Unloved Antiques: Great-Great-Grandma’s Spinning Wheels

Owners of “family heirloom” spinning wheels are often disappointed in their actual value. Though the market surged in the 1990s, these days even examples in good condition have a hard time selling for $100.

The next item in this series of Unloved Antiques is something that once was almost a requirement in any antique shop: the spinning wheel.

During the early years of the 20th century, there was a rebirth in interest in all things Americana that resulted in the market for antiques of the American Colonial and Federal periods taking a huge upswing. If you didn’t still have great grandma’s rocker, dining room table, spinning wheel or dower chest, and your family did not come over on the Mayflower, you could save face by going out and buying someone else’s great, great grandma’s stuff.

Over time, family mythology being what it is, the origins such pieces often got lost, the piece becoming a “family heirloom.”
The spinning wheel as a domestic tool has a very long history, dating back to 13th-century China. The spinning wheel did not become popular in Europe until the 18th century.

In the United States, the spinning wheel became an important fixture in most homes by the first quarter of the 19th century. In many cases, spinning wheels were one of the very few items European settlers brought with them across the Atlantic during the early years of the 19th century, but European wheels differ enough in design and wood types to differentiate them from the North American variety. Spinning wheels of the type shown in the photograph accompanying this article were North American-made, generic utility items. While nearly all were handmade items, they were produced in fairly large numbers.

Considering they’ve been an obsolete item for more than 150 years, it’s amazing they’ve survived in such large numbers to this day. Perhaps it is because of this misconception of their value over the years that kept them stored away during periods when they were no longer fashionable.

In the 1970s, another antiques boom came along, a result of the Baby Boom generation buying homes and becoming nostalgic for the things they saw in their own grandmas’ houses.

Once again, the humble spinning wheel became a popular decorator item; it was almost unheard of during this period to find an antique store without a couple of them in stock, or for that matter any collector of Americana or Canadiana not to have one displayed in the living room.

During the big run up in the value of antique items like stripped-pine furniture and Victoriana, spinning wheels also gained a great deal in value. Some of my battered old price guides of the period show some run-of-the-mill wheels listed for more than $450.

Sadly, since the early 1990s, they’ve become an antique that joins the list of the “unloved.” Today spinning wheels are viewed more as a curiosity than a collectible, so values tend to quite modest. Even for examples in good condition, they often struggle to sell for $100 at auction.

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Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting
Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible
Unloved Antiques: That Stack of Old Books
Unloved Antiques: 20th Century Wedgwood Jasperware
Unloved Antiques: Bone China Tea Cup & Saucer Collection
Unloved Antiques: Brass & Copper Fire Extinguishers
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Bisque Figurines
Unloved Antiques: Hump-Backed Trunks

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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