Restyling the Word “Primitives”
In the evolution of any industry new words emerge to identify and define products and trends that shift the marketplace and seek to broaden its appeal. In the antiques world, its words such as “Upcycled,” “Repurposed,” “Salvage,” “Vintage,” “Americana,” and “Primitives” that are making ‘old things’ and ‘antiques,’ hot and trendy to a new generation of buyers and collectors.
Dealers, appraisers, and academics have taken great pains over the decades to define what is a bona fide “antique,” universally recognized as a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at least 100 years ago; however, in an effort to salvage waning interest among younger buyers in antiques, the word has been appropriated to include an eclectic mix of generally old things, many of which have not aged to antique status.
In marketing it’s all about finding the words that resonate with the intended audience. While the word “antiques” is a universal identifier for buyers, collectors, and enthusiasts, there is a real and important distinction to be made between a business that makes a market in authentic antiques and those that embrace a looser interpretation of the word.
In an effort to capture the interest of new and primarily younger buyers and collectors inspired by the DIY movement, decorating sites, and shows such as Flea Market Flip, we are now seeing more descriptive words such as “Country Primitive,” “Industrial Chic,” “Farmhouse Simple,” “Flea Markets,” and “Vintage Bazaars” being used in place of “Antiques” to more accurately promote and reposition shops, shows and other businesses that embrace a more eclectic mix of old, new, and repurposed. These designations are being applied broadly to expand the category and appeal to the widest buying public possible, many of whom are more moved by an item’s look, style, and aesthetic than its age and authenticity.
In this issue we focus on one of these fast-growing segments of the antiques marketplace, “primitives,” a topic that starts with a working definition of the word.
Dictionaries generally define the word “primitive” as “being the first or earliest of the kind or in existence, especially in an early age of the world.” In the antiques world the word has been co-opted to reference pre-industrial, hand-made items and objects made for a utilitarian purpose, that are generally old enough to qualify as an antique. In this context the word refers to age, craftsmanship, and intended purpose, and is applied to a wide range of items, from furniture and textiles to hearth and field utensils.
Collectors and admirers of primitives are drawn to the lack of pretense, ingenuity, and practical purpose behind these artifacts of everyday life from days gone by. They prefer objects that show their age and use, which speaks to them about its maker and the people that used it.
In the interest of full disclosure I am a collector of hand-forged, cast-iron, hand-cranked tools from around 1860 to 1920. It is what I call my “Build a Better Mousetrap” collection as these items, made to last a lifetime, were engineered to simplify an everyday task made easier by crank and gear mechanisms. Many of my favorite items have been found at country antiques and primitives shows. When a show or shop uses a combination of these words in its marketing materials, I know they’re speaking to my interests.
Collectors are wired to acquire regardless of their areas of interest, but some collections require more space than others. In this issue we learn more about John Rice Irwin, the collector behind the creation of the Museum of Appalachia, from his daughter, Museum President Elaine Meyer. Elaine shares in our interview that her mother put her foot down when the items he had been collecting started spilling out of the garage onto their front yard, and people started coming by the house on Saturday mornings to buy and trade. To oblige, John started salvaging old homes and structures from around Southern Appalachia and rebuilding them on his property to showcase his collection in context – to tell the story of what life was like in rural Appalachia up until the early 20th century. What makes John’s collection unique is the time and attention he paid to the people he met picking and collecting items over half a century. He diligently wrote their stories down, giving primitive objects a powerful voice in preserving this region’s history and culture.
Beyond the historical significance of “primitive” antiques, the growing popularity of country primitives as a design aesthetic has created new opportunities for show promoters and shops to expand beyond authentic antiques, country primitives, and Americana to include restored and re-purposed vintage items and those items hand-crafted to be aged by design into their business mix. That shift is attracting a new market of buyers more interested in the idea and look of “country antiques with a primitive influence” rather than the definition that defines an object by its age. It also creates opportunity for dealers who specialize in authentic country primitives to educate a new generation of buyers about the ‘real deal,’ and the stories and history that make these primitive items such special finds.
Restyling the Word “Primitives”