What’s The Difference Between “Antique,” “Vintage,” & “Retro”?

Helping buyers, collectors, and, yes, antique dealers, vintage sellers, and resellers, with industry facts.

In the strictest sense, age is the difference between antique, vintage, and retro items.

Antiques are items which must be at least 100 years old. That means, as of the date of this posting, an antique item was made on or before July of 1924. Art Deco period items are now officially antique!

​The 100-years-or-older rule applies to any item, no matter what they are made of. Even though it may seem less likely for fragile items, such as books or glassware to survive 100 years than, say, a piece of furniture, it doesn’t work that way. An antique is 100 years old.

Items over 300 years of age generally fall into one of two categories depending upon whether they are manmade creations or natural finds. If they are not manmade, if they are the remains or impressions of formerly living things, they are fossils. If the items are manmade, they are called antiquities or artifacts (also spelled artefacts). 

Typically, items over 300 years are dug up either in the process of modern land development, construction, or archaeological work. And they are also unearthed in attics, basements, and private collections too. 

Given the relatively short history of writing systems in the United States of America, the word prehistoric is often attached to any unearthed items older than 300 years. Naturally, in our Fargo-Moorhead area, this includes Native American artifacts. It should be noted, though, that not all Native American artifacts are so old.

Vintage items are not as old as antiques. However, unlike the definition of an antique, labeling something vintage is far more subjective. The word vintage literally means “of age.” With such an open meaning, there are many interpretations. Most antique dealers consider an item to be vintage if it is at least 40 years old. So, in the context of this blog date, a vintage item would be made between 1925 & 1984. (Sorry to age some of you!)

Now that we have some of the basics, I’d like to take the time to address an issue or claim of some antique dealers who have been in the business for a very long time…

There are complaints that “young people don’t buy antiques” anymore. I don’t subscribe to this thinking. For one thing, I remember being young. *wink* Even though my parents were antique dealers, I began collecting vintage items, not true antiques. As a child, of course, I didn’t have the money. And in my 20s that hadn’t changed much. Even into my 30s, when I had young children, I didn’t have the disposable income to purchase many antiques – and I worried about rare or expensive things with a home full of little kids and pets. 

Instead, I began collecting vintage items – primarily those things at the fringes of my memories… Items from my grandparent’s home, things from old movies, etc. A sense of nostalgia was what fueled my interests and purchases. These things were just old enough to seem like “old times” and “yesteryear” to me. I collected kitsch from the 60s, pinups from the 50s, and pulp books from even earlier periods… then began stretching back even further in time… 

I believe this is how many collectors begin. And I’ve seen in at the hundreds of shows we’ve sold at, the thousands of hours I’ve logged working at antique malls. An adult may start by purchasing the Tonka toy they had as a kid and eventually work backward to older metal trucks like Structo & Arcade. Or it begins by buying a toy your parents didn’t buy you as a kid. You see that MOTU Castle Greyskull for sale and finally you can afford it! From there, you stretch back and find yourself collecting animation art from much older cartoons. (We call this phenomenon “buying back your childhood”. *wink*)

Nostalgia often starts the itch to collect. The cookie jar or Pyrex in grandma’s kitchen is what most of us remember – most of us are not old enough to remember butter churns in grandma’s kitchen! And, because so many of these objects are still useable, they are often practical pieces with a unique flair.

So, to those dealers who lament what young people are buying, I ask them to consider these facts. 

In addition, Art Deco pieces just became antiques but have long sold at antique shops. Nostalgia and the appreciation of the style drove its popularity. It’s the same with mid-century works. They are now 60s years old, but not true antiques. Nostalgia and love of mid-century modern drives the popularity, but I believe, eventually, these collectors will reach back to pieces from the American Brilliant Period of glass (also known as American Brilliant Cut Glass) and to other true antique pieces.

To those who make this complaint, I say accept and rejoice in the fact that folks are still in antique malls and vintage shops looking for old stuff!

Many vintage items are sought after for many reasons besides nostalgia. This includes decorating and collecting. Today’s home decor, especially since the pandemic, has people making truly personalized spaces. It may include their own sense of nostalgia. It may create a world they never had any proximity to. It may be for green living; save items from landfills. It may be for thrift; even expensive vintage and antique items are much less expensive and of better quality than buying new. It may be the thrill of the hunt for cool things, aka junking. It may be the love of worn items that show they have had lives – and so both comfort with their imperfections and inspire with potential stories… Whatever the vast number of reasons, vintage and antiques are more popular than ever before because “old junk” creates unique environments. Junkers know this and are driven by it.

Another word used in junking is “retro.”

Retro is an affectionate shortening of the French word “retrograde.” Like the word “retroactive,” the original meaning references the past — but is not saying the item is from the past. Instead, retro goodies imitate the styles of the recent past. They are not copies or fakes; but items which give a nod to the past. Think of classics such as bowling shirts and letterman jackets.

However, over time, the working definition of retro has also come to encompass things from the recent past — things not old enough to be authentically vintage, but not merely “just used things” either. Typically, the term retro is given to items which are at least 20 years old (but not yet 40 years old). Again using today’s posting date, retro items would be those made between 1985 and 2004.

Retro items are just old enough to be nostalgic, old skool, etc. Many of these things still can be used — or,in the case of records, tapes, CDs, and games, played. Many folks who deal in these items call themselves resellers.

And then there are the items which are not necessarily old at all, but still collectible. Among these things are what are called reproductions  (sometimes called “repros” or “repops” in the antiques business). Reproductions are copies of older items. They are not “fakes” as they are not trying to pass themselves off as older or anything other than what they are: copies of, usually, much older things. 

Some of these things, such as reproduction drawer pulls and hardware, allow folks to more readily and affordably restore their old furniture pieces and houses. And, in fact, many reproductions, including reproductions of antique Coke-A-Cola trays and old cast iron toys, have real value unto themselves. (Many of these have become vintage in their own right too!)

Additionally, there are collectibles and curios. Collectibles and curios need not be old at all. They may be limited editions. But really, they just have to be desired. Think of things like Breyer horses, Funko Pops, past magazine issues, one-of-a-kind (OOAK) art dolls, the latest issues of coins, etc.

At Den of Antiquity, we specialize mainly in vintage (antiques can be found at LunaTique Boutique). Keep an eye on our social media for our pop-up events & markets!

This was an update for a post I wrote for Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market in 2018. 


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