Primitive, Rustic, Antique, Vintage - What's the Difference?

Mar 31, 20142
We recently did a Pinterest search for "Primitive" and came up with a ton of newly-crafted wall decor and signs made of wood. Which made us ask, "are these really Primitive, or are they Rustic? and...what's the difference?" [caption id="306" align="aligncenter" width="570"]Primitive? No. Old? No. Handmade to look old, and country-home-ish? Yep! Primitive? No. Old? No. Handmade to look old, and country-home-ish? Yep![/caption] So many terms to define the old junk we come across... {and please, don't take offense to the use of "junk" - it's a term of endearment around here}.  But what do they all mean? And when should we use each one? And do they all mean the same thing? We're no experts in junk grammar, but we did take the time to do some internet searching, and consolidate some expert thoughts for you. This is our take on the differences, but know that you may get ten different opinions if you ask ten more people...and we'd love to hear your thoughts, too! Let's start with Primitive:  The dictionary seems to define primitive as among the first of something, potentially simple and crude, or made by an unschooled artist. adjective 1. being the first or earliest of the kind or in existence, especially in an early age of the world: primitive forms of life. 2. early in the history of the world or of humankind. 3. characteristic of early ages or of an early state of human development: primitive toolmaking. 4. unaffected or little affected by civilizing influences; uncivilized; savage: primitive passions. 5being in its earliest period; early: the primitive phase of the history of a town. 6simple; unsophisticated: a primitive farm implement. 7crude; unrefined: primitive living conditions.
noun 8. someone or something primitive. 9. Fine Arts. a. an artist of a preliterate culture. b. a naive or unschooled artist. c. an artist belonging to the early stage in the development of a style. d. a work of art by a primitive artist. Synonyms 1, 2. prehistoric, primal, primary, primordial, original, aboriginal, antediluvian, pristine.
So, all of that tells me that this cupboard would be a good candidate for a Primitive description:
[caption id="false" align="aligncenter" width="736"] Primitive cabinet. No arguing that this was probably made by an early artist, who was likely not well-educated in cabinet-building. {I mean, compare this to a French armoire from the same time period...}[/caption]
While this, made to look like it might have been a primitive piece, {maybe you could even say it was made in a primitive-sort-of-style} falls under more of a rustic description: [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="480"] A newly-made cabinet using old windows, with the intention of looking as if it's been around for centuries.[/caption] So, then, what does Rustic mean?  Rustic: We're reading rustic more as a style of something (a way to describe something) versus a noun or an age-identifier. Where you can call a piece of furniture "a Primitive," meaning it's an early thing, using "Rustic" really only refers to the style and not it's age. Do you agree? Adjective 1. of, pertaining to, or living in the country, as distinguished from towns or cities; rural. 2. simple, artless, or unsophisticated. 3. uncouth, rude, or boorish. 4. made of roughly dressed limbs or roots of trees, as garden seats. Synonyms: rural. Could a Primitive piece of furniture also be defined as Rustic? We think so! It could be a very early-made piece of furniture {or tool} that also fits the "Country" style. Confused yet? We were, too - but thought these pictures helped to tell the story a bit better: [caption id="false" align="aligncenter" width="312"] This feels like a great example of a Rustic dresser.[/caption] [caption id="false" align="aligncenter" width="354"] While this is more Primitive! It's also looks like it could easily belong in a country home, so we think you could also call it Rustic![/caption] What about this one? It has the same look as a primitive piece might have - worn with age, not necessarily rustic/country-looking, but appearing as if she's weathered many storms: [caption id="false" align="aligncenter" width="600"] She's an antique, this one. She's probably not the first example of this style of dresser, and she's not very crudely made. Though, she has been finished to look as though she was crudely maintained![/caption] And this one? Vintage, all the way. [caption id="false" align="aligncenter" width="500"] A vintage dresser made to look primitive by using Milk Paint to create a chippy effect. In fact, this is probably factory made around 50-60 years old, maximum![/caption] How do we differentiate between Antique and Vintage {and Retro}? We love this loose definition found at 1) Antique. Something that is, like, really old. Probably musty, dusty and moldy. Probably made of wood. {we say around 100 years} 2) Vintage. Something that is too old to be considered "used" but not as old as Grandma. {we say between 30 and 80-90 years old} 3) Retro. Something that is basically outdated and out of style. By calling it "retro" the seller hopes to assign sentimental or historical value to something that is simply no longer cool. {we say 10-30 years old} To sum it all up, Primitive, Antique, and Vintage are terms that primarily refer to the age of an object, or when it was created. Rustic refers to the style of an object. has a great page that defines different decorating styles - many of which can include primitive, antique, or vintage items! What do you think? Do these definitions/descriptions resonate with you? Would you add or change anything? If you have examples of any of the things in this post, feel free to link up in the comments below!

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Comments (8)

  • yummy eye candy! Rustic, primitive or whatever I love it all!

    Melissa Weaver Lenhardt
  • We think so too! Glad you love it {and what would we all do without Pinterest??}.

  • Thanks for the comments and insight, Dan! It seems there are a few shops/stores out there (a lot of the items on our search were from Etsy) that a named “Primitive” such-and-such. So surprised to see so many of them! We love the idea of creating one-of-a-kind, personal items! So many more memories connected to them, then! And we appreciate the nice words about what we do, as well.

  • I think you found a lot of “box signs” because there is a company called “Primitives by Kathy” that designs these “several of a kind” items. All made in China and very popular, these days.

    They are not primitive and they are made to look rustic. Frankly, I would prefer to make an art project with a youngster to create something similar, personal, one of a kind. What you folk are doing at least takes some care, creativity and effort.

    Dan Backen
  • great features! I got to step up my game! Love the dresser makeover! Amazing!

    Justin Pope
  • I feel your description and definition of Primitive is spot on. And it should be used only when appropriate. I agree that Rustic is a look and not a period. I also feel, though, that Antique is 100 yrs. or more and Vintage is a specific period like, Vintage 70’s or, Vintage 40’s, Vintage 90’s… Retro seems to only refer to the 50’s and the 60’s. Some things can have a Vintage “look” or a “retro” look" etc. But should be labeled as such. Great job guys!

    Jennifer Crongeyer
  • much is the green hutch

  • Awesome and informative post!!
    Thank you!

    I’ll use this information for my buying and selling!
    And, for the future furnishing of my home!



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