Defining The Word Vintage

Vintage is a popular word to use when referencing antiques or collectibles and it is open applied inappropriately. On one e-commerce website we found 40,000 listings that utilize the term, so obviously it is a popular adjective. Frequently the term ‘vintage’ is used poorly and often in such a way as to be misleading because it implies an item is of considerable age when it is not.

The word 'vintage' came into being to describe wine from a particular harvest or crop. It indicates an exceptionally fine wine of a given year or specific crop of grapes. A bottle of wine designated as being of a particular 'vintage' can only have been produced from that particular crop, or in the year referenced, as in "...vintage 1961 Chateau Palmer."

Over time the word ‘vintage’ has acquired new meanings that have nothing to do with grapes or wine. But the underlying initial implication - that of representing quality, workmanship, style and being from a particular time - remains. If further change to the meaning continues in the manner in which it appears to be progressing on the Web, the word will eventually have no real relationship to antiques and collectibles at all because it will eventually come to mean any thing that was made on any day other than today.

In reality, just because an item may be a few years old does not automatically qualify it to be referred to as 'vintage'. Most certainly the term does not properly reference stuffed animals, clothing, footwear, glass, or anything else that was manufactured recently or is so generic in appearance or construction that it could have been very well made last week as well as 20 or more years ago. Even if those items are of very nice quality, a professional appraisal report would probably identify them only as 'used' as opposed to describing the items as 'vintage.'

Keep in mind that using the term 'vintage' incorrectly can be interpreted as keyword spam so it would be best not to use it at all if there is any uncertainty in your mind as to whether or not it actually applies to an individual item. A better way to refer to items of a contemporary nature, when in truth they are not 'vintage', is to simply state the year of their manufacture and leave it at that. If an item is manufactured in the present era this will almost invariably mean that it's highly unlikely such an item can honestly be represented as 'vintage' because our current time has very few specific attributes yet applied to its popular culture in the eyes of history.

Vintage is a general term, yes. But it does have real and very specific meaning. An antique that is 100 years old can be vintage, but so can something from the 1960's, if both can be said to bear characteristics of their time. As with vintage wine, the item itself, or some aspect of its construction or styling, will usually express for the observer the time in which it was made. It will be in some way be evocative of the era it came from. Like the hoop skirt of a Civil War era dress would stylistically express the 1860's, or a poodle skirt would evoke a mental connection to the 50's. So while 'vintage' can mean being of a certain era, it can also mean (and often should) that it has the best of a certain particular quality associated with or common to that era, such as workmanship, composition, style, etc. Being of a past era, yes, but in general, also being representational of qualities for which that era was known.

A 1960's psychedelic poster or a Beatles wig would be 'vintage' 1960's. On the other hand something from the 1960's could not be said to be a 'vintage' Victorian period piece, even if it was made in a style similar to that of the Victorian era. A Victorian styled piece made in the 1960's couldn't be 'vintage' 1960's, either, because that isn't a style representative of the time in which it was made. So, while an item might in truth be 'old' it might not be correct to describe it as ‘vintage.’ How this word is used can affect how the customer perceives an item, so care should be taken to use it correctly.

Strangely enough, it isn't unusual to read a listing that says something like, "I'm not sure when this was made, but it's a beautiful vintage piece." Clearly the person selling it doesn't actually know if the item is old, or not, or, if it is obviously old, they aren't certain just how old it is. This is problematic, for how can a shop say their item is 'vintage' when they don't know at what specific point in time it was made?

So, how does one decide whether or not they can properly use the term in reference to an item? Remember, the item itself, or some aspect of its construction or styling, should express for the observer the time in which it was made. An easy way to judge the applicability of any term in the English language is to mentally substitute others that have similar meaning, and with which most people are familiar. If words with a similar definition seem apt and proper in your text, then using the word 'vintage' in their place should be fine. Two terms that are usually readily interchangeable for 'vintage' that might be employed for testing applicability are 'old-fashioned' and 'classic'. If you can honestly state that the item is one or the other, or both, then the term 'vintage' may also apply.

Photo: Jewels By Liz

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