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Know your style

Ever drive by a house you love and not know its style? Or pick up a piece of glass or pottery at a show or flea market but you can’t date it or identify its maker? Or, ascribe the style of a chair in a room to its design era? How about when it comes to vintage jeans? Can you tell its age or era by its style or branding? You are not alone!

As antiquers, we admire and buy what catches our eye. Our appreciation for these items only grows as we learn more about their history and makers and the stories, companies, and innovations that make these items from our past desirable and collectible.

We may like the look of something but defining and dating it based on its design style takes years of collecting and research. In this issue, we take a look at several popular collectible categories and historic objects and help you hone your ID skills and style vocabulary by understanding the tell-tale features and details that define a design era.

Can you tell the difference between a Georgian and a Greek Revival home? Or a Cape Cod versus Colonial Revival home? In “Know Your Architectural Elements,” Historic New England’s Architectural Style Guide will introduce you to domestic architecture and common stylistic trends of New England architecture that will help you define by style and architectural elements the homes that catch your eye during your next road trip.

In Judy Gonyeau’s article, “Take a Seat …,” you can learn about the evolution of American chair styles from the 18th and 19th centuries when chair designs took inspiration from Europe, to the 20th century when American craftsmen and designers literally broke the mold with a Post-War/Mid-Century Modern take on seating. How can you tell the difference between a Queen Anne and a Chippendale chair? A Shaker ladderback chair versus an early American ladderback chair? An original versus a good reproduction? Here again, it starts by knowing the design elements and characteristics that help define a chair’s style and era.

Pottery is another popular collectible category and objects abound at antique shows and markets. While it is easy to pick out the pieces that appeal to you—whether it be shape, glaze, or decorative elements—dating pottery and identifying its style with a maker is the stuff of connoisseurship. But, there are some tell-tale style elements that can give any enthusiast and collector a place to start. According to The New York Times, the earliest known pottery in North America has been identified in the Southeastern United States and dated at about 4,000 years of age. Although used as functional tools, Native Americans are credited with using the canvas of clay to express themselves through symbols and designs or signify belonging to a specific tribe or family. Over the centuries, the design and making of pottery morphed into an art form and decorative object designed in the form and style of the maker’s era of influence, making the style of a pottery object a little easier to classify. In the absence of a maker’s mark, other physical style attributes to consider for identification are the item’s color, texture, hardness, weight, and design. You can learn more about what to look for in this month’s article, “American Pottery through the Growth and Change of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Like pottery, glass has a history dating back millennia, but 18th-early 20th-century glass has many American makers and styles that help collectors and those that appreciate it identify its style classification and with that, its age and perhaps manufacturer. You can learn more about identifying glass in Peter Wade’s article, “What Styles of Glass are You Passionate About? A Walk-Through of American Glass Styles and Inspiration with Peter Wade.

When we talk about style, the most obvious reference is fashion. American designers in the 20th century broke all traditional design rules when it came to fashion, with each era and decade referenced by its defining styles. While hemlines have gone up and down, and what’s appropriate has been replaced with what’s comfortable, blue jeans, from blue-collar work clothes to western wear, everyday ware to runway fashion, remain a staple of the American wardrobe for men, women, and children. One of the hottest fashion trends today? Vintage denim. You can learn more about the evolution of jean style and what to look for when hunting for vintage jeans in this month’s article, “Jeans: The Iconic American Style.”

We hope this crib-sheet approach to style and language for some of the more collectible and represented items you come across in your antique explorations provides you with the language and basic ID skills to identify and shop your style.