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What Defines Vintage and Antique?

Just what defines “vintage” and “antique?” What qualifies for antique and what qualifies for vintage? What do these terms actually mean? How do I know my item is one or the other? Or neither?

My young friend, Shannon, is famous for having said, “I can’t tell if it’s antique or just old and ugly!”

I see so much confusion and – I don’t like to use this word, and please understand there is no judgment or snobbish intent here but – ignorance, about what defines vintage and antique. I thought I’d try to shed some light on the subject as I understand it, having been out there in the trenches with it and being vintage myself. There is a good bit of room for interpretation, from the purists to the “get it in the ballpark” people.

Let me give you an example of someone not understanding the meaning of antique. Quite a few years ago, a friend of mine truly and honestly thought antiques were that new, big, dark wood, gaudy, cheaply made furniture that dealers went to a wholesale market to buy. Her friend was an “antique dealer” and that’s what she carried and sold as “antiques!” I was flabbergasted! She was flabbergasted when she learned how wrong she was!

Today’s biggest misinterpretation is vintage. A whole lot of people seem to think vintage is the new stuff made to look like old stuff. We see it everywhere! Hobby Lobby, Target, Walmart, higher-end furniture stores, lower end furniture stores, online venues…. Some people don’t even know the old stuff exists!

Martha Stewart was one of the first famous people in this more recent movement when she started having reproduction Jadeite made. (You know. That solid green kitchen glassware.) But the practice has been around a long time. Long enough for some reproductions to become antique. But we’re going to talk about today’s made in China repros. *** That’s “repros”, NOT “repos”. Two different meanings, but that’s a whole ‘nuther post.*** Aside from not understanding or caring, it can be hard for Suzy Shopper to know if it is new or old. These days, the farmhouse look is everywhere with a whole lot of new things made to look like old things. And be careful on Etsy or eBay. Those China dealers are hanging out by droves. If you see something available in multiples, run away. Unless you’re okay with reproductions. And that’s fine, too. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.


I have to tell you this little story. I was at an auction some years ago where the auctioneer held up an “antique Shirley Temple glass” and talked about how hard they were to find, how valuable they were, blah, blah, blah. The usual auctioneer talk that wise people don’t pay a lot of attention to. Once that was sold, he reached behind him and said “I’ve got ten more! Anybody want one?” Ha! Rare antique indeed.


So, here’s the skinny.

Antiques have always been defined as something 100 years or older. So yes, you can have antique furniture and an antique jar of beans. Now, most people would accept the jar being antique, but the beans?? Yeah. No. Technically, sure. But there are things, such as… I dunno…people?… that we simply don’t call antique. Ya know?

I don’t know much about classic cars, but I do see them called antique cars. I don’t know how the car collecting community feels about that.

Antiques get “younger” every year. If you know for sure your item is older than 100 years, by all means, call it antique. But it’s fine if you’re off by a few years. However, don’t make the mistake I saw in a classified ad once selling an “antique color TV!”

The dictionary defines vintage as having been made in a certain year or era. Like, something could actually be “vintage 2020.” Oh horrors! Let’s don’t go there! But since the word vintage originally referred to wine, we’ll let that definition mostly stay with wine. When referring to items, be it clothes, jewelry, nick-nacks, kitchen implements, furniture…. vintage is generally accepted as being 20 years old or older. It still hackles me to call something from the 1990s vintage though. I think of that more as retro. Oh, who am I kidding? I think of the 1990s as a couple of years ago! But we’re talking what’s generally accepted in the community, so we’ll keep the 20+ year old rule. That’s all Etsy and Ruby Lane require.

So why bother with vintage or antique at all? It’s strictly a personal preference. Like I said earlier, some people are purists and some are not. Personally, I very much prefer vintage household furniture and accessories, but even though I prefer it, I don’t have to have antique furniture and, although I looove vintage clothes, I’m not into wearing them very often.

But what is it about vintage and antique that makes people want that over something new? It’s hard to explain, but it’s the feeling. It’s like it has absorbed the lives it’s been around. It often has a patina, a time-worn finish that cannot be imitated. Many times there are imperfections caused by the people or their children that it has lived with through the past. I have an antique, primitive, pine table with deep scratches all over the top. It’s one of my favorite pieces because of the life it has lived. What caused those scratches? Was it a kitchen table? Had it lost favor and been relagated to the garage work table? Often times – but not all the time – the older item is better made. I daily use a toaster from the 1940s! And guess what? Vintage or antique is usually cheaper than the new, mass-produced stuff! And finally, vintage is the ultimate “green.” Keeping things out of the landfill and keeping down the pollution of producing the new items.

So how do you know the difference with all the reproductions out there these days? Research – books, internet, Etsy, eBay, etc. – feel, lots of shopping… After a while, you can pretty much tell. But don’t feel bad if you’re not sure. I’m certainly tricked or unsure often enough! Remember too, that just because something is at an estate sale where the person was 95 when she passed away, doesn’t mean her items are old. She could have bought it all in the past 5 years. (Don’t know the difference between an estate sale and a garage sale? Click here to learn more about that.)

I hope this helped clear things up a bit. For those of you interested in reselling vintage on Etsy, just remember that an item has to be 20 years old or older to qualify to be listed as vintage there. And if you’re selling on eBay or anywhere else, please don’t call it vintage if it is not 20 years old or older.

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Hi! I'm Wanda, the owner of Just Vintage and this is my blog where I talk about buying, selling, and decorating with all things vintage. I want to help you learn what to buy for resale and maybe give you inspiration in decorating, even if it's what NOT to do.
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