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.
A Polish blue house, now abandoned and fading
A much more vivid Polish blue house
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’s city flag in all its glory. Why do Polish flags always have the color at the bottom?
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.
A completely justified picture of a blue garter
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.