coming of age or something.

  22. kuba says:

    Never heard of celebrating the first period of a female in America. Mostly dad has to go out and buy the napkins.

  23. Hmmm… Shame one can’t post photos on the Excellent Polandian Comments section – would upload some blue-painted houses from near Węgrów (near the river Bug)…

    But click here for a blue cerkiew (Orthodox church) in eastern Poland –

    I’d go for the Blue, the Marian Colour theory. Or thoery, Pheonix :-)

  24. wu/tee says:

    My grandparents’ house (near Rzeszow) – which was nearly taken to ‘skansen’ – was also light-blue… I don’t know why, but my guess is that it had to have some practical reasons. Maybe light blue didn’t get as dirty as white?

  25. island1 says:

    Węgrów, so you would be against the Małopolska theory?

    I’m also convinced it’s something to do with Marian blue, but why should it be particular to one region?

  26. Ania says:

    Or blue was available and contrasting with wood prettily.
    http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiwianit – blue stone

  27. Kiki says:

    I’m not sure which insects were targeted with the blue…might have been flies or even little bears ? :))

    But I’m sure it is something similar and practical like in Greece.. a colour was found in some plants (nature delivered it), and it helped to fight the bugs too … :))

    By the way – if I have a chance I need to get to the bottom of this
    horrific seledynowy colour in Kaszuby. My aunt told me once , oh Kaszubian just like such bright colours ( may be true , I saw electric pink houses there too ) … hmmm, that is really eating me now, because where the hell did they get this kind of paint years and years ago ? It must have been something easy available , but what???
    Rzepak??

    If you have a chance maybe you could help ?
    Have a nice weekend Island , nice reading your stories :))

  28. Kiki says:

    Sorry to but in, but I just want to add that a canary yellow in Lithuania and greenyellow in Kaszuby are two different things.
    What’s interesting, it is this electric colour which can be seen from miles and miles away – maybe it was supposed to direct people wandering in the woods to a safe place?
    And kept the wild animals away ? You know, like they are afraid of fire?
    We used to have lots and lots bears , wild bores, wolves , etc in our woods…;))

  29. Kiki says:

    And yellow for Prawoslawny ? :))

  30. Kiki says:

    Pawel,
    Swedish houses are not orange, last time I saw them, they were sort of dark red/ redbrownish colour , with white window/doors frames.
    Never seen orange houses in Sweden…where have you seen them??

    And that’s a matter of fashion…when they change a scheme, everybody adapts to that.
    I remember that when I went to Sweden 20 years ago, the houses were all white with dark brown frames.

    I haven’t been to Sweden lately, maybe they switched to orange now?
    Possible.

  31. Nikodem says:

    In America, all turn of the century wooden rural school houses were painted in red. Why? This is because at that time red was the cheapest color of paint. This is probably why these houses are blue.

  32. island1 says:

    It’s a sensible suggestion but I still think there is tradition behind it, especially since it seems to be region specific.

  33. island1 says:

    Hey, I’ll help if I can, but I more or less rely on posting things here and hoping somebody can give me the answer. There does seem to be a bigger story here with the whole regional variation. The internet is a wonderful thing – sooner or later somebody will turn up with some answers.

  34. whatdoyouknow says:

    blue is a colour of water silly, houses are painted blue because every insects such as flys are afraid of water, and they don’t get into houses, i am from Lesser Poland, so i know that
    sorry for my bed English :)

  35. island1 says:

    That’s another vote for the anti-insect theory. I’m not convinced insects are afraid of water though.

  36. Ania says:

    http://www.polskaniezwykla.pl/attraction/3812.id

    maybe they were too busy in those villages to paint flowers all over, so they just used some blue.

  37. Malcolm says:

    All of the arguments about blue being ‘cheap paint’ are completely unfounded and WRONG

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigment

    Basically Blue was one of the most expensive colours you could buy, and if anything, it was a status symbol. Anyone who could afford to import blue paint from Peru and splash it over their house clearly had a bit of money. Obviously no-one would be stupid/wealthy enough to paint their house bright blue (this is Poland, after all).
    Maybe it’s a bit like buying a Mercedes today

    PS. There is no way the original Mary could have been dressed in blue, she would have had to be a millionaire, which is in disagreement with my Bible.

  38. GB says:

    Malcolm, if you look deeper (even into the source you cited) you’ll easily see another logical explanation. While blue was not cheap for centuries (so you may be right about it being a “status symbol”), you have to keep in mind that introduction of synthetic pigments in XIX and XX century changed everything (prices first, and people mentality later).

    There was probably a transition period when the prices were already not that high, but people still thought it to be fashionable. One may imagine that, with the prices going gradually down, everyone from richer to poorer painted his house blue to show he can afford it, (although at the end of the process the word “afford” could be an overstatement).

  39. dankam says:

    Yes, you will find a lot of blue houses in Ukraine. The Orthodox adore blue. Blue- yellow are the national colors of Ukraine. Many ex-catholic churches were re-painted in blue. It’s the color of purity and of heaven…

  40. Chicadee51 says:

    I was wondering if any one would have a floor plan of a traditional Polish home like the first pic on this site. I am researching genealogy and went to Poland. My Grandfathers house had been torn down, but others on the dirt road were similar to this one. What was the traditional floor plan over a hundred years ago? Does anyone have an English reference for this style? Thanks!

