What Is the Meaning of the Word "Vintage"?

By James Holloway
Wind-up robots, a popular category, vintage toy
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From auction listings to collectors' blogs, more and more toys and games are being described as "vintage." Vintage items are typically more collectible and frequently more expensive than their modern counterparts. Because vintage items are no longer in production, they often command higher prices than reproductions or reprints, even if they are physically in worse condition. However, vintage items can still be affordable compared to older antiques. Unlike many collecting terms, "vintage" doesn't seem to have a precise definition. Many sellers use it loosely, but it's still possible to establish a rough meaning.

Origins of the Term

The term "vintage" originated in the wine industry. A wine's vintage is the year in which it was produced. Informally, wine lovers sometimes use "vintage" simply to mean older, high-quality wines. In toy circles, the term originally had the same meaning. For example, a Star Wars Death Squad Commander figure might be referred to as "1978 vintage" to distinguish it from the later, but otherwise identical, Star Destroyer Commander figure. However, the term gradually came to be used more loosely.

Varying Definitions

Arguments over terminology will be familiar to collectors in any area. The precise definition of "antique," for example, is a subject of contention. Some writers suggest that "vintage" refers to anything produced before the early 1990s, while others set the cutoff date at 1965. Roughly speaking, the term seems to refer to toys and games that are out of production and have been for some time -- that is, toys that were current when today's adults were children, or earlier. As a rule, reproduced items are not considered vintage. A "replica vintage tin robot" is a replica of a vintage toy, not a vintage toy itself.

The Spirit of an Age

Some definitions of "vintage" are less about date and more about style. Online vintage sales site Ruby Lane states that a vintage item "should speak of the era from which it came." Thus, a chess set from the 1950s might not be particularly "vintage," because chess set design is relatively timeless, whereas a wind-up tin robot might be more expressive of the era, especially since such toys aren't common in the 21st century.

Vintage Toys and Games in Practice

Although all these definitions of "vintage" vary, they do have certain factors in common. To be vintage, a toy or collectible must not be current. If you can walk into a store and buy it today, it's probably not vintage, no matter how physically old it is. It shouldn't be recent, either: The Xbox is out of production, but it's not vintage (it might be retro, but that's another story). Atari 2600? Absolutely vintage. In the end, however, with a subjective term like this one, there will always be borderline cases. If an online seller thinks that the second edition of "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" is "vintage," don't get into a fit of purist outrage and assume they're a crook; nostalgia is different for everyone.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.