Nothing is more pleasant than sharing meals with friends and family, and there's no better place to do so than on and around antique dining room tables. There are many sets available on the market to suit all purses and personal styles.
Dining Set Basics
Dining spaces have always been around, but the types of tables and chairs varied widely over the centuries. The Greeks and Romans had dining spaces, but the guests also watched entertainment while eating and reclined on couches instead of sitting on chairs. The Elizabethans were among the first people to set aside a room only for dining, but it took generations for the idea to spread to North America.
Thomas Jefferson, inventor and visionary, was one of the first US citizens to have a dining room, which he built at Monticello. The room had Federal style chairs and dining table, and food and good conversation were the evening's entertainment. The tradition was carried forward although today you are as likely to find an antique dining set in the family room or kitchen as in a formal dining room. Buyers can find sets from the 18th to 20th centuries, and from simple tables and chairs for $100 to elaborate suites valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. But despite the unusual examples, like a 10' long table, most dining room sets were made to fit into middle-class rooms. In general, antique (100+ years old) and vintage dining room sets have a table and chairs, along with a sideboard, china closet, or other similar storage. Other pieces found in these sets are:
- Chairs with arms and a rounded back support, which are often called captain's chairs after furniture found aboard ships
- Table leaves which are used to extend the table's length
- A dresser or hutch which is a bureau with shelves for displaying dishes.
Dining Room Sets Through the Centuries
Antique dining room sets can be found in a number of different woods, with the type used and the style of the design often dependent on the era in which the set was made. Some common woods found in antique dining sets include maple, mahogany, cherry, walnut, ash, and veneers, including exotic woods like burled walnut veneer or bird's eye or tiger maple. Pine was generally used for kitchen tables and other less formal areas of the home.
- Federal and Georgian style dining sets date to the 18th century. Look for pedestal tables, richly colored mahogany, and simple, smooth lines. These pieces were custom made in workshops, so the chair styles were custom-made to the buyer's specifications. Prices for antique sets from this era can start well above $10,000 for a table, with chairs valued at $1,000 or more apiece.
- The Victorian era (1840s-1900) introduced oak and walnut sets that were produced in enormous quantities once steam powered factories were up and running. Buyers should look for carving, pressed designs, and upholstered chairs. The custom pieces were carved with elaborate designs while the factory pieces were made for the middle class. Expect to pay $500 to $1,000 or more for a table, while chairs may range from $100- $300 each based on the wood and design.
- Neoclassical sets from the mid-19th century are elegant but can cost nearly $500,000 for a rare suite. They were made to reflect the styles of the 1780s, and earlier. Beginning around 1876 and into the 20th century, other styles from the past became popular, particularly the Colonial Revival. These sets reproduced designs that harked back to the early days of the United States.
- Art Deco sets date from the 1920s into the late 1940s, and have straight lines, veneered surfaces, and inlay work. These sets can be found from $100 (look for these at auctions and flea markets) and into the thousands, depending on the style, condition, and manufacturer (custom, high style sets can be pricey.)
- Mid-century dining sets span design styles from Danish modern, with its clean, spare lines to Hollywood Regency, awash in mirrored and silvered finishes, and over-the-top designs. These are often featured through web sales or in shops. Expect to pay $1,200 and up for simple sets (table and 6 chairs), and more for the elaborate styles, with mirrors, buffets or servers.
There were thousands of furniture manufacturing companies in North America and Europe during the 19th century, from high- end artists to production manufacturers. Some of the well-known names include:
- John Henry Belter was known for elaborate carvings and heavily decorated tables and chairs. He was recognized for his laminated pieces and obtained patents on the machinery so that his competitors would not copy his designs. Rococo carvings of fruits and flowers are among his motifs. Belter tables and chairs are extremely high-end, with small tables commanding upwards of $15,000.
- The Larkin Company was founded in the 19th century, and revolutionized marketing, and furniture distribution. Women and men would purchase soap, sell it, earn dividends and trade them in for furniture. These pieces included oak dining tables and chairs. Expect to pay $400 and up for an oak dining room table with several leaves.
