A life filled with relics of other people’s lives: My love of collecting vintage furniture

Guest post by Catherine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI started buying vintage furniture because I was broke, and pragmatism grew into a hobby that I’ve truly come to love. I figured out that I could get a piece of decent quality at an antique mall for a fraction of what I’d pay for at a big store (and would probably have to assemble myself). The pieces I would find were sturdy and solid wood. Their screws could be tightened, and they could bear far more weight than whatever particleboard-and-vinyl-du jure I may have come by elsewhere.

One of the first things I bought was a small writing desk that had been painted white. It was big enough for a laptop and some books, and had a shape that is simply no longer seen. The other thing I bought was an end table to hold my hulking tube TV. It cost $16. I was also lucky enough to acquire a substantial load of dishes, cups, and random glassware from some family members, for which I obviously paid nothing. Again, I found these things to be superior both aesthetically and functionally, and thus my heart was won.

The piece that spurred the shift from utility to genuine appreciation was a table and chair set that I found while shopping with my Mom. We were sweeping the antique mall for a suitable table and chair set, and she noticed this one, piled with vintage this and retro that, and told me that it reminded her of the one her grandma used to have. We removed the piles of other people’s once loved things, and I was able to see that it was truly remarkable; the white enamel surface was embedded with flakes of copper and gold. There was a geometric sunburst design painted in copper, gold, and beautiful coral on the leaves that folded down on either side to make the table nice and compact. It was sturdy and wood and solid, and had four perfect matching vinyl chairs detailed with the same sparkly sliver and gold. Today my table remains my favorite thing that I own.

After the table, I had to have everything I had be like this.

Vintage tupperware!
Vintage tupperware!

I collected everything I could find: cups-a-plenty, random end tables, little wall hangings, vintage Tupperware, cut crystal, depression glass, books, 1920s jazz sheet music, pyrex galore. I like to wander the isles of antique malls and just take it all in, imagining the lives that the beautiful things once accompanied. I rummaged, bartered, and hauled until my life was filled with relics of other people’s lives. I didn’t care that my things once belonged to somebody else.

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Sometimes when I discuss my hobby with others, they comment that it would “weird them out” to have other people’s old stuff, but it’s never bothered me. I find something satisfying in knowing that my things arrived on this Earth long before I, and will likely remain long after, too.

I can’t say with confidence what I actually believe about the human spirit, but I like to think that these pieces keep me connected to those who already lived and died.

As my hobby became known, my relatives started giving me things that genuinely do have some level of meaning, in addition to being old and lovely. After my grandma died, I reconnected with my great aunt, whom it turned out had many things that belonged to their mother, my great grandmother with whom I share a name. She sent me boxes of invaluable, gorgeous items dating back to the 1930s. I also inherited her hearty Singer sewing machine and wooden cabinet from the 1950s, which is so much better than anything one could buy today.

I can’t say with confidence what I actually believe about the human spirit, but I like to think that having these pieces keeps me somehow connected to those who already lived and died, and thus probably could.

The living room.
The living room.

To complement my collections, my walls are decorated with vintage comic book themed art that I bought online and at various Comic-Cons, and straight up nerd memorabilia. My living space has become a perfect blend of retrophile and geek-chic that could satiate even the most cynical curmudgeon. Everywhere I look or sit, I feel joy and a sense of fulfillment because of the things I have procured.

I’ve been living in a fetishistic daze since Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby brought art deco and flapper fashion back to the mainstream. There is power in the past, and while even Gatsby failed to repeat his, I can tell you that where old things dwell, new things are waiting to be found. The only things we can’t have are those for which we refuse to search.

Comments on A life filled with relics of other people’s lives: My love of collecting vintage furniture

  1. Yay! I feel the same way! I get great satisfaction from the fact that our dinner plates and some of our silverware made it safely through the civil war to now be used on my grandmother’s cheesy 50s dining table. I pick and sell antiques and have been obsessed with old stuff since I was a kid. I would much rather have something old and well made and full of history than some overpriced sweatshop produced junk designed to wear out in two years. Some of my friends don’t get it either, but most of them feel comfy and happy in my eclectic house full of weird old stuff.

  2. I hate buying furniture! My grandfather’s hobby was to refinish wooden furniture, so I grew up being used to real wood. With actual grain. Turns out buying real wooden furniture is extremely expensive, and even fiberboard crap is also really expensive! Luckily I did have a lot of furniture from my grandfather in my parent’s basement. After college I upgraded from plastic to IKEA for everything else, and it was great. And now several years later, I still have my crappy IKEA furniture because I don’t want to replace it with more crap.

    My husband also started doing wood working as a hobby, on the small scale. So now we will NEVER buy something that he could theoretically make (in a perfect word where he has more time and bigger tools, right?) And he can’t stomach paying $1000 for a dining set from a big box store that’s made of crappy materials with shoddy workmanship. “That’s just cherry-stained pine, and they didn’t even use real joinery!” for example. I’m very loosely paraphrasing 🙂

    I was getting ready to find some used furniture to refinish in thrift stores or flea markets, but then we heard about Mennonite furniture.
    Luckily we are only about an hour away from the middle of nowhere where some Mennonites live. We heard through a friend about a guy… and now we’re getting a real wooden grownup dining table made that we will use for the next 40 years. I can’t help but get sentimental when I think of all the family dinners we will have throughout the years.

