Antique vs. Vintage Wares: This is the Actual Difference

While they are often confused, there are differences between what is considered vintage, antique, or retro. Learn how to understand the distinctions between older items.

By Deirdre Mundorf | Updated Mar 22, 2022 12:58 AM

antique vs. vintage

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Antique and vintage—these two terms are commonly confused and often erroneously used interchangeably to refer generally to something that is old. However, the definition of “vintage” is not the same as “antique.” So what do these terms actually mean, and how old does something have to be to be vintage vs. antique? Continue reading to identify the key differences between what is considered vintage, antique, or retro, as well as how to distinguish real antiques from fakes.

Antiques are at least 100 years old.

You aren’t alone if you don’t know the answer to the question “How old is antique?” Many people consider anything that looks “really old” to be an antique. However, there’s a strict rule for an item to be accurately labeled as antique. According to the antiques industry and common acceptance, in order for something to be classified as antique, it must be at least 100 years old. This is true for any type of item, which means even goods that are more fragile or seem to age more rapidly still must be at least 100 years old before they can be considered a real antique.

It should be no surprise that over the past several hundred years there have been a number of different antique periods. For example, the style and design of an antique desk from a century ago will look quite different from a classic antique desk that’s 250 years old. Below is a brief timeline of the various antique periods, dating from the late 15th century. Note that some of these periods overlap.

  • 1685-1720:  William and Mary
  • 1720-1760:  Queen Anne/Louis XV
  • 1755-1790:  Chippendale
  • 1790-1810:  Sheratone
  • 1790-1815:  Federal/Hepplewhite
  • 1805-1830:  Empire
  • 1830-1901:  Victorian
  • 1845-1870:  Rococo Revival
  • 1850-1914:  Naturalist/Aesthetic
  • 1855-1890:  Neo-Greek/Eastlake
  • 1895-1915:  Arts and Crafts
  • 1896-1914:  Art Nouveau

Pieces that are at least 300 years of age can also be referred to as antiquities or artifacts. These much older items may be discovered through archaeological work, land development, or even in the attic or basement of an older home.

If you have any antique furniture, or are looking to purchase some, preservation is important. Storing antiques in a room with optimal humidity and temperature levels, keeping the pieces away from direct sunlight, and dusting with a clean, soft brush will help maintain the piece. In most cases, you’ll also want to try to maintain the original appearance as much as possible. For example, try to avoid painting or changing the finish of the piece.

Related: In Search of Antique Tools

antique vs. vintage

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Vintage simply means old. 

Age is the key difference between vintage and antique. While goods must be at least 100 years old to be considered an antique, there is no set age for vintage wares. The meaning of the word “vintage” is simply “of age,” making it more difficult to set a specific age requirement. However, many say vintage items are at least 20 years old. So, generally speaking, something can be considered vintage if it is between 20 and 99 years old.

Many vintage items are more than simply outdated. They often bring nostalgia and fond memories to individuals as they think about years past. Many old vintage goods are still functional, allowing people to incorporate them into their daily routine. Some vintage items may also be highly sought after and collectible. Some of these more popular vintage goods include:

  • Trading cards
  • Concert t-shirts
  • Comics
  • Toys
  • Board games
  • China sets
  • Jewelry
  • Clothing

Vintage items are typically seen as a representation of the period they are from. For example, a poodle skirt can be seen as a representation of the 1950s, while a tie-dye shirt would speak to life in the 1970s. Items following a particular design aesthetic and crafted from 1920 to 1945 are often called “art deco,” while those designed from 1945 to 1970 are referred to as “midcentury modern.”

Related: Antiquing vs. Distressing: 8 Tips on Creating the Look and Patina of a Genuine Antique

antique vs. vintage

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Retro items are nods to past styles.

While both vintage and antique refer to older items, retro goods are newer items designed to mimic styles and designs from the past. Vintage retro goods are often reproductions of styles or designs that were popular 20 or more years ago. Retro items would include, for example, a new clock made to match the art deco style, a dresser designed in the style of midcentury modernism, or ‘80s throwback bangle bracelets.

Retro and vintage items are commonly confused. To tell the two apart, remember that retro goods are more current reproductions or imitations of older goods. Another key distinction between the two is that retro goods are typically less expensive than vintage goods. They are also easier to find and purchase than vintage items, which can, understandably, be in shorter supply. Retro goods can be a good option for those who are on a tighter budget but still looking to enjoy a vintage feel in their home or wardrobe.

Some popular retro items include:

  • Mood rings
  • Shoes designed to mimic past styles
  • New board games being sold in packaging that resembles the original versions of the games
  • Vintage-inspired new appliances, such as refrigerators, stoves, and microwaves
antique vs. vintage retro

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5 Tips for Identifying True Antiques

Knowing how to differentiate antique vs. vintage items is the first step to helping you identify true antiques. Here are some additional tips that will help you distinguish between antiques and items that are simply vintage.

  1. Look for clues that indicate whether the piece was made by hand or with a machine. Antiques will be handmade, while vintage items could have been made with a machine. Some signs that indicate handmade furniture, for example, can include slight imperfections or unevenness or marks from a hand saw.
  2. When examining a furniture piece, look for different types of wood. Most antique pieces will have different types of wood because furniture makers didn’t want to waste more valuable wood in areas where it wouldn’t be seen (such as the bottom of a drawer).
  3. Consider whether the item (or similar versions) are still being used today. If the answer is no, it is more likely that you’re looking at an antique.
  4. Search for stamps or labels on the piece that list the maker or year of production. For a piece of furniture, these labels are most likely to be found inside a drawer, along the back of the furniture piece, or on the underside of the item.
  5. Look for signs of wear. True antiques will have inconsistent wear, with some areas looking more distressed than others. With newer distressed furniture that was simply designed to look like an antique, the wear will appear more even.
  6. If you can locate the item’s patent number, you can also try to search for it to determine the production date.

Related: 5 Ways to Weather Wood