The pleasure of using old things

By Caitlin Kelly


I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.

If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.

Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)

And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.

Not me!

I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.

Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.

New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.

The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.

The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.

I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)

The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.

I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.

I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.

This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.

A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.

Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.

We enjoyed a long and lively conversation and she very generously gave me an extra ticket to the Winter Antiques Fair, which is also on at the same time, which I attended last year, (and where I bought a black and white photo by Finnish legend Pentti Samallahti. The image we now own is in the 6th row down, 2nd from the left. I’m dying to own the third one from the left in that row!)


Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.

Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.

We’re only passing through.

In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.

40 thoughts on “The pleasure of using old things

  1. Beautiful cup. I wouldn’t dare to use it, by fear of breaking it. I read in a history magazine recently, that ancient furniture were designed to last through centuries, and that it shows on every detail about them, unlike more recent furniture.

  2. Yeah, there is something special about old things (and not ust because most of what I own is hand-me-downs). There is something special about owning something that has a history to it. I collect plenty of things–books, nerd gear, etc.–but I have a small collection of WWII memorabilia, including a Nazi Germany Reichsmark, a stamp with Hitler’s likeness, a Weimar Reichsmark note, seashells taken from Omaha and Utah beaches, and a WWII-era can opener. I would kill to add a saber from the era to that collection (possibly with the saber to do the killing).

      1. Indeed. The past has a lot more value than people give it credit. We’re part of a continuing chain that’s constantly evolving with every age and generation. Having pieces of that chain with us helps keep that in mind.
        Plus, the past can make a great setting for all sorts of stories.

  3. Before this modern era of throwaway things and fast fashion, things were made to last. So much better! I can see why antiques are appealing.

    Talking about fast fashion, one of my cashmere cardigans recently developed a large hole in the elbow from wear and tear. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ But I had bought it in 2014 and it was a staple in my wardrobe, so I suppose it lasted fairly well through three winters of frequent wear. The rest of it is fine, so I’m going to have it made into a pair of fingerless gloves. It’s fun to repurpose things. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. My Dad was a mechanical engineer and a great collector of stuff. When he passed away a few years ago, I got all his drafting equipment. I’m not the best draftsman (Lefties are a bit messy) but it’s fun designing little things for my friend to feed to his 3-d printer.
        I like the weight of the lead holder and the soft scratching sound of the point on the paper. I think drawing with my hand takes me into a more thoughtful, creative space in my mind; much in the same way a handwritten letter might differ from a word document.
        On a slightly different note, I offer the Studley tool chest. It’s a completely practical item that just happens to be made by a master craftsman (Studley) with the finest and most exotic materials. I know not everyone is into antique tools but this is worth a look just to admire the craftsmanship.
        This was a good post, a very enjoyable read (Comments too). Thanks for posting it.

      2. Hey, thanks! Love hearing from you again.

        Handiwork is such a different way to experience the world and our creativity. I had planned to leave journalism and I studied interior design which meant (shriek) studying drafting…with a pencil…and line widths were CRUCIAL for others to read our drawings. I got my worst grade in that class.

        I treated myself to some nice personal stationery this year and will be writing some letters by hand in the next few days, using a fountain pen. I think we’ve lost so many of these sensual pleasures. I love writing and my laptop is highly efficient, but…

      3. My laptop is pretty good but my Mozartian(?) method of editing on the fly, along with my hunt and peck typing style, makes it little more than a typewriter with Mah Jong.
        I studied interior design in Atlanta way back in the ’80s. I had some trouble with drafting until I learned to do things backwards to keep my hand from dragging across the image. Later, when we started drawing with ink on vellum, it was actually quite a bit easier. Line weights were more consistent and the paper stayed cleaner. My big problem was cutting out pictures and little pieces of mat board to make presentation boards.
        So I became a machinist. It’s not glamorous but my house is nicely done.
        This reply took the best part of an hour to write. Typewriter with Mah Jong.

      4. Love this description — great band name!

        That’s so funny. Those presentation boards were one of my favorites and I did really well with them because I draw and paint well, so my renderings were pretty good. I even got an A in color class, which was a very very difficult class!

  4. What a fun post Caitlyn!

    When it comes to “things,” I think we share a common interest. I like things that have personality, things that have seen some things, and things whose value is determined by a very select and discerning market.

    There are exceptions of course. My 16-year old ball cap, and pink plastic sunglasses may not have value to anyone else but me (but my poor wife would gladly pay dearly for anyone willing to remove them from our apartment). Still, no one can deny that these cherished items have a history.

    Like you, when others see “old,” I see stories, and I see history.

    1. And I bet (?) you love flea markets.

      I can’t wait to get back to Paris and London and hit up all my favorite spots. My last purchases of old things there were a chocolate brown fedora (Paris ) that (SOB) I lost when I got back to NY and a gorgeous hatpin from London. I never use it, but it sits in the pencil jar on my desk and makes me happy to look at it.

  5. I confess to having tastes that run more to the modern in daily life, but I do agree that a thing of beauty, well-made and of noble materials, transforms the experience of drinking tea or sitting down to work. Love the luxury of that cup!

    1. Those cups are so special.

      I love how lightweight they are — you move and behave differently when you use them (and that, literally, is transporting for me. That someone, then, held it and used it…like this.)

      I also like that they hold a very small amount of coffee or tea (luxuries then) and that reduces/slows my consumption — unlike the massive mugs of today that hold 4-6 times as much in one go.

      It gives me a lot to think about. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks!

      I was lucky enough to grow up around very good things — not always $$$$ but eclectic and lovely — and with parents who loved them and bought fearlessly. That, and years of attending auctions, reading reference books and studying antiques formally, has given me the confidence to know what I’m (really) looking at. I can generally spot a repro or fake — and know how they’re made. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail

  7. I love turning old things into new things – those worn bed linens, dead socks – all good for rag rugging, where they become pleasantly anonymous and get a second life! I have a bath mat made almost entirely out of dead socks.

  8. I’m looking forward to my ‘antiquer” husband reading this. Finding that rare gem at an estate/garage sale or market is such a thrill. Because he’s an antique dealer, its bad for business when I get too attached to the finds! Great post!

    1. Loved your post! Those curtains are so cool! I use mine to cover tables and have them made into pillow-covers, esp. for the summer when our balcony becomes a banquette covered with cushions and throw pillows.

      1. caitpb

        Thank you! What a great idea for outdoor summer decor! I may steal it ๐Ÿ™‚ Sounds lovely.

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