Built-in china closets and antique china closets were a once popular featured of the turn-of-the-century home. Recently, these display pieces have seen a modern resurgence thanks to how well they help people economize on space without sacrificing style. Instead of buying from big box retailers, you can take the time to pick out the real deal for a similar price.
Early Architecture for Displaying China: China Closets
Household economic status and generational wealth played a huge part in which homes had recessed china closets in their kitchens and dining spaces, as well as what types of display cases they had. The more elaborate, intricately designed pieces with a lot of expensive materials of the social elite directly contrasted the simple and functional pieces of the burgeoning middle class. A very wealthy family that entertained frequently might have a walk-in closet that was specially outfitted to store their large collection of plates, platters, and specialty dishes required by the elegant dinners typical of Victorian society and entertaining. A smaller home would be more likely to have a built-in cabinet with shelves, glass doors, and drawers to store linens.
If you have a historic home, you may have one of these china closets in the dining room or kitchen, or the outlines of where the hardware itself would've once stood. In fact, since so many older homes have been remodeled, the closet may be in what is now a den or even a bathroom. The larger antique china closet may currently be a pantry, laundry area, hot water heater storage, or half bath. Restoring one of these areas back to its original purpose can be rewarding as well as adding the historic character back to your home.
Early Architecture for Displaying China: Built-in China Cabinets
Built-in china cabinets were most often built into the wall between the butler's pantry and the dining room. They sometimes had sliding doors on the back wall of the cabinet to allow the freshly washed dishes to be added to the closet without having to walk into the dining room to do it. Since these storage cabinets were built in to the wall, they rarely were as ornate as stand-alone china cabinets and hutches. These utilitarian display cabinets met the necessary storage needs for the household's china, linens, and silver, and are favored by minimalist designers today.
China closets built in the Victorian style are often taller and have a more elegant look than those that were built for Arts and Crafts bungalows. You'll usually find these late-19th century china cabinets built into corners rather than along a wall itself, with an almost bubbled glass paneling that juts outward in a distinctive curve. You're more likely to find a built-in cabinet in larger Victorian homes built by the wealthy than a simple Victorian cottage, as they required more complex construction and customized build-plans, thus incurring substantially higher costs than the average person could afford.
Arts & Crafts Style
It wasn't until the Arts and Crafts movement in the very late-19th century and early 20th century that the built-in china cabinet became a common sight in average homes. These were recessed into the wall and could take up quite a lot of space. Often the top shelf was used to display the homeowner's favorite pieces to keep them out of reach from wandering hands. In conjunction with the style's practical form, the cabinets from this era tend to have straight lines, with hardware that was often hammered copper or metal and has a simple, handcrafted look.
Art Deco Style
During the 1920s and 1930s, built in china cabinets became smaller and took on classic Art Deco decorations like shells and scallops. These embellishments could be created by a plaster shell over the wood form of the cabinet. As the sizes reduced into what almost resemble bookshelves today, the traditional china cabinet began seeing a resurgence. This recessed or fully-closeted interior design plan began losing popularity in this period, and by the post-war era, these display cases weren't that common.
Add Missing China Closets to Your Modern Home
Sadly, when many homeowners remodeled their older homes in the mid-century, the old china closets were often removed for the space to be used for something else. If you own any home built between the 1880s and 1920, it's likely that it had some type of built in china closet, and you might be able to discover where it was originally located in the house.
Look for a wide, shallow closet in your home near the dining room. It might have double doors to cover the wide opening that would have been left in the wall. If you can't figure out where it might have been, you may be able to dig up the original blueprints to the house at your city's (or county's) archives department. Even if you have a modern home that's devoid of these cool features, you can still find a way to carve out some space for these recessed china closets to go.
How Much Do Antique China Closets and Built-In Cabinets Cost?
Due to how similar the surviving antique china closets look to cabinets, particularly when they've been removed from their recessed positions in historic architecture, it can be really difficult to find verified china closets. However, you can look for antique china furniture that's built with structured edges so that they can easily be recessed into a space in a modern home. When it comes to pricing, antique furniture can be quite expensive, and china closets are no different. You can expect to pay anywhere between $1,000-$5,000 depending on the value of the materials, the size, and the condition. The larger the closet and the more valuable the wood (such as oak vs. mahogany), the more expensive they're going to be.
