In a time where manufacturing took way more time than it does now, why were antiques so opulent and detailed?



Simple things like scissors made to look like a bird’s beak, embroidered everything, scrolling details on metal spoons and clawed feet on furniture… tiny buttons, fancy thimbles! Why so many details for every little thing? Might be a silly question, sorry.

In: Technology

It’s a good question. But the answer lies somewhere between the fact that modern fashion tends to be more minimalist and that back then people put more time and therefore, love into whatever they were crafting. It’s perhaps a chicken and egg thing here. I would say the latter is more accurate an answer and that our minimalist styles perhaps were born from mass production. I think if I were hand-making a button or a spoon and it had taken a lot of my time and attention I’d perhaps want it to stand out a bit. I think the fact that antiques are unique and detailed reflects the love that was put into it and it’s no surprise that antiques are so sought after in the modern day – in a similar way people want to be different in a world that is unfortunately driving us towards uniformity and dullness. As a quick example, long ago there would be millions of shops making spoons, now I imagine most will come from a handful of companies like IKEA and be distributed by Amazon. I think much like a lot of other things, manufactured goods are suffering an identity crisis.

A lot of those things were just the fashion of the times. All antiques aren’t necessarily fancier than their modern equivalents. It just depends on what was popular then.

Because that kind of objects weren’t so popular, they were typically owned by nobles or at least rich people. Since the demand was not so high, and those people had enough money and authority, artisans working on that stuff were really trying to do their best.

Also, artisans’ skills were probably measured on those kind of tiny details. It’s not easy to embroid small things, and you still require proper artistic skills to actually “draw” a bird or a fancy shape. The reasoning was probably “anybody can make a plain white button, but only some really good artisans can make buttons with your coat arms and maybe even some writings in Latin”.

I imagine there were more cheap or plain items than fancy ones made, they just weren’t held on to. Only the fancy ones were seen as worth preserving as antiques.

There is an element of survivorship bias: the old objects that are still around are mostly the nice ones.

Also in the past there were very wide wealth disparities between the small number of rich people and the large number of poor people. As a result the wages of workers and artisans were very low compared to the price that the rich consumers could afford to pay. This means that a lot of hours could be put into each object without it becoming cost prohibitive.

Details were marginally cheaper back then. It’s so much cheaper to get mass produced stuff nowadays, that our lives are based around it. People still keep the expensive, detailed stuff, and that becomes antiques. Cheap-looking, boring stuff is used and discarded, not kept, and no one makes reddit posts about it.

Yeah I think people have covered this pretty well but to sum up, it’s a combination of a few factors.

1. Survivorship. Only good/unique antique items are worth keeping around.
2. People did take more time making items back in the day. While automation and industrial manufacturing have been around for a long time, there were things that just couldn’t be manufactured by anything other than hand crafting until computers came around. Also before WW1 people just didn’t buy as much so items were generally more expensive but better quality.
3. The style has changed. More decadent designs are viewed as tacky. Too many frills and suddenly that looks like grandmas couch. Modern designs tend to be focused around ergonomic, sleek, and minimalist designs.

I think because manufacturing took so much time things were made to last and because they were meant to last people cared more what they looked like. For example if you got one of those fancy scissors you probably expected to use that for much of the rest of your life, and maybe even give it to your children later. Whereas now if you buy scissors you’e probably expecting it to break, dull or get lost in the next 5ish years, or if you ever find you don’t like it anymore you’ll get a different one.
On the other hand I think it’s also harder to make such intricate things compared to mass production. For example making an elegantly wood carved cupboard is way harder than making a couple of ikea cupboard parts, even with modern factories. In comparison the step between a simple handmade wood cupboard and an elegantly decorated one is less extreme. Selling and manufacturing beautiful furniture is probably a better business decision if you have to make everything by hand anyway compared to if you could sell cheap mass produced products instead.

Mass production is old enough that a lot of antiques today were mass produced. My mother inherited a clock from the 1850s with a lot of little fancy decorations, and it was cheap enough for ordinary people to buy back then. (One of the first mechanical clocks that cheap.)

In 150 years from now what kinds of antiques being made today will be available for purchase?

All the garbage you can get at a dollar store will be long dumped into landfills. Heck even the kind of midrange stuff that lasts you 20 or 30 years is all going to be tossed out. My Casio wristwatch is going in the garbage at some point in the next 50 years.

But what about a Rolex? You don’t just throw that away. If you have a 50K Rolex that you just bought you are going to baby it. You are going to maintain it properly. You are going to make sure it survives. Eventually you will give it to your relatives. If it looks like a block of garbage when you do they will toss it in a drawer or chuck it sooner or later. But if it looks great, if its style stands the test of time, if there is someone out there who loves the way it looks and is willing to pay for it, then it will always have value, always be cared for, and never be thrown away.

In 150 years they will be looking at Rolex’s from today asking the same questions you are. “Why would they make watches that are so fancy!”