- Henredon is a North Carolina furniture company that was founded in 1945. They produce fine furniture for the home, and their vintage pieces copied older styles. Prices for dining room tables can start at $500 or so on the secondary market.
- Hitchcock furniture was known for its stenciling and decorations. Reproduction dining sets from the mid-20th century are popular and were manufactured by other companies as well, including Ethan Allen. Look for stencilled marks and labels; Hitchcock dining sets start around $1,500.
- Stickley Furniture was founded in 1900 and is still adored for its straight Arts and Crafts lines, gorgeous oak or cherry and fine metalware. Expect to pay $2,000 and up for a table, and $400 and up for chairs.
What to Watch For Before Buying
Once you locate your dream dining set, you will want to examine it carefully to ensure you are getting something that is useful as well as lovely.
Check the Condition
Look for things that can't be fixed or indicate the set isn't a true antique.
- Look at the top of the table. Are there cracks in the wood? Is it dry or warped?
- Test the joints of chairs and make certain that they are sturdy. Some joints or breaks can be repaired, but you may need a professional to handle that.
- Check out the underside of the table and chairs. Are there any markings that might indicate the pieces are reproductions? Look carefully for marks, labels or metal tags in and under drawers, under the case, and on the metalware.
- Do the repairs look like they could be costly? Replacing a spindle might be easy; matching and replacing a rare veneer may be impossible.
- Saw marks and other construction indications on an antique dining set can be used to determine age.
Originals Versus Revivals
Determining a set's age can be difficult since revival styles are sometimes offered as originals. Some of the easiest things to do are:
- Examining the materials: Wood warps over time, and hand cut nails and screws may indicate older pieces.
- Looking for saw marks. Circular saws appeared around 1850; before that, the hand saws created horizontal marks.
- Assessing the hardware: Are the handles and pulls original? Do they match with the screw marks or do they cover up holes from earlier pieces?
- Measuring the proportions: Does the furniture size suit the era? People were generally smaller in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the furniture's proportions should reflect that. The Bulfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture is an excellent field guide for identifying furniture of all eras.
Antique Dinette Sets
A dinette is defined as a small space or alcove used for dining, and these spaces became popular in US homes after World War I. The middle class was moving out of apartments and into cottages, bungalows and other cozy spaces. To accommodate the smaller square footage of the homes, furniture manufacturers made correspondingly smaller dining sets. The tables often had few leaves and two to four chairs. While some sets had porcelain tops, the most famous dinette sets are the laminate, chrome and vinyl groupings from the 1950s. Look for sets from Acme Chrome, Sears, and Montgomery Ward. Dinette sets sell in the $50 - $200 range (more, if the tabletop has a design painted, molded or laminated in). Watch for:
- Vinyl and formica in good condition
- Chrome that's not pitted, but smooth and shiny
- Matching tables and chairs, which should share proportions, chrome style, and colors
Where to Purchase
If at all possible, buy your dining room set locally. This gives you the opportunity to take a look at it and make sure it is in good, usable condition. Buying locally will save you a lot of money in shipping. There are a number of ways to acquire an antique dining set:
- Antique shops, like the Colonial Mall in Woodstock, IL are usually good sources for these sets. They will often be priced higher than some other venues but you will be able to evaluate the condition and ask questions about the set.
- Many states have antique alleys or maps/guides to regional shops, so make a day of it while hunting for the perfect dining room table: the Berkshires in MA offers dealers who specialize in 18th century American furniture but call ahead to check on available stock. Expect to pay several thousand dollars for dining tables of this age, especially if the cabinetmaker is known.
- Online antique stores and malls like Ruby Lane or Houzz can be a good place to browse for ideas, but the shipping costs must be factored in. Values there tend to be on the higher end.
- Chairish lists vintage and antique dining sets. Recent offerings began at $600, with others $4,000 or more.
- Of course, eBay always has sets from all eras. You will probably want to consider pieces that you can pick up since shipping can double the price you pay
Add a Dining Set to Your Home
Antique dining sets are a wonderful addition to your home and a lovely place to share and make new memories for the future. The value of the furniture is more than monetary as your new memories are created.