What’s the Difference Between Antique and Vintage?

vintage truck
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You’ve probably noticed lots of different terms defining “old” while you were out foraging for bargains and even shopping online. These range from antique, vintage and collectible to retro and classic. But what does it all mean?

Well, that depends on what you are buying or selling. For instance, an automobile that is obviously old might be referenced to as a classic car if it isn't old enough to qualify as antique yet.

Clothing most shoppers seek is usually deemed vintage unless it’s super old. And furniture, like Mid-Century Modern pieces, might be looked upon as retro since the designs are decidedly different than more traditional furniture styles. Delving further into what these terms actually mean can help you to buy–and sell–old stuff with more confidence.

Defining the Term Antique

Buyers in the know respect sellers who understand how to correctly describe their wares. Calling something made in the 1950s an antique, for example, is just plain wrong. Using the term antique when an item is much too new for that designation makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Not only that, your potential customers may not trust you if you misrepresent what you’re selling in this way.

So just how old is an antique? The time span set forth by the United States Customs Service, and widely used in the antiques field, is an object that is 100 years of age or older.

That bare bones definition keeps things pretty simple to grasp most of the time. The scale slides each year as more and more things fall into the antique range.

If you don’t know exactly when a piece was produced, there will certainly be a little more guesswork involved. But, collectors do know that something made in the Edwardian period (roughly 1901-1910, but the overall style extended into the teens as well) or older is antique now.

Learning the characteristics of objects made during different periods such as Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco, just to name a few, will help you to unblur the line between antique and vintage. It's also good to learn about reproductions and revivals of old styles, especially Victorian and Art Deco.

And, of course, there are some antiques experts that look upon antiques more in terms of historical significance or design perspective, and they may stretch the rule a bit to include some newer items and exclude others based on their personal preference. Most folks in the antiques trade, however, stick to the 100 years or older rule.

Defining the Term Vintage

For many decades, the term “collectible” represented anything that was not old enough to fall under the antique umbrella (and, technically, it still does since many people actively use that descriptor). The use of the word vintage in the 1980s and ‘90s was largely associated with specific collecting genres–such as the aforementioned clothing, costume jewelry and postcards–that were not old enough to be called antiques.  

These days the term vintage covers older items in more of a blanket way, as in going shopping for vintage with your friends.

You can look at it as the up to date version of “going antiquing.” It is understood that this means shopping for old stuff that has distinctive vintage style whether those things date to the 1940s or the 1970s.

But, if you’re selling in an online venue offering a mixture of older wares and handcrafted items–like RubyLane.com or Etsy.com–the term is defined for you. These multi-shop internet businesses have determined that anything 20 years or older falls under the auspice of vintage. So, just like with antiques, each year more items fall into the vintage category as the scale slides.

Some die hard collectors scoff at that definition since they are reluctant to deem something from the early 1990s as vintage. They use the word collectible much more often with these newer items. That term, however, often conjures visions of Beanie Babies, limited edition figurines, and similar mass produced collectibles that, in most instances, aren’t in great demand or highly valued by today’s vintage shoppers.

Whether you prefer to use vintage or collectible for newer items, just be sure to use antique to describe objects more than 100 years old and you won’t go wrong.