Defining Terms: Antique vs. Vintage


The English language can confusing. Take, for instance, the word “bow”. We can bow (a sign of respect or deference). We can shoot a bow (think Robin Hood). The bow is the front a boat. And this is just one example.

This becomes more complex when we realize that our language shifts over time. Words that meant one thing years ago now mean something completely different. For example, naughty originally mean someone who has nothing (they have naught) but then shifted to worth nothing (bad, wicked) and then a shift to mischievous or badly behaved.

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An then we come to specialized language within an area of expertise.

When it comes to buying and selling old things there are a lot of terms that get used to describe the age of an item; antique, vintage, collectible and retro. To add to the confusion we then begin to add in other descriptors or periods, Art Deco, Mid Century Modern etc… (and when we describe furniture or art there are even more terms!)

We’d like to help make sense of these terms and periods! We’ll start with two of the most common; antique and vintage.

People can mean a lot of things when they use the word “antique”.


It might just mean something is old (look at this antique i.e. “old thing”). It might mean that something is outdated (“my computer is an antique”). Or it might mean a specific period of years. For example, in Virginia you can purchase an “antique” license plate for your car after 25 years. For many of us antique is not a very specific word.

However, when we talk about antique items there is a very specific definition. 100 years old. (This is the generally accepted definition and is based on the United States Customs definition of antique). This means in 2018 an antique would be anything dating prior to 1918. This is a sliding definition, in 2019 anything prior to 1919 will be an antique and it will change every year.

What about vintage?


Originally, vintage, primary referred to the year a wine was produced. Over time this term moved into the second hand market. For many, the proper way to describe a vintage item would include a year or time frame. For example: a vintage 1930’s book or a vintage 1955 board game. In recent years vintage has become a “catch-all” term for everything that is not antique or with an uncertain date of manufacture. For many of us vintage has become a term that signals that an item is older but not old enough to be classified as antique.

Stay tuned as over the next few weeks we’ll look at some frequently used terms in antique / vintage stores.