Take these old china closets and cabinets that've recently come to auction, for example:
Where to Find Built-In China Cabinets
Once you've figured out where you're going to put an antique china closet, you can try to find one that matches either your home's architectural style or your interior design. Spend some time looking at images of houses that were built within a year or two of when yours was; this can help you easily identify what the original closet looked like and find a better match for your home.
You're pretty likely to find antique china closets at architectural salvage suppliers, and while you may have to visit often and keep looking for exactly what you are looking for, it can also be a good idea in the meantime to look for antique china closets in your area or online. For instance, these are just some of the places you can purchase antique china closets on the internet:
- Craigslist - Often homeowners put things for sale on Craigslist. You may be able to find a built-in china cabinet that fits your home right in your own neighborhood.
- Etsy - While it's pretty difficult to tell if an antique china cabinet was once recessed into a historic property, any antique china cabinet will do if you're thinking of updating your kitchen or dining room. If so, Etsy is a great place to start as it's an online marketplace that has a ton of unrestored and refinished antique china cabinets in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
- eBay - Although buying from eBay will substantially increase your shipping costs, they're a great place to periodically look for these antique goods.
- Facebook Marketplace - While you're at the mercy of what people in your local area are listing for sale, you have a good chance of coming across a large piece of furniture like a china closet, and you can cut your costs way down by not having to pay for shipping.
- Antiques By Design - A Canada-based antiques dealer, Antiques By Design focuses on selling antique and vintage furniture to interested buyers; yet, their inventory isn't updated every day, so it might be a while before new pieces come to their website.
- Curved Glass Creations - A unique company, Curved Glass Creations actually specializes in creating replacement glass for your curved Victorian china cabinets. Thus, if you find an antique corner china closet with damaged glass panes, you can request a quote on their website for them to make a set of custom fit replacement panes.
- 1st Dibs - 1st Dibs is an antiques broker that works with antique sellers across the world and helps facilitate the sales of their goods with interested buyers through their online platform. Out of all of their antiques available, they're have the greatest variety of antique furniture, and typically only sell higher-end and more expensive pieces as well.
Reclaim an Old Built-In China Cabinet Through Architectural Salvage
Another possibility for finding older china closets and cabinets is online architectural salvage companies. While you can find these businesses all over the country, many of the in-person locations will ship to you for a hefty price, while others solely sell their wares online. Some of these digital resources include:
- Recycling the Past - Recycling the Past is an architectural salvage retailer that sells all sorts of saved items, spanning antiques to modernity and as broken down as lumber to as pristine as art and architecture.
- Olde Good Things - Olde Good Things began in 1995 as a small flea market shop that grew over time into an impressive online architectural retailer, taking the pieces from the past that were destined to be cast out and offering them to interested internet customers for a reasonable price.
- Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage - Operating since 1999, Aurora Mills Architectural Salvage has a warehouse full of antique and vintage architectural items, including display furniture. On top of having reclaimed furniture itself, you can also purchase reclaimed wood through them to incorporate into a custom build if you can't find the exact piece that you want.
- Doc's Architectural Salvage and Reclamation Services - With over 36,000 square feet of space filled with salvaged antiques, Doc's is a collector's happy place. Located in Springfield, Tennessee, you can visit them in-person, or shop through a massive online inventory on their website. In addition, you can also have restoration and refinishing services completed at their physical location if you happen to find the perfect piece somewhere else.
Custom Build an Antique China Closet or Built-In Cabinet
Finally, if you can't find what you need, consider speaking to a local craftsman about recreating the china closet that was once in your home. You can provide them with images from other historic homes and detailed information about what you want it to look like; and if you really want to try to be sustainable and historically accurate, you can source the raw materials from these architectural salvage retailers instead of purchasing your materials in bulk from a modern seller.
Transform Your Walls Into an Elegant Chinaware Exhibit
While most families gravitate towards traditional china cabinets and hutches, installing a built-in china cabinet is one way to take your decorating up a notch. Impress your family and friends with your expertly exhibited antique china by transitioning to one of these decorative pieces today.