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I always leave my grandmother’s house with a trunk full of old kitchen treasures stashed away in my car. Childhood visits were like entering a time machine back to the 1970s, the time she built her house with my grandfather. It was glorious—tan-colored laminate countertops, green shaggy carpeting that squished between your toes, seemingly ancient pots and pans, and little tiles from their travels hung on the walls.
She has since downsized from that house to an apartment, but I loved taking little pieces of that home that she passed onto to me and incorporating them into my own. One of my most treasured possessions is a pot and pan set from 1970, with a curly orange and brown floral design that reflects the time period. The box had never been opened—she doesn’t like to throw away anything that has value—and despite its age, I was the first one to use it.
The rest of my kitchen is a reflection of those items passed on. I like to call the look “collected,” which is the trendy way of saying a mishmash of gifted, thrifted, and found pots, pans, plates, and glassware. My cabinets contain sage green coffee mugs from that grandma, ceramic plates from my cousin after she upgraded, modern black bowls found on Facebook Marketplace. There’s the brown crocks perfect for French onion soup that were given to me by my great aunt on the condition that I send her a picture of me using them, and a red Dutch oven with a stained bottom from my mom, plus countless mixed sets of Pyrex and Corning ware dishes and glassware. I happen to be from Corning, NY, where those brands originated, so the antique and thrift stores are filled with them.
I would venture to say that almost everything in my kitchen (or my home in general, really) had a first life somewhere else, whether that be sitting useless in a box in the basement, or previously used so lovingly that marks are left, as with that Dutch oven. I love that my kitchen is made up of pieces of other people’s kitchens, as if all the delicious meals made in that Dutch oven before me will make my cooking that much better.
But I didn’t get everything from family. The rest of my kitchen is from Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Savers, and flea markets. Getting that collected (not to mention affordable and environmentally friendly!) look requires scouring stores like these or asking your loved ones for offloads, but the process can be so fun and totally special. I talked to two professional vintage kitchen decor sellers about what to look for when vintage kitchenware shopping, products you should always buy, and what you can feel free to avoid.
How do I know what to buy at the thrift store?
If you already know the style and aesthetic you are going for, great! But Jenny McLachlan of the Etsy store LaSelvaBeachHouse said that what’s fun about many shoppers today is they don’t confine themselves to one style. “They are open to mixing style and periods of decor into their collecting,” she said. “You’ll find mismatched bowls, plates, and platters, mid-century drink and barware in fun colors, rattan baskets, and vintage wooden bowls all in the same kitchen.” So if you like it, buy it! The thrifted or collected vibe is all about having items from different eras, which ultimately gives that warm, lived-in feel.
What brands or products should I always look out for?
Keep your eyes peeled for brands that are known to last. Lise-Anne Pilon Delorme, who sells vintage kitchenware through her Etsy shop lizfinestcollection, recommends looking for Pyrex, Royal Doulton, Johnson Bros., Homer Laughlin Restaurant Ware, Glasbake, and Fiesta. But also consider the product’s materials, not just the brand. McLachlan recommends “anything ironstone—platters, lidded tureens, pitchers, bowls” as well as countertop bamboo wine racks, stoneware crocks, and copper pots.”
Also seek out cast iron pans that you can bring back to life, stainless steel cookery that just needs a good clean, and glass or ceramic products that double as decor and storage, like mason jars and vases.
What should I avoid?
If it doesn’t look sturdy, skip it. If it’s already damaged, skip it. You want to buy items that have lasted well through their first life, so you know they have the durability for their second life. Avoid anything rusty, or wooden products that have seen better days; wood absorbs liquid, and you don’t know what kind of liquid an item’s already seen.
How do I avoid feeling overwhelmed?
Walk into any secondhand stores and you’ll likely find yourself completely taken aback by the huge selection, paralyzed with choice. I try my best to make a list of what I’m looking for before I go: For example, maybe I’m on the hunt for a set of six drinking glasses or a bunch of small bowls. I just concentrate on that section to see if I can find a set of drinking glasses and a few bowls I like.
I also try to leave some room for spontaneity. I was recently on the hunt for a salt cellar to keep next to the stove. I wanted something about six inches wide, with a top that easily came off and room for a decent amount of salt. It took me a few weeks, but eventually I came across an artichoke-shaped ceramic dish that was perfectly charming. It met my specifications, and added something unique to my kitchen. It makes me smile every time I spot it.
Stocking a new kitchen takes a while, so have a little patience. Just know that taking the time to find affordable, quirky, and cute additions to your kitchen is part of what makes the process so much fun.
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