How To Identify Vintage Antiques

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When you stumble across a vintage or antique item, the most important thing of course is to identify what it is, who made it, and what year it is from. Today I thought I would share some tips to help you identify and research anything you might have – whether it’s antique glassware, a toy from the 1980’s or even some random knick-knack you have discovered.

1. Identify The General Category of Item

The easiest way to get started with any kind of item you find is to first identify the broad “category” of the object. Imagine you were selling this item on eBay or Etsy and needed to pick a category for your listing. For example, if it were a vintage sewing machine, you’d pick the “sewing machine” category.

While the broad general category of an item seems like an obvious thing that doesn’t really need identified, identifying this will make your research process a lot easier!

For nearly every type of object ever made there is always at least 2-3 guides to help you get started. If you’re identifying some type of obscure item like barbed wire or pressing irons, your only hope for ever properly identifying it would be to go to those collector’s associations websites and to scour as many books about collecting those items as you can to learn more about it.

More common and newer items usually don’t need this step – if you have something vintage from the late 1990’s, quite likely enough people remember it that you might not even need collector’s resources just yet – you might remember it from your own childhood.

Once this is out of the way, let’s move onto the next step: Researching the Manufacturer

2. Identifying and Researching the Manufacturer

Most items are labeled or marked by the manufacturer, typically with a logo or other trademark. Common collectibles and manufacturer marks can be researched quite easily and there are tons of resources and online databases for specific manufacturers, all of their marks, and even serial and model numbers.

However, not all manufacturers are easy to research, especially when you get into items that were manufactured internationally or when manufacturing companies and brands were merged with other companies.

To find the manufacturer’s mark or the brand of an item, typically it’s as simple as turning it over. Most glassware items and metal items for example, have the brand or mark stamped on the bottom. Soft toys and clothing typically have brand labels attached to them. Books have the publisher listed on the first few pages. For the majority of items, you simply need to inspect them a little closer!

However, not every item has a clear mark. From the 1970’s and onward, many items were mass manufactured to be sold very inexpensively and were not even given a brand name or identification mark, other than perhaps “Made in Japan” or “Made in China”.

This is especially true for decorative items and knick-knacks. Ceramic and porcelain figures were mass manufactured and sold at dollar stores and discount stores with no identifying marks whatsoever.

Mass-manufactured items typically aren’t especially rare or valuable, but a lot of them are still pretty cool and it’s only natural to be curious to try and identify who made or marketed an item.

Most collectibles from before the 1970’s are very easy to research, but as more time passes and more and more things fall into the category of “vintage”, you start to realize very quickly that between changes in how things were manufactured, as well as the many merges and liquidations of various brands and manufacturing plants – finding accurate information is a challenge!

3. Begin Your Research!

There are a lot of ways to research things. Let’s look at these different research sources!

Books

Books are your best bet because they are usually fact-checked, researched, and contain accurate information. They are your best source if you are trying to identify something very specific, such as advertising dolls or cookie jars.

Of course, books have their disadvantages. They aren’t easily “Searchable” – you have to rely on tables of contents and indexes. Books can also take up a lot of space if you collect in a wide range of items or if you don’t specialize.

I have an entire bookcase dedicated to just antique and vintage collectible resources because when we started our estate liquidation business years ago I needed to quickly learn about all kinds of items, not just the ones I personally was interested in collecting.

The good thing about books of course is they are inexpensive – you can find them at thrift stores and book sales super cheap – you can even find many of them at the library to borrow.

Search Antique/Vintage Databases

You can also try subscribing to Kovel’s, Worthpoint, or other Antique Database resources online. Kovel’s and Worthpoint are very broad, so if you have something quite specific or it’s own “niche”, you will likely do best to search in the databases of various collector’s clubs and associations.

General Internet Searches

The general internet of course is always open and you can find lots of information here – but it might take you a very long time and you can’t always be certain information is accurate.

For example, say you stumble across an item just like yours for sale on eBay. There is no way to know if that particular seller actually researched the item or if they were just where you are right now looking up stuff broadly on the internet and taking guesses.

You sometimes can find useful information and clues to aid you in your research, but everything you find on the internet is going to need additional verification.

Search Newspapers

I probably use Newspapers the most when I’m really researching a topic in depth. Maybe I’m looking at specific trends, advertisements, or notices about a company.

I love being able to search through many vintage newspaper archives, whether its directly from the newspaper/magazine that offers the archives or online library collections.

Newspapers and magazine archives often have a paywall, but it’s well worth it if you are really researching a topic in-depth because you otherwise may never find that information anywhere else.

Ask People You Know

Lastly, it’s helpful to just talk to people who were around in the time period when something was made. If I stumble across something from the 1960’s, I know it’s best to ask my parents if they remember what something might be or where it was from. I can tell you all about stuff from the 1980’s without even having to research it because I was around when it was made and popular.

You can’t always rely on someone else’s memories to be accurate, but asking around can definitely give you some important clues that will help you identify what something is and where it might be from. You can then use that information to keep searching for more information.


Do you have any tips or helpful resources for identifying a vintage or antique item and learning about the manufacturer? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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