Is that a rare find at this antique mall, or just another windsor chair? Who cares, I could always use another chair!
About the Episode:
How old is that dresser? Or that old chair? Or that to-die-for-table? Well, with a bit of research and a lot of experience, you can know for sure! Some antiques are a dime a dozen, while others are nearly impossible to find. I’ll help you sort out the valuables from the chaff so you can find the perfect additions to your home!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- Why dating your favorite pieces might be harder than you’d hoped (but finding the style might be easier!)
- How to sort the originals from the revivals from the dreaded reproductions
- Why that heart-stopping chair you just found may not be as vintage (or as rare) as it felt when you found it
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Buffalo Architectural History: Architectural Styles
Buffalo Architectural History: Furniture Glossary
Did I intend to make you a cheat sheet for all your antique questions? Yes. Did I completely forget to do it? Also yes. But this right here is the best cheat sheet you will ever need. So have at it. Styles and Designers in America.
Hello and welcome to The Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our turn of the century, vernacular farmhouse. I’m Paige, your host as usual. It is very early right now, but when the podcasting mood strikes you, you really just want to take advantage of that fully.
Today we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite topics actually, and something I don’t know that I’ve ever fully touched on anywhere, but that is how to identify different antiques. Now, of course, we’re going to start with a disclaimer that I am not the antiques’ roadshow. I am not an appraiser. I am not an expert. I am quite possibly wrong about everything I know relating to antiques, but I don’t think I am. And I don’t really look for antiques for the purposes of finding high-value antiques. I don’t look for expensive pieces. I don’t really look for rare pieces. My interest mostly lies in understanding what time period various pseudo mass manufactured antiques came from.
I am familiar from about 1830 up to about 1910. Outside of that it gets a little fuzzy because quite frankly, I just don’t really care about those time periods. I’ve never been particularly drawn to the old-fashioned, New England, very early 1800s, late 1700 style. And then anything after about 1920, I just lose interest in. So primarily from about 1830 to about 1910 is what I have in this house. It’s my favorite. I think this was a really nice sweet spot for furniture because as the Industrial Revolution started kicking up, furniture became more accessible, became more readily available, and still retained quite a lot of the manufacturing methods of old handmade furniture.
So what that basically means is that we have high quality, well-built furniture…
What that basically means is we have high quality, well-built furniture for a reasonable price because there’s a decent amount of it. And that’s ultimately why I got into antiquing, why I got into thrifting, is because I like to save a little bit of money. And I find that this time period is really, really good for quality sturdy, well-built furniture that is abundant enough that today I can get it pretty cheap.
We’re going to walk through just a couple of the things that I have picked up over the years in how to identify antiques, where to find information about them. And then kind of just some things to look out for as you are antiquing.
The very first thing… Actually, it is the first two things that you kind of do simultaneously, but the first one is to get familiar with what is in your area. And the only way that I know of to do this is to just look pretty much all the time. Give yourself six months of constantly checking marketplace, looking at Craigslist, browsing antique malls, because you need to know what’s out there and you don’t know what’s out there unless you look at what’s out there. If you don’t know what’s out there, you can also fall prey to something that definitely happened to me, where you see something… it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it.
And so you think it’s really rare and you buy it immediately only to find out that it’s one, not that rare, two, maybe not that old. And then three, worst of all, I think is maybe not your style. This is a plight of all new thrifters and antiquers. I think it takes a little bit to kind of get your groove as far as what you actually like.
And I do think it takes a while of buying the wrong item. It takes to time to buy the wrong thing and then put it in your house and then realize you don’t really love it and then buy something different that you like better. And so you get rid of that first piece. If you’re in the middle of doing that and you’ve bought an antique and it just doesn’t sit quite right with you, it’s fine. Don’t worry. It’s okay. You can resell it. You can donate it. You can give it to a family member. You don’t have to be stuck with the first thing you bought, just because you thrifted it.
For example, in college, I went through a phase where I was convinced that mid-century modern was my style. I bought a few pieces. I kind of styled my house a certain way and it just never really felt like me. So pretty much all of those pieces are now gone because very clearly I am a Victorian or Edwardian at heart.
