Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
Take frequent showers; brush your teeth; comb your hair; hold the door open for her, and give her pretty flowers... That should do it. But if doesn't, try dazzling her with your expertise in dating antiques. Here are some proven techniques.
Hand made items are usually made from hand made materials. These materials are not exactly uniform in thickness, decoration, shape, etc. A piece of furniture made from uniformly thick wood is not a hand made piece no matter what form it takes and no matter what kind of distressing it displays. If the wood is exactly 3/4" thick, the wood was probably bought at 84 lumber and distressed to make it look old. If the wood is uniformly 7/8th inch thick, then it is earlier - perhaps 1900 - 1920 (we're not sure of the exact dates) but it is still machined material. If it's being used in a Kitchen Hutch, it's probably authentic. If it's being used in an 1850s pie safe or dry sink, it's a FAKE! If a single piece of wood has varying thicknesses, it is NOT machined - it is hand planed to smooth the surfaces. But remember that if it is less than 3/4" thick, it could have been bought at Grossman's and then planed to thin it and give it the textured feel of old wood. So be careful.
Another area to watch out for is hand smithied tools. There is something of a revival of blacksmithing going on right now. Naturally, the new smiths make projects modeled after old items. The usually indicators of age - hand work, design elements, etc. - are lacking because the item is hand done and modeled after an old design. But you can still look at the stock that formed the starting point. If that is uniform in size, diameter, etc., you can still recognize the piece as new work. You should also look for signs of welding. Often a hand wrought piece will betray its age by the electric arc welding at the joints.
Frequently, when we reject an item as not old enough, the dealer says "but it's got rust on it!" Well, there's rust, and then there's RUST. Rust is caused by oxygen and water chemically reacting with iron to form ferrous oxide, a.k.a. rust. This is patina with a vengeance! The process is gradual, slowly eating its way into the surface, until their isn't anything left. Of course, rust can form over night but at first, it is just surface rust that can be wiped off with your finger. Over a period of weeks or a few months it becomes deep enough to require stronger methods - steel wool - but it is still removable. Even burying an item in the ground for six months or a year won't put a really deep coat of rust on an item. Deep rust, on the other hand is almost impossible to remove. You can use a sandblaster and get rid of the rust, but you'll leave a deeply pitted surface. So study the rust. It can be a clock that ticks off the age.
Fasteners often tell a tale about the pieces they're holding together. On nails for instance, we look for rosette heads and square nails of the blacksmith. On screws we look for slight asymmetries in the head, and if we can get a screw out of the wood, we look for uneven widely spaced threads that reveal the hand filing of some weary apprentice. Once we encounter machine made nails or screws though, we say 20th century and look no further.
Actually, there are useful clues in even machine made screws. Especially look for phillips head screws. Those are the screws with a "cross" on the head instead of a single slot. They did not come into use until the about WW II. We've looked for them in the 1930s catalogs in the Center's reference library and they aren't available. So if the item is put together with phillips head screws, it's got to be post WW II. (Of course and occasional screw can be replaced but it's not likely that every screw was changed.) Many a cast iron toy or victorian lawn chair has been exposed as a reproduction by it's screws.
Plywood is another material that did not come into use until the 20th century. (There were some laminated woods used in chairs by Herter Brothers among others, but it doesn't look like modern plywood.) Around WWI, plywood began to appear in furniture as backs or as dividers between doors. By the 1920s, it was being used as a base for veneers on the main structural elements of dressers and other furniture. By the 1930s, it had become the main building material for all but the highest quality furniture.
Most of today's furniture has even less real wood in it. Particle board or wafer board is the main structural material. That's the stuff they make by mixing sawdust and glue together. Then they cover the material with fake wood grained plastic veneer material (much like contact paper.) This type of furniture is extremely heavy and brittle. Just leaning on a dresser can break all the joints where the fasteners are holding it together. (It's one of the best reason for buying antique furniture!) We think of this an "innovation" of the 1980s and 1990s, but it can actually be found in furniture as far back as the 1950s.
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