An Introduction to Depression-Era Furniture

Depression-era chest

How do you define furniture that’s not quite antique by the traditional definition, but still far from new? It’s not a cut and dry determination by any means, but lots of pieces falling into this category were made during the Depression Era of U.S. history. In furniture terms, that constitutes the late 1920s and 1930s, spilling over into the early 1940s.

For many years, furniture pieces from this period were treated like ugly stepsisters by some of the haughtier antique sellers, but as time passes, depression-era furniture is managing to hold its own. More and more dealers now notice and carry furniture made during this period, especially as the Depression Era grows more distant in time.

Increasing in Popularity

The increased availability of depression-era furniture in the marketplace is partly due to a growing number of estate closings that have placed many furniture and accessory pieces from this historical period into various outlets. But simple demand also makes up an important part of the equation. Depression-era furniture is usually relatively affordable. And consumers like the fact that this furniture fits in with lots of different decorating looks. For example, the curvy art deco appeal found in many of these pieces isn't overly ornate, allowing it to fit in well with many decorative accessories and accent pieces.

Structurally, this was some of the best quality furniture ever made. During this period, plywood panels were being used for the core construction for the first time, giving this furniture better durability than what was found in older pieces. Today's consumers like the fact that Depression-Era furniture is often free of the flimsiness found in older antiques.

A Study Resource for Depression Era Furniture

If you want to study up on this type of furniture before you head out shopping again, look for a copy of Furniture of the Depression Era by Robert W. and Harriett Swedberg, published by Collector Books (now out of print but available through used booksellers online). In addition to a price guide — which may or may not be accurate depending on where you’re doing your furniture hunting — this illustrated reference includes a wealth of information on dating, manufacturers, and the identification of wood veneers used during the period.

Depression-Era Wood Veneers

Depression-era furniture makers employed lots of veneer work in their pieces. The depression was a lean financial time, and manufacturers had to make furniture appealing to consumers while keeping costs down. Layering a thin slice of attractive veneer over wood of lesser quality offered a way to accomplish this objective. As long as it is in good condition, there's nothing wrong with purchasing a piece made with veneers.

However, according to the Swedbergs, actually identifying what types of woods and veneers were used during the depression era can be complicated by the fact that many different kinds of bleaches, stains, and fillers were used to change the characteristics of the wood. And many styles were copied from those popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries throughout the Depression years. Some are exact replicas, which can only be identified by closely examining the woods used. Others have slightly modified characteristics that make identification somewhat easier.

It is important not to regard all veneer furnishings as low-end. Although veneering was very common during the depression era, there are also many veneer pieces produced as much as 100 years prior to the Great Depression that exhibit fine quality and are highly desirable. If you suspect you have an older veneer piece, let a professional take a look at it before altering it in any way.

Another adaptation found in depression-era furniture is a veneer lookalike, known as veneerite. In this process, an imprint of a fancier veneer was printed onto thin paper, which was then glued to the wood to produce the look of edge banding and inlay, at a fraction of the cost. Furniture using veneerite is a decided step down from pieces with actual hardwood veneers, but it does help identify a truly vintage depression-era piece. It was a technique that allowed for a more elegant look for people who simply couldn't afford the real thing during these austere times.

Popular Depression-Era Furniture

Most of the furniture associated with the Depression Era has a distinct look, and some pieces are more popular than others. China and curio cabinets many with nicely curved fronts and glass panels seem to sell more readily than buffets used in dining rooms, for instance. Modern consumers seem to want more functionality in furniture pieces, avoiding larger items that just take up space. Don't forget, however, that moving a buffet into the living room and using it as a television pedestal isn't out of the question. 

In the bedroom, there is a good market for the vanities and dressing tables with benches that were very popular during the Depression Era. Today's consumers prefer pieces with three mirrors rather than just one, since the two side mirrors can be adjusted to show a person's face, profile, and the back. However, pieces with large round mirrors or those with obvious Art Deco flair continue to be popular, as well.

Small accent tables (also known as occasional tables) from this time period might be the best bargain of all, with the highest prices are commanded by pieces with fancy inlays and veneers. Look for simple-yet-functional Depression-Era tables that fit in with any decorating style. You can also change the finish on these without worrying about ruining a valuable antique.

Bottom Line

American furniture made during the late 1920s through early 1940s may not yet have the collectible value of genuine antique furniture, but this Depression-Era furniture is growing increasingly popular with collectors, thanks to its historical heritage, affordability, structural quality, and broad decor appeal. Some of these pieces may well become the prized antiques of tomorrow.