So as you’re getting familiar, you are just trying to build up your knowledge of what is available in your area, both in terms of looks and in terms of price. An example I use all the time are Eastlake parlor chairs. Around here, where I’m from, they are pretty much a dime a dozen. I mean, you can go in to any antique shop, any antique fair, and you will probably find at 1890s square back, square seat, little parlor chair for anywhere from 15 to $50. They’re very, very common. And through a lot of trial and error, I have managed to figure out that I don’t really like Eastlake. It’s not my favorite style. So when I pass these parlor chairs, I look at them and I say, “That’s really pretty. Someone’s going to enjoy that. It’s just not me.”
So your first step is to really just get yourself familiar, get understanding about what is in your area and what common things are. Even if you don’t know what style they are, even if you don’t know what age they are, you can start training your mind to see categories and buckets of different antiques in your area.
And then at the same time that you’re doing this, you also need to get a resource, a really good resource on how old things are. Now, there are a couple more conventional ways. Now I’m sure there are books out there that are really helpful. I’m sure that there are great resources out there in print. The two ways that I know of to really start to tell how old something is, are catalogs, and then one specific website that I have. Around the turn of the century, I think the oldest catalog reproduction I have is from 1893.
Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, all of these big department stores would put out these massive thousand-page catalogs full of absolutely everything that they sold. And they’re really fun to look through because you’ve got linens and lace, you’ve got carriages, and you’ve got woodworking tools and you’ve got stoves and you’ve got tables and you’ve got skirts and blouses. It’s literally everything you could ever think of to need for your house or your life. They’re available in these catalogs.
And they’re really good primary evidence for furniture because you can look very clearly and see what people would’ve bought. You can see what the styles of furniture are. Especially very early in the 1900s, you can see that there are different styles. And you can see all of that in these books. Some of them are available online.
If you go to the website, archive.org, that is a really fantastic resource to find some of these digitized catalogs. I will track down some of the resources that I’ve used specifically, the Sears, Roebuck catalogs, and will leave them in the show notes for you. But that is a good place to start if you have no idea what you have, because turn of the century pieces are pretty common. They’re pretty recognizable. They’re still decent quality, but you can start to see some of the corners that get cut when mass production takes over. They’re very good resources, but they do fall short if you’re looking at anything earlier than about 1890. So what do you do for earlier than 1890?
Well, I found this website. I don’t even know how I found it. I found it years ago. It is Buffaloah.com. I have no idea who runs this website. I did email him once and I said, “I don’t know who you are, but you have the best resource on antiques and time periods that I’ve ever found. And so thank you for putting forth the energy to keep this website up.” I did get an email back. It was kind of a disgruntled like, “Well, thank you,” I guess.
But this website, there’s different sections of it. A big portion of it is devoted to architectural history and what different houses look like and what different architectural features are. But the thing that I love about it and the reason that I use it as my go-to for reference on historic furniture and antique furniture is because they have put together an illustrated furniture glossary that starts, I believe in the mid to early 1700s, possibly even earlier than that, and runs all the way up to, I think 1950. And each of these furniture styles gives you a date range. It gives you picture examples. It gives you common materials that were used in the furniture. It gives you so much information.
And this is so helpful because I mean much like today, there wasn’t one style that was prevalent through most of the 1800s. There were a couple different styles that were equally popular. And so it can get very confusing when you see pieces that cross between styles. You can see Rococo Revival and then also Renaissance Revival, and then also Lake Classicism, and then also Eastlake.
There’s so many different styles that it can sometimes become hard to differentiate. So this resource is so good. I love this website because it shows you examples of this is what a chair looked like from 1845. This is what a dresser looked like in 1890. This is a transitional Victorian piece from 1870. It gives you that frame of reference that you need in order to understand what time period your antique is from.
This leads me to your third thing to do. So once you’ve gotten familiar, understand what it’s in your area, in terms of just looking at it, you get yourself familiar with the resource of your choice. I really like this website or catalogs. Then you’re going to start quizzing yourself, either walk through your house or walk through an antique fair or an antique shop, and take pictures of things that you don’t know the dates of. You might find a dresser and you think it’s really cool and you say, “I don’t know how old this is.” Take a picture of it and then go home and scroll through that website and see if you can find something similar.
