I like shopping at flea markets, garage sales, and antique fairs ... in theory. I love the idea of hunting for and finding a treasure, but the reality is that these places can be overwhelming to navigate, particularly if you don't know what to look for, or you're not sure if what you're finding is a good deal.
That's where this list comes in handy. You can bet pretty fairly you won't regret buying one of these five kitchen things, should you happen upon them at a flea market! These are the major scores we always look for.
1. Cast iron skillets
If you spot a rusty cast iron skillet in some flea market rubble, pull it out because it may be a real gem. A solid, well-made cast iron pan can last decades if properly cared for or restored, particularly if it was made by one of the classic cast iron cookware manufacturers like Griswold, Wagner, or Lodge, with Griswold and Wagner. (Other brands to look for include Iron Mountain, Victor, and ERIE, which were made by Griswold.)
When to pass: Is the skillet cracked? Does it have any dents, pitting, or pockmarks? Does it rock around if you set it on a flat surface? If so, walk away, as you may be setting yourself up for more trouble down the line. (For more on what to look for when buying a vintage cast iron skillet, check out eBay's vintage cast iron buying guide.)
But if all the above checks out and the skillet is simply rusty, go for it! Follow these tutorials to get the skillet back in working order:
2. Enameled cast iron cookware
Like cast iron skillets, vintage enameled cast iron cookware in good shape can be an incredible find, particularly if you stumble across something from Le Creuset or Staub. (Check out this guide from The Cast Iron Collector for a full list of notable enameled cast iron brands.)
When to pass: Does the enamel interior have significant chips or cracks? Is the interior enamel glazed in red or yellow? If so, take a pass. Older red and yellow glazes often contained cadmium, which when not properly applied can leech into food. To be safe, only buy vintage enameled cookware with white or light-colored interiors. Avoid the reds and yellows.
3. Silverplate flatware and serving utensils
Faith recommends looking for beautiful silver pieces at a flea or antique market. "Vintage silver flatware and serving utensils have so much character, tarnish and all," she says. "And they can be surprisingly inexpensive, especially when you can dig out the best-looking ones yourself instead of paying a premium on Etsy for the polished-up beauties." Quality brands to keep an eye out for include pieces made by Gorham, Oneida, Towle, and Rogers Brothers.
When to pass: Does the piece have any deep scratches? Does it have an uneven tarnish, which may indicate that the plate underneath has worn away? Is the handle dented? Are the spoon edges worn down? Are the fork tines short or uneven? According to an article originally published in Antique Week, these things may affect the piece's value and utility, so they are something to consider before buying.
However, if you don't mind these imperfections and have no plans to sell the piece to a collector, then by all means pick up what looks good to you! If the piece is merely tarnished, check out this post on Apartment Therapy for cleaning recommendations:
4. Beautiful linens
When Sara Kate goes to a flea market, she seeks out the "sweet older ladies with big cardboard boxes stuffed with mixed up napkins, placemats, and tablecloths," as she notes in her post here. "The linen market is largely ignored by people at flea markets who are there to get great bargains on larger items like furniture," she writes. "Sitting beside one of these treasure boxes is a great place to retreat and dig for gold."
When to pass: Do the linens have any rips, stains, or other discolorations? Unless they're in an inconspicuous spot or you don't mind how they look, you may want to keep digging for something better. Most stains on vintage linens are likely deeply set at that point, and will not wash out.
Did you know that knives can be some of the best deals at a flea market? Often beat-up and rusty, they're easy to overlook, but with a little work they can become a fabulous find. "With a little steel wool, Bon Ami, and a sharpening stone, I've turned several knives into new favorites," Sara Kate notes here.
When to pass: Does it look or feel cheap? Do you not like the weight or how it fits in your hand? Is the pin holding the blade a darker color or made from a different material than the blade, which may indicate that it's not the original blade? Or does the blade end have a rounded tip, which may indicate it's been reshaped by a non-professional? Consider all these things before you buy!
Even though the five things detailed above are some of the best deals to be had at flea and antique markets, that doesn't mean there aren't dozens of other pretty things to look for! A few other favorites:
- Pretty dessert plates
- Pedestal cake plates
- Champagne coupes or french tumbler glasses
- Large china serving platters
- Carving sets
- Pie servers
What kitchen goods do you look for when you hit up a flea market or antique fair? Have any shopping secrets to share?
(Image credits: Lee Torrens/Shutterstock; Erika Tracy; Leela Cyd; Ashley Poskin; Sara Kate Gillingham; Dana Velden)