America’s Early Antique Stores: When did the Industry begin in Earnest in the U.S.?

A modern American antique shop is stocked with antiques from around the world. But when did these shops become commonplace instead of being out of the norm in the U.S.?

Having lunch with friends from the U.K., we discussed our afternoon spent browsing through antique stores. “Why aren’t there more antiques in your antique stores?” questioned Nigel.

“There aren’t enough real antiques in America” chimed in his wife Susan, “except those that are imported from Europe, of course.”

“America has a thriving antiques business” I replied. “We were first colonized almost 400 years ago, you know.” I could tell they were not impressed. To those belonging to a culture whose roots reached back thousands of years, Americans are the new kids on the block. “Besides,” I added, “we’ve been manufacturing goods for the last three hundred years, not to mention importing a lot of Europe’s estate antiques.”

“Perhaps” said Nigel, “but dealing in antiques as a fulltime pursuit is rather new to America, isn’t it?”

Early estate inventories show very little in the way of household goods.

I had no idea, but the question piqued my curiosity, and set me to Googling for the answer the rest of the weekend. It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, and I felt obliged to eliminate my ignorance on the subject.

Of course, there have been estate auctions in America since Colonial days, but what Nigel wanted to know was how long our “modern” antiques trade has been around. You know: shops full of old merchandise culled from estates and sold at healthy mark-ups. To answer his question, I had to first determine exactly what was meant by the term “antique,” and then discover the set of social circumstances that could lead to the development of a market for antiques.

Definitions for the term “antique” abound. Most of us know that in the U.S. the official government definition of “antique” comes from the U.S. Customs Service, who considers an antique to be anything “over 100 years of age at the time of importation.” The importation requirement notwithstanding, this definition seems to have stuck, and antiques purists swear by it.

I guess I’m not a purist, because I just don’t buy into that definition. The Customs Service definition was adopted more than 80 years ago by bureaucrats as a way to clarify duties on imported goods. Anything more than 100 years old, they determined, was an antique. But, consider how they arrived at that conclusion: The British Government had long held that antiques were items manufactured before 1830. In 1830, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and furniture and consumer goods were being mass-produced. Prior to 1830, furniture, glassware, silver and other goods were made by hand in small artisan shops. Our cultural cousins set their bisecting line at a sensible technological divide: the demise of the artisan shop as the major producers of consumer goods (i.e., 1830). The U.S. Customs Service followed suit. It made sense at that time to decide that antiques were items made before the dominance of factory-made goods. But—and here’s the catch—they didn’t specify in their ruling that antiques were items made before 1830; instead, (since the rule was made in 1930) they proclaimed that any item more than 100 years old was an antique and could enter the country duty-free.

As Americans middle grew in wealth, they mimicked the style preferences of their wealthy neighbors

In the 1950s, the rest of the Western world got on board with America when the International Customs Cooperation Council declared that any objects more than 100 years old are classified as antiques.

In the 21st century, I find that definition as outdated as some of the antiques it’s supposed to classify. It’s too narrow to be useful in today’s marketplace. I’m not alone in this opinion. The antiques community has searched for years to find acceptable terms to classify what they are selling. Items have been deemed “vintage,” “collectible,” “of the period,” “in the style of,” “revival” or “reproductions,” any of which could be more than 100 years old and an antique in their own right.

No, I prefer not to have bureaucrats and tax men tell me how my goods are to be classified. Let the marketplace select the terminology, not the government. As noted Worthologist, author and antiques expert Fred Taylor says, the government definition “may work for bureaucratic bungling purposes but it has no relationship to the real world. By that definition there are no antique radios, automobiles, computers or televisions so the word “antique” has a situational definition depending on the category of the item”. In the 21st century, a Mercury spacecraft is as much an antique as muzzle-loading rifle or a cotton gin.

My personal definition of an antique is “any historical object evocative of the cultural or technological environment of previous generations.” For the purpose of my research, I decided to stick with my own definition, despite the “official” definition. 

By some definitions, a Mercury spacecraft is an antique.

Having arrived at a workable definition for antiques, my next challenge was to figure out when American’s interest in antiques became sufficient to foster a retail industry. Creating a market for antiques required both a supply of antiques and demand for antiques; at what point in our history was there enough supply and a big enough demand to encourage entrepreneurs to open a retail antique shop?

Let’s first investigate the supply issue. In the 18th century, most Americans had few possessions. Estate inventories of the time show very little in the way of household goods: a few chairs; a table or two; trunks; a bed; and cookware. Most Americans were subsistence farmers or tradesmen, and most of their property was in tools of the trade and/or livestock.

Wealthy property owners held what today are the most sought-after antiques: period furniture; silverware; glassware and porcelain. Such items would stay in families for generations. Unlike the British inheritance system, in which a family’s wealth was passed on to the eldest son, American families generally preferred to divide an estate among family members. Consequently, after a few generations, wealth and land would be dissipated and an estate’s “future antiques” would hit the resale market as used furniture.

The rise of industrial America in the 19th century made a wide range of manufactured goods available for the first time to the working class. Many families left the farm and moved to a city, where factory jobs could provide them with enough income to buy and furnish a home. “Buying new” was the cultural norm; goods were plentiful and cheap.

As the American middle class grew and increased in wealth, they mimicked their wealthy neighbors and furnished their homes with the newest gadgets and Victorian-styled furniture. Sometimes, they even purchased their wealthy neighbor’s furniture through house auctions. As Myrna Kaye discusses in her book “There’s a Bed in the Piano: The Inside Story of the American Home”:

“Household auctions, showrooms, magazines and fancy shop windows kept the middle class informed about what the upper class was buying (and) … they learned how to appoint their homes stylishly.”

In 1926, the demand for antiques became so strong that Lord & Taylor displayed an entire floor of antique reproductions.

The demand for antiques was so strong that ambitious immigrants in American port cities made frequent trips back to Europe and returned with shipments of antique furniture. There must have been a substantial amount of antiques being imported if the Customs Service deemed it necessary to attach a definition to the word “antique.” In 1904, there were three antique shops in Boston; in 1924, there were 47. America’s earliest surviving antique shop is H.A. Eberhardt & Son of Philadelphia, founded in 1888. The Eberhardt’s specialty was restoring porcelain, but they sold European antiques as well. Other notable early antiques sellers that are still around are Waldhorn & Adlers (1891) and M.S. Rau (1912), both of New Orleans.

Because there weren’t enough “real antiques” to appoint the large number of middle-class homes, manufacturers started to make antique reproductions in large quantities. In 1926, Lord & Taylor, on 5th Avenue in New York City, displayed an entire floor of antique reproductions to meet consumers demand for antiques.

Clearly, by the turn of the 20th century, the demand for antiques in America out-stripped the supply. In the past 100 years, the industry has grown beyond the confines of big cities and antiques dealers can be found in virtually every small town in America. And, contrary to the opinions of my British friends, they are very well stocked with antiques.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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