In the entry area of our living room, in our 100 year old house by the stairway, is a small sectioned off part of the room. On the end wall of that space this vintage breakfront secretary with bubble glass now sits. It fits so well, it looks like it was made for the space. Here’s how this beautiful piece found its way into our home, and a quick lesson in identifying furniture age.
At first glance, one might think this is a true antique piece of furniture, (antique being at least 100 years old). It has the handsome details of an Early American piece in its rich mahogany wood… Sheraton? Hepplewhite?
Beautiful egg and dart detail across the top.
The drop front drawer slides out to reveal the secretary desktop.
Flanking each side of the secretary desktop are two faux drawers that are large cabinets.
Oh and that bubble glass top…
It seems to have a life in itself, as the light bounces off it’s fascinating curves.
You can see from the inside of the doors,
how the glass is curved out for each wood trim on the front. I have no idea how they would have made that, but it’s gorgeous.
But this piece is not an antique… Yep, that’s right, this mahogany breakfront secretary was actually made in the 1950’s. How do I know that?
It does take some investigative work to figure out the approximate age of furniture, but it’s not really that hard. And of course, there are always exceptions to dating furniture that one must consider, like if a piece was damaged and parts had to be remade etc. So when trying to determine the age you have to consider as much as you can with the piece.
When I’m trying to identify the age of a particular piece of furniture, I always start with the drawers. Just the basic construction of a drawer will reveal so much about the true identity of a piece.
Hmm… I think there’s a lesson there about people too… something about the outside, though it may look good, doesn’t reveal what’s really inside a person…
This breakfront secretary is a good piece of furniture, meaning it is quality built. The side of its drawer show the dovetailing that shows that quality. But the dovetailing is machine made. You can tell by how perfect and uniform it is. The machine to make that style of dovetailing wasn’t invented until 1900… so a period Early American piece this is not. (and just to double check this one drawer wasn’t a repaired drawer, all the drawers were built this same way)
My mom used to work at a bank and I remember her telling me when I was a little girl, the way they were trained to tell if someone was trying to pass off counterfeit money was not studying counterfeit money, but actually studying the real stuff… feeling, looking etc at real money all day, they could easy detect the fake money right away.
That’s how it is with determining antique furniture too… Study the real stuff, and you’ll very easily recognize the new stuff once you open the drawers on it.
Here’s a different drawer from a different antique piece of furniture I have:
That is an example of a handmade dovetail joint. By hand, it’s just not going to be perfectly uniform.
A while back I showed you a Victorian piece of furniture my parents have. It has this lovely scallop and peg joinery on the drawers.
You can read all about that beautiful Eastlake piece of furniture here. This scallop and peg was made by a machine, dating to mid 1800’s, and was replaced by the dovetailing machine in 1900.
Another piece of furniture I have is this Victorian baker’s table. (you can read more about this antique baker’s table here)
Its drawers are very simply made with just a dado edge on the drawer front, and nails holding the drawer sides to the front.
Now, back to the breakfront secretary…
Another telltale sign that it’s not too old of a piece are the screws holding the hardware are Phillip-head screws. Phillips-head screws were invented in the 1930’s, so this piece was made after that.
However, remember how I said to consider as much as you can…
It is possible on some pieces the hardware &/or screws were replaced… (although on our secretary it’s clear it was the original hardware for the secretary)
But take for instance this piece…
a primitive cupboard in which I had to fix the door that kept falling off. (You can read about that old carpenter’s trick I performed here) but when I made the repair, I couldn’t find an old screw that fit right, all I had on hand was this Phillips-head screw… it works great, but it’s not matching to the very old primitive cupboard.
One last clue I had in determining the age is I asked about it from the people I bought it from. Even though the story people tell you about a piece isn’t always accurate, things get confused sometimes, it still will give you a clue of what to look for in your detective work.
I’ve purchased many things at garage and tag sales. When I’m checking out, I always ask what they know about the piece. Sometimes they might not know much, but even a little clue can direct you where to start looking and see if the puzzle pieces fit.
In the case with this breakfront secretary, it was a client’s piece in their house I renovated for them. At the time, I told them how lovely the piece was and gave it a spot of prominence in their design. Fast forward several years, and as they were making the difficult task of moving into assisted living, they needed to get rid of this piece and remembered how much I appreciated it, so they actually contacted me to see if I was interested in it.
Of course I was, and thrilled with how well it fit into our living room spot in our new 100 year old house.
The gentleman who originally purchased it, told me that he bought it around 1950, when he was a college student, living at home. Since he lived with his mother, but needed a spot for his books and a study spot, he bought this beautiful piece to have in his mother’s house, for his study area. Once he was married and living on his own, the piece eventually came with him.
My applied methods in identifying furniture age to this piece completely confirmed his story.
I’m super happy with this piece of furniture, and how it looks in the living room entry area. And even though it isn’t a genuine ‘antique’ I’m totally fine with that. It’s just good to know…
Hope this lesson in identifying furniture age helps you both with your pieces you have already, and as you’re out and about looking for more treasures!
Want to read a little more? Check out my page on all different furniture pieces I’ve written about!
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