Now, dating antiques is not really an exact science, as far as I’m concerned. Some people probably could pinpoint it down much better than I could, but something that happened, especially in the United States is that furniture that is built in 1850 on the East Coast, that same style of furniture might still be being built 20 years later, farther to the west. So styles moved from the east to the west. And so you could have a 20-year fluctuation around the same style.
This is kind of why I’m more interested in identifying styles than I am identifying ages of antiques, because I just, I don’t care about how old it is. I care about what style it is. There are certain styles that I really like. And so I want to make sure that the stuff that I buy is cohesive and matches with a lot of those styles. But as your knowledge increases, you will start to put things in buckets. You will start to have an idea of, okay, this is probably 1830-ish. This has features of 1870s-ish, and you can kind of start categorizing them that way.
And this is really, really important because something also happened later on in history in that reproductions started happening. Now I’m not talking about revivals. Throughout history, there have been many different versions of revivals. There’s Renaissance Revival, Rococo Revival, Empire Revival, which is just a trend from the past coming back into style for a little bit.
This is kind of what we see with mid-century modern, though I do feel like it’s going away a little bit right now, but there was a minute there a couple years ago where everybody wanted mid-century modern-looking furniture. And so a lot of new furniture was produced sort of emulating the lines and the aesthetic of the mid-century modern pieces.
Now I have no problem with revivals. It’s its own style. It looks a certain way. It has certain characteristics. I am not a big fan of reproductions. And a reproduction is something that was created to look like the original. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with them in terms of the quality. A lot of times they’re very good pieces. They’re well made. They’re attractive. They have a nice finish on them. They’re good wood. The upholstery’s good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, except to me, they just never look quite right. There are a few things that they don’t get perfectly correct and it just bothers me.
Now I did buy a reproduction piece once accidentally. I didn’t know it at the time, but the longer I had it in my house, the more I realized this is not actually original. This is a reproduction. And what that was, was a Rococo Revival parlor chair. And Rococo Revival is characterized by a lot of very round shapes, very floral shapes. A lot of times the back will kind of go up and then open into sort of a balloon, like a hot air balloon shape, very rounded seats, lots of floral motifs, lots of carvings. The more that I look at it, the less it does anything for me anymore. It’s just not really the style that I like.
But I found this chair at an antique mall and it was very attractive. It had very nice upholstery on it. It was kind of a cream color with these little blue and green flowers on it. It was very subtle. It was in very good shape. It was of the right price. I think it was $80 for a parlor chair that had arm and a nice tall back. And it was a decent size. So one of the issues I run into a lot is that my husband is six feet tall and he can’t always fit in tiny little Victorian parlor chairs. I mean, he can sit in them. He just looks a little bit large and oversize. So, when I find antique pieces that are a little bit more suited to his height, I try to buy them.
But then this piece, it just never sat right with me. Something about it just didn’t look right. And for a while I thought it was the upholstering because traditionally these old chairs are upholstered with springs and 8-way hand-tying and burlap and horse hair and wood wool and hole upholstery technique. In fact, I’ll leave in the show notes a link to a YouTube channel, Buckminster Upholstery, who is one of my favorites to watch just because he has so much knowledge on historic upholstery, how things should have been done, how things were done.
And he has a lot of projects where he historically accurately reupholsters different antiques. And it’s really just fascinating to see everything that went into all of those antiques.
But this chair, this reproduction chair just had foam on the bottom. And so it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as a spring seat. It just kind of faded down when you sat on it. It didn’t really push back, it didn’t really give any kind of support. I thought that was personally just a bad DIY upholstery job and I didn’t really think anything of it. But then I started to notice some of the other telltale signs or what I consider telltale signs of a reproduction.
One of them is the scale. A lot of older furniture like I mentioned, in regards to my six foot husband, a lot of Victorian furniture is very small. It’s not tall, it’s not big, it’s not large. We don’t have sectionals. We don’t have anything that is really super oversized with the possible exception of the scale of some of the beds. Some of the beds and the dressers, they just went up in some of the periods.