    And think of all the family dinners over the years from your thrifted/antique furniture… It’s like you HAVE to continue the tradition with your own family and friends!

    IKEA/fiberboard furniture serves it’s purpose, but going forward I am going to try and use all Mennonite-made or antique furniture.

  3. My sister was (and is) a huge thrift store shopper, buying mostly clothing, but other items as well. My mom always used to refer to them as “dead people clothes.” I never really saw that as a bad thing. Being able to give new purpose to an item someone didn’t need anymore is fantastic! I love to think about who must of owned these things first; lovingly storing homemade meals in Tupperware from the 70s, spreading out family photos on the kitchen table, or someone putting on their “lucky” jacket.

    And really, what hasn’t belonged to a (now dead) person at some point? Does that make every Victorian a “dead person house?” Or the city you live in a “dead person city?” Silly 🙂

  4. I love vintage decor!

    My husband and I moved into a duplex that looks like a ’60s vacation cottage on the inside (wood paneling and wood cabinets!) and we decided that the only real way to respond to it was to decorate accordingly. Most of our furniture is Colonial Revival, bought at thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets, and we’ve outfitted our kitchen the same way. My favorite find is a 1975 calendar kit with sequins and beads to hand-add – brand new in the package. I’ve spent many delightful hours working on it and I can’t wait to finish it and hang it up.

  5. Beautiful collection!! I just got some great midcentury chairs this morning at an estate sale for a woman who passed away… I was imagining when she may have bought them… were they just setting up house? Did she get them on sale or did she save for them?

    I LOVE estate sales… it was an honor to walk through a person’s house and see a glimpse of their life. I also bought 2 of her plants, and I’m really pleased to be able to care for them now that she can’t.

  6. I love old stuff. You will often find me in Thrift Stores, Estate Sales, Antique Stores, ect. The older the better. I have a “dressing room”/tiny bedroom turned walk-in closet that I’ve outfitted with all antique or antique looking furniture. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My friends understand the obsession because they are the same. My dad doesn’t though. I often get funny looks from him for my eclectic ways. 😀

  7. Serious envy over that table & chairs, Catherine! GREAT SCORE! I love all this kind of stuff…….I have a sweet 50’s telephone table that would compliment it nicely…I paid $2 for it! I am a pretty hard-core collector of Fire King dotted bowls & “Starburst” by Franciscan dishes from that era, too. Digging the pix above your couch, too….I just re-did our tiny powder room & framed some postcards that are re-prints from 60’s romance mags to go on the wall. I spend a ton of time haunting the antique malls in my area – I just wish there were MORE of them! 4 with in driving distance is just not enough!

    • Thank you!! The table and chairs were a one-of-a-kind sort of find. I’ve never seen a set quite like it in all my years of collecting. And, I am obsessed with the “Starburst” by Franciscan dishes. I don’t have any of them, but I’ve been lusting after them for quite a while. I’ve only seen one set for sale, and it was sadly too expensive for me at the time, but I’m always keeping an eye out. Do you buy all of yours from stores, or do you have a website you’d recommend?

      • I completely drooled when I saw your table!!!! Re: “Starburst” – I have scored a plate here, a fruit nappie there, etc, on kijijji, and at some of our local antique malls (Ontario, Canada), over time. The first thing I got was a platter, & I did a crazed teeny-bopper-who-just-saw-The-Biebs-happy-dance in the store, when I spotted it. I actually got up in the middle of the night, too, to go look at it sitting on my dining room table, to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it. 😉 A friend of mine has gifted me a few bits here & there, too, but he refuses to tell me the website he uses, or he says then he won’t know what to get me for Xmas, my b-day etc, anymore! I think so far I have…hmmm… 2 platters…2 dinner plates…4 fruit nappies…4 lunch plates…4 cups & saucers. And now that I think of it, I have a trippy 50’s floor lamp that is a mongrel cross between your table & “Starburst”. No idea how to post a pic here as I am not super tech savvy.

  8. I had to laugh when, in college, a friend and I were moving in together and she insisted on buying a brand new set of silverware instead of thrifting for it because she was weirded out by other people having used it. I tried to tell her that other people use the silverware at restaurants, but she insisted on buying a new set all the same. 😛

  9. I am also addicted to vintage shopping, although I can’t fit much more furniture in our little house. I’m particularly in love with Neo-Colonial/Federal furniture made in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s – it’s generally the same price as particleboard crap from Target and it looks AMAZING. I also like the patina of things that aren’t perfectly new. With a few hand-me downs and some newer purchases that look sort of old school, I LOVE the aesthetic of our house. The only thing I need now is more original art (preferably 1940s paint by number landscapes and farmy oil paintings) and a new dining room table to match my garage sale chairs (expensive new ones that look old and which I got for $4 each!).

