In praise of… vintage step-back cupboards from the 1950s onward

This was weebit’s favorite. She loved the pine, and the little drawers.

One of my all-time life dreams is coming true: Weebit wants to go thrifting with me. She is 23 now. As you may have read previously on this blog, she is going to law school in the fall. This past week, we found an apartment. Now, it’s time to furnish it. Turns out, she adores decorating. But she wants to be as thrifty as possible, so… we are on the hunt! This past weekend, we went to (1) the ReStore, (2) two estate sales, and (3) we are also scouring craigslist twice a day. This week, we are going to all the vintage stores in the Berkshires. Like I said: Could this make me any happier? I think not! 

Oh. This story: There’s a spot inside the apartment door kind of perfect for a cupboard or some such, for landing keys, books, and otherwise, additional storage. There’s ‘volume’ in the space — so I turned her on to vintage step-back pantry cupboards. We went to ReStore, where there was a new/old one around every corner, at rock-bottom prices.

Perfect size. Lightweight. Lots of storage for books. But… not as decorative. This was probably part of a bedroom set ala Ethan Allen Room Plan sets, heck, this might have been Ethan Allen, I didn’t shoot photos of labels, we were just “scoping” on this strip.

She liked step-back cupboards! She likes original wood — she prefers it. Praise be: Millennials!

There were many styles of step-back cupboards at my ReStore, reflecting the continuing popularity of these furniture pieces. These were made all throughout the 20th Century, so, over time, you see them reflecting prevailing changes in design preferences. For example: In the 1940s and 1950s, you tend to see lots of Colonial Revival styling, in maple (these are my favorite). Later, in the 1970s, you get heavier, stained pine ala Mediterranean style.  

I snapped photos of some other goodies at the store currently — like these wonderful Geneva steel kitchen cabinet bases, each with custom-fit laminate countertops edged in stainless steel. 

Weebit needs a bed, too. She likes these natural wood headboards. We are hoping to find a real stunner at an estate sale now through when she goes to school end of August. If not, my ReStore always has these…

Lovely, heavy door.

Above: From the 1990s maybe even. I guess when there is glass on the doors these start falling into the category “china cabinets”.

Hmmmm… hows about we use a midcentury office credenza for the TV in the living room. However, this thing weighed A Ton. We are also trying to be practical and buy good wood furniture that skews lightweight. Mommy, Daddy and weebit are trying to manage the move ourselves. The apartment is on on the second floor, with, amazingly, a double-wide stairway up. That said, my back ain’t getting any younger, and who the heck knows, she might be in a different apartment in one year. 

Above: 1940s cupboard that probably should be called a china cabinet.

She likes the detail of little drawers half way up. She talked about changing out the knobs to little pretties from Anthropologie. Sure! Make it your own, weebit!

As is clear from all these photos: These step-back cupboards were amazingly popular back in the day. I really love them, let me count the ways:

  • They are extremely functional, with drawers for serving pieces and linens… and then, heck to the yeah, those open shelves for tchotchkes. 
  • The cupboards are made of good, solid wood.
  • You can leave them natural or — I know this will make some gasp — paint them. I don’t think that’s heresy at all. A lacquer finish — very smooth — was also often available as an option. Choose colonial -appropriate colors for authenticity. I’d use a good chalk paint [affiliate link for Annie Sloan paint, which I truly love] plan on lots of layers, sand smooth, then poly or wax.]
  • Finally, I love these cabinets because they come in all sizes. For weebit’s apartment, we want one on the smaller size, but not tooo small — maybe 40″ wide or so — like the one on the right or that Ethan Allen one up top. Oh happy day!



  1. Eliza says:

    I never knew these were called stepback cupboards. When we bought our 1965 ranch we also bought the colonial dining room table, chairs and stepback cupboard from the previous owners. It was perfect!

  2. Susie Q. says:

    I have a fantasy of buying a bunch of these and installing them in an unfitted kitchen (i.e. instead of cabinets). You’d have to be judicious with the ones you choose and you’d prob have to paint them the same color, but I think it’d be really cool if done correctly.

  3. tammyCA says:

    I’ve always loved the ’40s-’50s hard maple hutches..I’ll take that one in the 2nd to last pic.

  4. Cindy B says:

    Wow! So many lovely dining cabinets! I haven’t started the search for mine yet, since I’ve been collecting Ethan Allen custom room plan pieces for my living room. The hunt is fun, and it makes me happy! 🙂
    I took my 24 yr. old son with me to a place in Greece, NY called The Shops on West Ridge, and I was surprised that he was so into it! (He was helping me pick up a vintage tea cart.)
    So our millennial offspring are pretty cool. 🙂

  5. Cissy says:

    Love that your daughter has a “taste” for the real wood furniture. It is so sad when I see beautiful pieces being painted….I don’t mind if damaged furniture is painted though. Also, could you please tell us where your ReSale store is located….I too am on the hunt for certain pieces for my home…..I love the “Early American / Colonial” look.

      1. Mary Elizabeth says:

        And it is the best ReStore in Connecticut and Massachusetts, in my experience. Why? I went there looking for a pink vanity sink, and they took my number and called when one came in. I didn’t need it, because I had already purchased a NOS one from the back, way-back room in a mom and pop plumbing supply place.

  6. Elisabeth McKechnie says:

    I’m a law librarian and while a law student I moved at least twice. Tell Webit to get light furniture that either disassembles or can be carried easily. Wait for the heavy stuff till later when she’s a lawyer and planted somewhere permanently. Focus on the small stuff for decorative panache–While in school I always ate my meals with silverplated mismatches c/o Goodwill, place mats and a vase (pron. vahhhz) with fresh flower.

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