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. Nellie says:

    Oooh, how timely! I love mid-century colonial and have been keeping an eye out for step back cupboards for a house I intend to buy. This is great inspiration.

  2. Leslie says:

    Isn’t there great joy in our adult daughters loving the things we also love? I always thought I wanted only boys but my young adult daughter is now one of my very best friends!
    Congrats to you and Weebit!!

  3. Monica D. says:

    Hubby and I love, love, love ReStore. We found an Ethan Allen piece that was very similar to the ones you show above for a great price. Two weeks later we bought the matching table, 2 leaves, and 4 chairs at auction. I think I have found my “home” here on your site. Thanks for being a kindred spirit.

  4. Victoria Snyder says:

    Check out Hobby Lobby for a huge array of cabinet/drawer hardware. Many similar and identical to Anthropologie at a lesser price.

  5. Pencils says:

    I really like the 1940s one. Very nice decorative touches. Anyway, these have always been popular, my sister has an 18th century (yes, 1700s, but it came from England where they’re a lot more common) pine–I think it’s pine–one in her kitchen. It’s light colored, anyway, very attractive. Keeps her collection of Cornishware on it. In the UK they’re called Welsh dressers. When I redo my kitchen I’m thinking of creating one out of cabinets and shelves so it will fit perfectly into the space I have–as my space is limited and I already have a Hey Wake sideboard. I need someplace to display all my Pyrex et al.

  6. Renee says:

    I’m in Fresno, Ca and our Restore has mostly JUNK. I would say 80% is beat up and dirty. I’m amazed at the quality of pieces other Restores have in stock.

  7. Sara says:

    I have always second-guessed the appropriateness of my pine stepback hutch occupying an odd corner of my post-war kitchen. I now feel validated!

  8. Mariana says:

    Hello, Pam! When I saw this (I’m going to call it) string screen, I thought of you!


    It’s from a 1949 Knoll furniture ad, and I find it really interesting both because of its beauty and because in a pinch, if one can no longer find it, it looks like the sort of thing that one could more or less easily recreate. I’m seriously tempted to do just that.

    Have you ever come across anything like it? I did do a search for Knoll on your blog, but I couldn’t find any references to a dividing room screens made of string and of the brand Knoll.

    1. Neil says:

      That screen is really wonderful.
      My guess is that it’s wire, not string. String could be so easily damaged and ruined, and then you’d have to do the whole bloomin’ thing over.
      That might be a point to consider, in any case; creating it such that if one string gets damaged you can just replace that one instead of re-doing the whole thing.

  9. DJ Sparkles says:

    I have a newer version in my kitchen, painted black with wood trim (it came that way new). Bought it from the original owner for a terrific price, and we use it for my little TV, displaying collectibles, and extra storage. We can’t attach anything to the wall there because of our pocket door, so the hutch is perfect. And I have to have TV in the kitchen, because I hate cooking and cleaning. Watching funny DVDs like “Get Smart”, “Sponge Bob”, or “The Flintstones” keeps my mind off what I’m doing and makes me smile!

    However, I wish I would have kept the old step-back hutch we had two houses ago. I gave it to a neighbor when we moved because it didn’t fit in the new house, but I’ve missed it ever since. It would have been perfect for this house!

  10. linoleummy says:

    Did you take the knotty pine one? It really is cute. Score just shopping with your wee-bit, congrats!
    In the market for beds nowdays it seems that full size and queen size are on the outs and some really nice ones show up on Craigslist for super-cheap or free. Sometimes even with an entire matching bedroom.

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