So they’re just very tall, very imposing, very grand, but the furniture itself, the chairs and the settees, they’re just not very big. And so if you see something that looks like an antique and looks like it might be Victorian, but it’s a couch that seats four people, it’s probably not real. And it just, this is really something that I’ve just picked up on by looking at a ton of antiques, in that I’ve never seen an L-shaped authentic Victorian couch.
Now there are a lot of very specialty antiques out there, especially if you get into some of the custom pieces and the really expensive pieces. Sometimes they did quirky things as a one-off. But considering I’m mostly interested in mass-produced, readily available pieces, if you don’t see it all the time, there’s probably a good chance it doesn’t exist or it’s super rare.
That was my first clue that something wasn’t quite right with this chair, is because the scale was just too big. It was too tall. It was too wide. I’d seen other chairs from a similar time period that were just a little bit more delicate, a little bit more petite. And so I started looking at it thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if that actually is old because it just doesn’t seem like it’s the right size.”
The second indication, or I guess the third indication, because the upholstery was a little bit suspect first. And then we decided it was the wrong size. And then the third indication was the finish. A lot of these antique pieces are hundreds of years old and some of them still have their original finish.
And the original finish might be shellac, which you can tell because it’ll do this thing called alligatoring, where the finish kind of looks like it shrinks and it gets little separations and cracks and it ends up looking like alligator skin. It’s a normal thing that shellac does. It darkens over time and it alligators. So if you see a piece that has kind of that texture on it, there’s a pretty good chance it’s an old finish, which is just going to lend to the idea that it actually is original.
This finish was pristine. It was clear, it wasn’t scratched, it wasn’t pitted, it wasn’t faded, it wasn’t flaking, it wasn’t damaged. The finish itself still looked very clear and transparent. It wasn’t yellowing. It wasn’t clouding. And I have a lot of antique pieces and I’ve seen a lot of finishes and that’s just not that common. I have a few pieces that have been refinished. And so because of that, you can just see that, okay, that’s not the original finish.
That’s a new finish. It’s beautiful. Sitting here in the master bedroom, and I have a dresser from about 1830 and I have a wardrobe from about 1880. And both of those have been refinished. The dresser I can tell has been refinished because it’s from 1830 and nothing from 1830 looks that good unless it’s been refinished. And then I know the wardrobe has been refinished because when we purchased it off Facebook marketplace from a couple, they said that they had spent an arm and a leg getting it refinished about 10 years before we bought it. So I have confirmation on those two that they have been refinished.
I can compare that to what I know are original finishes that I have around the house. And this reproduction, it just looked too good. It looked too nice. And then the last indicator of it was the color of the wood. I’m not a super good identifier of wood, but I can typically tell when something’s been stained versus when something is the actual color that it is.
And this chair just had this slightly greenish undertone and it never really looked right. It never really looked like my old pieces did. It just didn’t look quite as historic. And one day I was sitting there and it dawned on me, “Oh my gosh, I have accidentally bought a reproduction.” And very quickly, it went up for sale and somebody bought it and I hope they love it wherever it is.
So the reason that I’m a stickler, at least in my own house about reproductions is purely an aesthetic thing. I like the way that old furniture looks. And if I didn’t like the way old furniture looks, I wouldn’t buy it. My house is filled with things that I enjoy looking at, not just furniture, not just pictures, but everything in my house is something that just makes me happy to look at.
When I look at a reproduction, I see a pale imitation of the original, and I think some people would probably take it a step further and say that my mass-produced 1850s and 1870s chairs and tables are pale imitations of very fine craftsmanship. And that’s fine. I have also a very aggressive don’t spend too much tendency that I just, I can’t bring myself to spend a ridiculous amount of money on these pieces because I do intend to use them. And if they get stained or if they get damaged or if they get broken or if they get scratched, I would prefer to scratch a $100 table than a $10,000 table, quite frankly.
