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Antique vs. Vintage vs. Retro – Do You Know the Difference?

The next time you are trolling Craigslist, searching Ebay, or following your favorite Facebook page you will probably notice the words vintage, antique and retro. Although these labels are applied quite liberally by sellers, just what makes something vintage or antique or retro?


Vintage, it’s a word that has exploded in recent times. Originally, the word was used in relation to fine wine and the year it was produced. However these days, the word has attached itself to a vast assortment of things – clothing, hairstyles, housewares, furniture, you name it. You may find yourself wondering what qualifies something as vintage. There are definitely differing opinions on this, but the common threshold to consider something vintage is it must be at least 20 years old. Sticklers will tell you that vintage must also be used in conjunction with a specific year or decade. For example, vintage 1950’s couch, rather than just vintage couch.

While I don’t necessarily argue with that interpretation, 20 years ago takes us back only to 1994; not really what comes to mind for me when I am on the hunt for vintage treasures. A piece that was purchased in 1994 at T.J. Maxx doesn’t really drum up a whole lot of nostalgia for me, but I wondered if perhaps my opinion was skewed by my own age? I took this topic up with the Zinnias staff, and we agreed that the difficult thing about considering the 90’s as vintage, is that although there are certainly differences, there has not been a significant aesthetic shift in the past 20 years. If you compare the 30’s to the 50’s, or the 50’s to the 70’s you can definitely see the differences in a much more pronounced way. So, while I accept the 1990?s can technically be categorized as vintage, it’s not currently on my personal shopping list!


Another point of frequent confusion is the use of the term antique. I often see the words antique and vintage used interchangeably, however this is not the case. To be considered an antique, a piece should be at least 100 years old. According to Michael Flanigan, from PBS?s Antique Roadshow, this definition originated from the U.S. Customs office back in the 1930’s. At that time, as well as now, true antiques were considered artwork and came into the country duty free. In an attempt to avoid paying duty on items, people began calling just about anything that wasn’t new an antique. In need of a guidepost, the Customs Office decided that antiques were objects that pre-dated the mass production of objects in the 1830’s, which was 100 years prior. They declared that antiques were items made at least 100 years ago. The 100 year rule of thumb has endured, and although some opinions differ, is generally accepted throughout the industry.


Another term you may come across is retro. Retro comes from the word retrospective, and indicates something that relates to, or is reminiscent of past styles. Therefore, if a piece is actually from the 1950’s, it is not retro 1950’s, but true vintage 1950’s. With the rise of popularity of vintage styles, there are many retro pieces being designed today which recall or mimic the designs of the past. Although these vintage inspired pieces are one way to access the vintage look, they can potentially be cheaply made knock offs. Remember to shop smart – when you buy a piece that is truly old, you are not only connecting to the unique history of that piece, but often getting a product made with superior craftsmanship and materials.

All the Best,

Kristen- Moonstruck Vintage