  41. kuba says:

    My parents came from Poland. My fathers house in Zatorowisna was a rectangle base. There were four rooms and a small kitchen. The stove was at the intersection of the room walls. i.e. a fourth of the stove stuck out in each room. So when the stove was hot so were the other three rooms connected to it. There was a loft upstairs where the kids slept. Roof was straw house was wood. It was just remodeled last year into a contemporary home. Two rooms were lest alone where my aunt still lives. Old stove is in that room now. Rest of the house is modern and has an upstairs without straw

  42. Vlad says:

    Do not imagine that insects are afraid of water. Especially Poles with their 1 mil lakes should know that insects are drawn to water. Also mosquitoes lay their eggs in still water.

    How about blue is a beautiful color?

  43. Kocianna says:

    Houses were painted blue not only near Cracow, they can be found also at the Eastern Borderland. In Ukraine blue was used to keep dark forces away. Some other explanation is that houses were usually painted with lime. The easiest and the cheapest way of dyeing lime was to add some laundry blue, which was cheap, commonly available and almost always present at the household.

  44. Jaga says:

    when I was a child I asked my parents ’bout blue houses and they said that flies and other insects don’t come near blue, so people used to paint their houses blue to prevent having files in their homes ;]

  45. island1 says:

    This is the same explanation I found for Greek island houses being blue – it was just a readily available colour in household cleaning products and blue is better than stark white. This makes the most sense to me so far.

  46. island1 says:

    It’s unusual for these old houses to be refurbished isn’t it? Usually it’s easier and cheaper to just build a new one and tear the old one down, or just abandon it. That’s the pattern I usually see.

  47. Pistefka says:

    If there is an Austro-Hungarian connection with the blue houses, then perhaps an obscure fact I have picked up while living in Hungary and Transylvania might come into play.
    I had wondered about the blue house thing in Transylvania, and speculated that it might be a Romanian thing, as I had seen blue houses in Romanian villages but not in Hungarian ones. My wife (who is a Hungarian from Transylvania) soon set me straight though. Apparently blue painted houses were usually inhabited by a lower ranks of peasant called “zseller” or “jobbágy” in Hungarian. “Zseller” was a landless peasant who had to pay tribute in kind to a lord in the middle ages – a bit like a serf. The reason I had seen so many Romanian blue houses was that most Romanians in Transylvania belonged to the “zsellér” class, and were required to paint their houses blue by law.

    Now I don’t know if this was ever a practice in Galicia (which didn’t belong to the Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary), but it could fuel the kind of wild speculation that the internet was designed for.

    Also, on an unrelated note, I’m sure I ate some Faworki going under a different name last month in Transylvania. Oddly enough though I don’t think I ever tried them in five years of living in Poland. Are they a Warsaw thing?

  48. island1 says:

    I like this theory. Very interesting. Probably completely wrong, but definitely very interesting.

    Why did they have to paint their houses a specific colour though? Easy identification for tax purposes?

  49. MaterialGirl says:

    Viki is right! Ultramarine serves to prevent wood from insects. Calcium preserves trees from insects.

  50. MaterialGirl says:

    Viki is right!

  51. MaterialGirl says:

    Do you mean “Blue Hotel”? :D

  52. aika says:

    Faworki are not a “Warsaw thing”, they are a “carnival thing”. You eat them mostly during winter carnival and especially on the last Thursday and Tuesday of that season. They are a bit less popular than “pączki”.

  53. aika says:

    “The only weak point in the theory of virigins living there is the colour itself….
    Normally we use PINK for girls and blue for boys ( in terms of clothes for example , babies etc, ).. but it also may differ in regions…”

    It does. I was always told that in our parts blue is for girls and pink is for boys.

  54. TaliesinWI says:

    The Milwaukee Public Museum – in their “European Village” section – mentions the “blue house = girl ready for marriage” aspect. But the plaque they have displayed says it’s also for the benefit of travelers from outside the village. It doesn’t cite any sources but next time I’m there I’ll ask a staff member what info they have to back that up.

  55. Stanek says:

    Is red cabbage grown in southern Poland much? Perhaps that’s where the blue color comes from:

    http://www.ehow.com/how_4808505_easter-eggs-blue-red-cabbage.html

  56. island1 says:

    That’s certainly a very similar blue, you could be on to something there. Cabbage of every kind is grown everywhere in Poland. I think.

  57. richard says:

    I love the houses and estates in Poland.
    Me and other estate agents in Golders Green was going for a tour in Polang and was very impress by the polish houses and properties

  58. Grze$ko says:

    Blue has bee the colour assigned to Galicja a lonf time ago… I should remember by whom, when and why, but I don’t. It’s been a while since I studied.
    So that’s one explanation.
    A much more prosaic one is that wooden houses were painted every spring (bielenie – whitening). Using lime based goop caused all the pests to be killed off for summer. White did not weather well.
    At the time ultramarine dye was used as an antiseptic added to washing to also whiten the linen. A hint of blue kills off the natural yellowing of linen and hemp cloth.
    Being readily available it was used in the lime wash used for the houses.
    Since then it simply became tradition.

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