What, exactly, is “vintage”?

Last week, reporter Jill Cowan, of the Bakersfield Californian, contacted me to discuss the reasons why Americans shop for secondhand goods.

I very much enjoyed our conversation and the article, but I was left with a nagging question: what do we mean when we label an object “vintage” or when we say that an object is in “vintage condition”? And when did this usage start? How is this term–used more often in auction houses and flea markets and secondhand stores–useful in scholarly material culture studies?

No ready answers, alas, but we might make a start with tracing the etymology of the word. Vintage, it appears, is of recent, er, vintage–at least when it comes to applying the term to objects.

Anglo-Norman in origin, vintage, has been traced to 1353 in its meaning of “the produce or yield of the vine, either as grapes or wine.” (The rhyming vine/wine here is the added bonus of reading the Oxford English Dictionary.) For much of its history, the word was associated with either the gathering of grapes for the production of wine or as a means to discriminate between particular wines using the year of harvest.

Interestingly, this latter definition arises in the mid eighteenth century, about the same time as the modern collector-connoisseur. And doubly interesting is that the English usage of the term antique dates to the sixteenth century. Whereas antique refers to something (often a relic) belonging to olden times and therefore no longer made, however, vintage is a term ready made for the culture of consumption. One need not be a wealthy antiquarian, vying for the best of what was assumed to be a finite supply of artifacts no longer made, to be a collector.

Then again, antique began being employed in the mid eighteenth century to define an old object especially sought after and collected by amateurs. In this sense, antique could be somewhat conditional, based on desire, taste, perceptions of value, etc., in a given time and place. Vintage, a term denoting place and year, was not. Antiquarians became invested with aesthetic discrimination and historical knowledge of a distant time and its objects.

Does this mean that there is a hidden history of collecting that scholars haven’t yet tapped? That is, collecting, collections, and museums all have a history, but that history has been based on the extant records of the nobility and the wealthy, those individuals we already know as collectors. Might we understand the collecting/consumption penchant as a broader cultural phenomenon? How would, for example, American colonial probate inventories be analyzed with this framework in mind? Are all utilitarian objects in a given inventory really used?  What of the broken teacups and other vessels? Were these convertible to cash or goods by the scrap man? Or were they used as kitchen tools (as is widely assumed)? Might these fragments kept as a collection of some sort–family history, a connection to a person or an important moment, or a reminder of a pattern to purchase a replacement of the same (okay, I’ll use it) vintage?

And what of those inventory takers, who qualified the goods as old or new? How did they discern those qualities? Through wear marks? Or perhaps they possessed a knowledge of the history of the manufacture of the object–that is to say, its vintage.

Historians tend to interpret probate inventories “in the moment”–that is, what the objects of a person’s estate reveals about status and status claims in a given time and place. Consumer behavior is assumed to be based on emulation and display, but is it indeed safe to assume that (1) all consumption is always conspicuous, (2) all collections are based on desire (rather than curiosity) and status display, and (3) consuming and collecting are always separate activities?

Yet, in such a study we are applying the modern usage of the term, and that may lead us to presentist conclusions. Vintage, in its modern applications is dated to the 1880s for persons (“the date or period when a person was born or flourished”) and the 1920s for objects (“the date or period at which a thing was made or produced”). Objects were either antique, old, or new, and it’s when mass production and hastened obsolescence rendered the old into vintage that Americans could apply connoisseurship to everyday objects still produced but changeable yearly in various styles and forms. (Little wonder that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s quotations refer to automobiles and costume, both categories of objects given to seasonal and annual change.)

A given object in “vintage condition”–that is, no longer made in a specific style or color or form but never or rarely used–was, and is, now desired by collectors.  It’s the new antique.

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