So there’s nothing wrong with reproductions. And if you find something that calls to you and sings to your heart and makes you happy, then that’s what should be in your house. Reproductions don’t do that for me. The originals from 1830 to 1900 are what do it for me. So I have learned to train myself to see what those reproductions are so that I can make sure that what’s in my house is just stuff that I really, really love.
Kind of as a side tangent to reproductions, is that I feel like I have to talk just for a little bit about Hollywood Regency and French Provincial styles. Hollywood Regency was about 1920s-ish starting, and working up into about ’50s or the ’40s, and French Provincial was a 1950s thing. Both of these styles are very flowery. They are very ornate. They have curves and pretty florals and sweeping backs and all sorts of stuff. But I have seen these confused for Victorian very, very often simply because they look like what we think old-fashioned Victorian things should look like.
You can identify these usually by the same methods that you can identify reproductions, namely the scale. By the 1950s, couches that sat multiple people were pretty common. So if you see a big couch that’s very flowery and has all sorts of design detailing and sits three to four people, and they’re calling it a Victorian, it’s probably not. It doesn’t mean it’s not pretty, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work beautifully in the house, but I’m kind of a pain if I can be about consistency. And I just like things… If things have a proper name, I just like to use them. So a lot of times those are French Provincial and not actually Victorian.
The Hollywood Regency comes in a lot with chandeliers and you’ll see these, especially in the whole modern farmhouse movement. A lot of times they will have these nice white rooms that are all kind of farmhoused out. You know the style that I’m talking about. And then they will put these beautiful gold and crystal chandeliers in the middle. I mean, they’re lovely, they’re brass, they’re heavy, they’re sparkly. They’ve got [inaudible 00:22:40] arms. They’re very pretty, they’re not Victorian.
They are designed for electricity. They’re part of the Hollywood Regency style and you can find them pretty readily for very inexpensive. And as someone who actually has tried to find some period lighting for this house, once you go before about 1920, lighting gets really expensive because it was just more rare back then. And knowing that you can find these kind of gold sparkly chandeliers very quickly and very easily and very inexpensively is just another good indicator that they’re probably not as old as all that.
Which brings us to the fifth thing to look out for, which is condition and scale. If you can find things very easily, very cheaply, and in very good condition, there’s just a higher chance that they’re not that old. Simply because the older things are the more rare they are. Not necessarily because they weren’t made, but maybe they got broken. Maybe they got destroyed. Maybe someone didn’t want them and threw them in a burn pile. So take into account when you’re looking for something, if you can find a lot of them very cheaply, it might not be as old as you think it is.
And then we touched a little bit on the idea of rolling changes from coast to coast. And this is just really helpful if you’re trying to nail down an exact date when something was built. You’re probably going to have a hard time and you might be 10 years, one way or another, depending on what coast you’re on, because the styles started on the East Coast and move of west.
So you’re going to have a hard time finding Victorian or 1830s, 1840s furniture out in the west. You’re going to have a much harder time finding it out there than you would finding it in the middle of the country or on the East Coast. Just because by the time people got out there, the styles had changed. So we weren’t really 1830s things in full scale out in the west yet, because there just weren’t enough people yet.
All that to say that I am not trying to be an expert in my antiques. I’m not trying to pin it down to an exact manufacturer, an exact date and exact time. I just generally like to know roughly how old the things in my house are. I like to know what style they’re from. I like to know what style they represent. I like to sometimes know what they’re made out of. And that’s just purely for my own curiosity. So to help you out with this a little bit, I did make you a downloadable cheat sheet that you can get in the show notes at farmhousevernacular.com/podcast.
And this is, it’s by no means comprehensive, but I broke it down into the styles from about 1820 to about 1920 with a few stylistic highlights from each era, the names of them, a few picture examples just to show you what each thing is. And this is just something to really start training your eye so you understand what the different styles are, what the different calling cards of each style are. And then hopefully you can just build your antique knowledge from there.
I hope that was helpful. I hope you have a little bit more information on antique knowledge. Again, you can get the downloadable cheat sheet at farmhousevernacular.com/podcast, or check the show notes because it is there. Thank you so much for listening. I really hope you enjoyed it. I loved having you and I will see you next time. Bye.