A Lesson in Identifying Furniture Age A Lesson in Identifying Furniture Age

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. egg and dart top cornice detail

The drop front drawer slides out to reveal the secretary desktop. secretary drawer

Flanking each side of the secretary desktop are two faux drawers that are large cabinets. secretary faux drawer

Oh and that bubble glass top… 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, bubble glass from inside

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… dovetailing on drawers

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: handmade dovetail drawer

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. scallop and peg drawer

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) drawer to baker's table

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. phillips head screws

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… carpenter trick repair done

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. vintage breakfront secretary with bubble glass 1

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!

Did you know I now offer e-decorating? I can help you with your decorating needs via email, without having to step foot in your home. If you’re interested in more information, visit my e-decorating site: Frame and Frills. I’d love to help you with your project!

Here are more furniture tips:

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Reader Interactions


  1. Jamie Willis says

    Oh boy, Wow! I have one just like this with 2 exceptions. Mine has “real” side drawers and then cupboard doors below, and the center “writing desk” has a closed door in the center with places on either side to stack envelopes/paper etc….

    I was going to sell it but don’t even know where to begin price wise…. Any suggestions?

    • Liz says

      That is so fun to hear! Does yours have the ‘bubble’ glass on the top too? As far as price… I’m certainly no authority. I do know enough from the buying and selling I’ve done, there are many variables. Variables like condition, area of the US you’d sell it in, plus timing it right is a consideration too. I’d talk to someone in your area that specializes in that type and age of furniture to start with. Good luck! I’d love to see a pic of yours.

  2. paperworx4seniors2 says

    Thanks for great lesson in furniture aging. When we first got into buying antiques, vintage pieces it was important to be able to know if piece we were considering was antique or a fake. It’s quite an interesting topic to learn, helps to know what’s real and what is not. One of our first purchases was a dining set from Ireland. One of ways to know if real was size of chairs, the seats were much smaller than seats on dining chairs now. There were other ways also to tell and we were lucky to find such a beautiful set. A dealer in south bay of San Diego was having furniture shipped from over seas. We ended up buying a few pieces from that dealer. Still have some pieces, wish we had dining set too but had to sell due to way our house laid out now, no dining area. This was very interesting post, your piece is beautiful and know you’re enjoying it. Happy week

  3. Carolina says

    Great lesson – thanks so much. I work in a small local shop selling some consignment along with our new retail
    inventory so your info will come in handy. Another great post!

  4. Donnamae says

    It certainly is a beautiful piece. I love it’s backstory of how you came to acquire it. Thanks for the tips on identification! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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