Rinker on Collectibles: Repurposed, a New Name for an Old Concept

This table was originally a lane taken from a soon-to-be-demolished bowling alley, making it as perfect example of repurposed.

Repurposing antiques and collectibles is back in the news. The Kovel on Antiques and Collectibles Newsletter introduced a “New Uses for Old Stuff” monthly feature beginning with its June 2013 issue. It is hard to miss the hundreds of repurposed antiques and collectibles that grace the booths at antiques and collectibles flea markets, malls, shops, and shows. “Repurpose,” “repurposed” and “repurposing” appear regularly in articles in antiques and collectibles trade papers and result in hundreds of hits when searched on the Internet. A controversy has arisen within the trade among those who favor and those who disapprove of the practice. Is there a “right” position?

Wiktionary defines repurpose as “1. To reuse for a different purpose, on a long-term basis, without alteration . . . 2. To alter to make more suited for a different purpose.” Reusing antique laboratory specimen jars to store dried pasta is an example of the first. The same applies to the chamber pot from a toilet set that housed the meatballs at an Italian spaghetti dinner I attended. The spaghetti was served in the wash bowl and the sauce in the hot water pitcher. Converting the base of a treadle sewing machine into a side table or television stand by replacing the wooden elements and machine with a piece of glass is an example of the second.

Repurposing is not recycling. Recycling converts waste material into reusable material. One object is destroyed to create another. Reuse, returning an object to its initial functional purpose, is not synonymous with repurposing or recycling. Objects often are repaired or restored so that they can perform the function for which they were made. Repurposing requires that the object be used in a different way than initially intended.

When I became the editor of “Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices” in 1981, I received what remained of the Warman Publishing reference library. A copy of Edwin G. Warman’s “Cash from Trash” was among the titles. Reading it brought back memories of the 1950s and early 1960s repurposing craze. The movement focused on converting older objects into more useable forms—a wagon wheel turned into a chandelier or a stoneware jug serving as a lamp standard.

Young adults who grew up during the Great Depression and experienced the Second World War, with all of its shortages, comprised the generation responsible for the craze. “Waste not, want not” was a universally accepted maxim. Objects that malfunctioned were repaired. The post-war prosperity was still in its infancy. The generation was attuned to finding new uses for objects that were too good to throw out.

While some of the suggestions in “Cash from Trash” preserved the integrity of an object, others took liberties. Drilling a hole in the bottom of ceramic vase and a stoneware crock or jug for the purpose of converting it into a lamp was an accepted practice. The low secondary market cost of the objects encouraged the practice.

While a strong proponent of repurposing, I would like to share two “who in their right mind would do this” repurposing stories. The first occurred in late 1975, when I was the executive director of the Historical Society of York County in York, Pa. The Society had decided to mount a major exhibition focusing on Pennsylvania German furniture and the decorative arts as its contribution to the American Bicentennial. A Pennsylvania German Schrank, featuring a date and other decorative elements in sulfur inlay that came from the collection of a Pennsylvania German scholar and retired museum director, was included in the exhibition.

A member of the Society board of directors and I were assigned to pick up the Schrank, along with several other pieces from the individual’s collection. The Schrank was in the living room. It was aesthetically pleasing and had aged gracefully. However, in preparation for loading it into the van, the owner opened it to remove the television set and other articles on the interior shelves. The period interior and back had been gutted to create a home entertainment center. I stood absolutely still, my mind being unwilling to accept what I was seeing. Fortunately, I also kept my mouth shut long enough to reflect on the disadvantages associated with offering a personal opinion as to what I thought of anyone who would be so stupid as to mutilate a museum-quality object.

These mixing attachments from a restaurant-grade mixing machine have been repurposed as kitchen light fixtures.

Converting 19th- and early 20th-century armoires, chifferobes, garderobes, linen presses and other wardrobe-type furniture into home entertainment centers capable of housing a television set, turntable, high fidelity audio equipment and/or a tape recorder was a typical 1950s and ’60s repurposing project. Furniture manufacturers produced contemporary pieces whose cabinetry mimicked these period forms. Again, the period pieces were cheap. The conversion saved many from the landfill.

Author’s Aside: As the board member and I were loading a Pennsylvania German tavern table from the same collection, the drawer slipped open. A large group of maggots had created a home in one of the far corners. I looked at the board member, whose shake of his head and facial expression said “do not say a thing.” When we returned to the Historical Society, a plastic tent was constructed, all the items from the individual’s house placed inside, and a fumigator called. The incident was hushed up.

This incident taught me to check every wooden piece carefully before I handled it. I have lost count of the number of times I found small piles of what looked like grains of sand around chair legs and beneath case pieces. Powderpost beetles and other bugs love old wood and live far longer than most collectors assume.

A corollary lesson: When moving any framed items or paper material from an attic or basement, especially in the South and Southwest, check for evidence of silverfish or cockroaches. If the attic or basement is damp and/or smells musty, double check for insect damage.

The second “who in their right mind would do this” story took place during a mid-1990s walk-through home appraisal. As I entered the living room, I noticed four electric table lamps with exquisite late 19th-century and early 20th-century French cameo glass standards. The lamps were marked Gallé or Daum Nancy. There was no question regarding the lamps’ authenticity. Each vase had a hole drilled in its bottom to accommodate a rod that allowed the electrical wire to reach the lamp hardware.

Confused by what I was seeing, I remarked to the homeowner: “I was unaware that Gallé and Daum Nancy made lamps.”

“They did not,” she responded. “When my decorator and I were trying to decide what lamps would look best for the living room, we went to New York. There we spotted these cameo vases in an antiques shop. We agreed they would make fabulous lamp bases. I bought the four you see plus the others in the bedrooms. My decorator had the bottoms drilled and the vases made into lamps.”

This wedge-shaped foundation mold—fitted with a new glass top—becomes a coffee table, while the black and white snooker balls have been repurposed into the components for a mobile.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, the quality of these French cameo vases was between an 8 and 9. They belonged in a museum or a high-quality collection. My heart ached so much, I wanted to cry. Uncharacteristically, I kept my opinion regarding her stupidity to myself. Instead, I explained that the value of the vases had been seriously compromised by what she did.

“It does not matter,” she replied. “These are not the antiques I want you to appraise. They are just decorations.”

It is horror stories such as these that raise concerns about blindly endorsing the repurposing movement. Museum-quality and high-end period objects should be preserved and treasured, not repurposed. While an owner has the unquestionable right to use any object as he or she sees fit, common sense must prevail over bad judgment.

Have you encountered repurposing horror stories? If yes, share them with me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

Part II of this series on repurposing will explore the history of repurposing from the “Cash from Trash” era to the present, reports on some of the repurposed objects I have encountered on recent field trips, comments on some of the repurposing proposals found on the internet, and offers criteria for a thumbs up or thumbs down valuation.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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One Comments

  1. sierraseven says:

    The lamp conversions are especially baffling when one considers that a display stand/lamp combination can be purchased for a reasonable price, that you can set the vase or jar on and have the lamp support that curves over from behind, or from both sides, giving the same effect as “converting” the lamp without having to damage it.