I love the idea of antiques. It doesn’t take a designer or a master carpenter to notice the difference between antique furniture and the “furniture” I’ve assembled from Walmart. The first clue is that no Allen wrenches of various sizes are required to put the thing together, and there are no wood grain stickers to cover up the heads of screws. Old pieces were made with craftsmanship and attention to detail, like a dovetail joint or a hand painted flourish. More importantly, these were made to be passed down for generations.
Those of us in favor of saving the earth from certain doom are drawn to the idea of salvaging the old and making it useful again. Yet, most of us Gen Xers and Millennials are not big fans of creating living spaces that remind us of our grandparents’ house.
Nevertheless, I am an optimist, and there is something of the hopeful in venturing into a dusty shop. I have fantasies of finding true treasures among the musty piles, anything that will become a unique conversation piece, or better yet, an heirloom. Admittedly, I have a few old pieces in my house: a refinished sewing table found at a yard sale, an old camera from my grandfather, a pie crust top table from my grandmother, and a pile of disintegrating books that I couldn’t bear to toss. I love each of these items, but they go with nothing in my house (not that I have much of an eye for design anyway).
Feeling restless, I decided to venture into Frederick and spend some time scoping out the various antique stores in the area. My first stop was Antiques By Paul on North Carroll Street. I fell madly in love with a giant oak desk UNTIL I saw the price tag. Then I remembered the other issue Millennials and Gen Xers have with antiques: the cost. Although gorgeous, the desk had a chunk missing from part of a pull-out writing surface. I’d have to set my sights on something less substantial. The trouble was, I didn’t know what to look for or how. Thankfully, Joan Berkowitz, was working the counter. (Her husband Paul is the owner.)
I asked Berkowitz about the desk. She explained that for most pieces you can really make any type of repairs you like, such as light sanding, reupholstering, and removing rust, but if it is a period piece, don’t mess with the finish. She said anything a hundred years or older is considered an antique, but items from the past century are considered a collectible. So the 1930’s Polaroid of my grandfather’s is sadly just a collectible, for now. Berkowitz defined antiquers as people intentionally seeking antique pieces. (Here I thought spending a day popping into the shops of Frederick was a day antiquing, turns out I was just what Berkowitz refers to as a “wandering shopper.” She wasn’t inaccurate!)
Luckily, Berkowitz wandered with me a bit. She enjoys pulling both old and new pieces to show customers how they can mix styles in their own home. Later, I asked the team at Dream House Furniture & Design on Patrick Street (which doesn’t sell antiques of any kind) what they thought about antiques. They felt fabrics were important and mixing different woods and textures is okay. Things do not need to match perfectly, they said, and — bad news for me — sets are out of style. (I smiled and nodded, hoping they couldn’t tell I was the proud owner of a bedroom set, complete with matching nightstands.) In their opinion, a few antiques make a space unique and provide character, but too many old pieces make a space feel outdated. The key was what they called transitional style — a way to mix the modern and the antique. One way to do this is to display re-purposed items.
Re-purposed furniture takes a piece of an antique, such as a beautiful marble top from the 1800’s, and places it on a newly made base. (Another example: turning an old sewing cabinet into a nightstand.) Re-purposing creates a unique look and hits that sweet spot of being both environmentally conscious without looking like you live in a time capsule.
All of this was helpful information, but I still hadn’t found any treasure to tote home. I wandered over to Emporium Antiques (also on Patrick Street), which seems to go on for ever. It is set up like mini-stores within the store. When I was at Great Stuff By Paul, Berkowitz pointed out desk chairs similar to ones we had at my university. She explained that the designer also was commissioned to craft the oval office furniture for John F. Kennedy. I loved that detail! What a great nugget of history! As I drifted in awe through the Emporium, I couldn’t help but wish I had a tour guide. I missed having Berkowitz by my side. Who could explain the history to me as I went?
As I browsed, I found myself faced with my own aging. I realized I might soon be an antique when I spotted the same dishes my mother had used all my life. I needed something to perk me up — and that’s when I saw a beautiful tea cup. I have always had a love for fancy tea cups. My mom collected them and we used to drink out of them when I was sick or had a bad day. I’ve passed this tradition on to my daughter. The cup and saucer I noticed had pink with roses. Pink! Fine Bone China it said, from England it said. It would do nicely. A table nearby was set with flatware with no mates. We needed spoons, so I thought, why not, I’ll grab a few, save the planet, and stop grumbling about never having enough spoons.
It felt like a successful outing. I thought the spoons actually seemed to be silver, maybe from 1875, which was stamped on the back. I gathered my humble findings, feeling that old optimism creep up. Maybe these little lost orphan pieces would be the surprise hit on an Antiques Roadshow appraisal some day! They could pay for college tuition or at least cover my last speeding ticket!
I went home and researched by finds. It turns out my lovely bone china cup and saucer were fakes, produced in the 1900s and utilizing a name similar to a well known manufacturer of bone china in England. And those spoons, my hopeful fortune, were not silver, only silver plated. The date stamp refers to the year the company was founded. The spoons were a popular design in the 1950s called “Springtime.”
It turned out I was only a wandering shopper returning not-so-triumphantly home with a couple of functioning collectibles.
But, on a more positive note, I am enjoying the pieces I picked up — and I’m glad to give them a home. Ultimately, my day of browsing made me appreciate the history that objects return to us. It reminded me that shopping local is positive. Plus, shopping like this made me feel like I earned some green credibility. Antiquing is guilt-free shopping. It stands to reason that antiquing, like history, is something we can learn and get better at with more study, more attention, more research. In some ways it’s an academic way to shop (or maybe just a bit nerdy).
I’m not saying I’m ready to go back for that oak desk, or even spend a fortune to fix nicks a Rockefeller made, assuming they ever made one, but I’m intrigued by the idea of a good wander. I’m drawn to a delicate tea cup. I even feel a bit as if the gauntlet has been thrown. I walked away with two frauds — could I do better next time? Will my eye in time grow more discerning?
I’d be willing to try again, but I’m still keeping my assortment of Allen wrenches accessible — just in case.