    Did I mention I have a serious addiction to vintage dishes? Particularly my favorite blue and white Currier & Ives set (which we use everyday) and semi-translucent milk glass (i.e. the cheap kind). I also love to hit up thrift stores for great buys on nice jeans and ESPECIALLY nice wool sweaters. Apparently no one else has the patience to hand wash them? But the boy and I both wear wool just about every day in the winter, so I totally have a set-up with a big sink and a handmade drying rack in the basement. 😀

    • I hear you on the dishes thing…for me, it is specifically cups! I love wine glasses and other sorts of cups. I don’t know if you can see it very clearly in the pictures above, but I have a whole bunch of vintage teacups and whatnot on that shelf thing by my table (along with shot glasses, haha), and the tea set in that photo belonged to my great Grandma. By the couch, I have an awesome highball set that I got at an antique store. I love the little carriers!

      *Random antique hack*
      Use antique tea cups and saucers as soap dishes! It’s especially convenient because they usually come in a set and are pretty cheap. I have clear teacups with a cool hobnail pattern next to both my kitchen and bathroom sinks to hold soap bars. They are both functional and make cool decorations!

  10. I also love vintage stuff, and I TOTALLY understand the reason you love it: for their former lives with other families. Even something as simple as a bright Pyrex bowl…I think of the woman who probably got it as a wedding gift, or maybe even purchased it herself new as a splurge just because she liked the cheerful color. Maybe she got it as a gift, and she actually hated it, but never got rid of it for fear of offending her mother-in-law who bought it for her.

    I also love estate sales, which other people say are “creepy”. Something about picking through the remnants of an elderly couples’ home is just beautifully sad to me. I was at one recently where every room in the home was open, and everything in the house was for sale. Their bedroom had probably fifty bright silk scarves on display. I thought how sad it was that she clearly loved all the beautiful colors, and now she wasn’t going to be using them anymore. There was a hatbox with a vintage teal pillbox hat with a birdcage veil….I wondered what special occasions she’d worn that to and what memorable things happened while she was wearing it.

  11. What a lovely article. Thanks for writing this Catherine, I also unashamedly love old furniture and jewellery. I used to clean my grandad’s house (when he could no longer manage) and he’d kept my grandma’s Art Deco dressing table just as it was, with her hand mirror and hair brush set. It was really touching. After he died, I distributed her jewellery between all the women in the family, but I believe I’m the only one who still wears it regularly. Going to an auction house is like stepping onto a film set – why do people find older stuff morbid? It should be comforting/ glamorous/ useful.

  12. I love vintage/retro things and I guess that I couldn’t really put my finger on why until reading this. It’s absolutely about connection with other people/the past. Similarly, when looking at original art often my hubby will say “You could make that!” (I really hate when he says this). He doesn’t understand that it just wouldn’t be the same. When you are buying someone’s work (or lovingly used Pyrex) you get a part of them with it and that makes it special.

  13. Well said. Life is fleeting and can be challenging, so it’s important to surround us with things that make us smile. I also have a sentimental attachment to retro vintage collectibles, furniture, and dishes. Many of these items like Pyrex nesting bowls and covered baking dishes harken back to a much loved time in my personal history as well as touch on the memory of the folks I cared about who used those beloved pieces. I try to avoid antique, second-hand shops, and estate sales. That’s only because I already inherited a boatload of stuff from my parents and grand-parents that I am currently attempting to down-size to more reasonable proportions. Those of us who have natural maximalista tendencies have to exert some reasonable controls. Otherwise, I find it is easy to slide into the hoarder camp.

  14. I’m so glad to know now I’m not the only one! I think my partner thinks I’m crazy at times, because I’m currently talking about selling off our two modern couches, to replace them with velour early 1970’s sofas!

    My love of vintage furniture started when my nana passed away in 2013 & I inherited her Queen Anne style mahogany dining set with velour chairs & tapestry covering. We’d just built a new home & I wasn’t sure how the dining suite would suit, but now, I’m considering selling our two modern couches & replacing with 1970’s velour sofas. Seriously, I’m amazed! Despite the age, this fabric is immortal! Pet fur, dust.. it just wipes off & looks like new! I’m hooked!

    Over the past few years, I’ve also inherited other mahogany chairs & coffee tables & velour bed heads. Family offer it to me & no one else I know wants the ‘dated old-fashioned stuff’ so it’s a win win!

    I love the look of the classic vintage furniture but what’s most important to me is the quality. They don’t make furniture or kitchenware (or anything) like they used to! I know my velour furniture is built solid & it’ll still be here long after I’m gone & I just love that – knowing I have my furniture for life. My parents don’t understand my love of this stuff & they think I need to get with the times.. but I hate the now-disposable society we live in & the overpriced junk we’re forced to buy! I was so tired of having to replace things every couple of years after they fell apart.

    My kitchen is now full of English china, 70’s tupperware, cutlery, trays, plates & cups & little antique urns & dishes from other lifetimes are beautifully displayed throughout my home. It’s great that you can buy these things from thrift stores but, to be honest, it pains me to see it there so often. Someone’s loved one has passed away; they’ve had this furniture for more than 50 years & the family just get rid of it! I almost cry to think of how much of it is left in landfills.

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