An antique or vintage barrister bookcase is a fabulous and timeless furniture piece that makes for great decor. Find out more about their history, features, and find inspiration for what to put inside them.
Barrister Bookcases, and Other Names
A barrister bookcase is the most common name for a stacking bookcase with glass doors. But this style of bookcase is often known by many other names as well. Since the word barrister is more commonly used in the UK than in North America, they are also called lawyer’s bookcases in North America. In my family, we always called ours banker’s bookcases.
In more literal and descriptive terms, they are referred to as stacking bookcases, or sectional bookcases, as they are made in stacking sections. The Globe Wernicke company patented their barrister-style bookcases as “elastic bookcases”.
Why are They Called Barrister Bookcases?
Hundreds of years before the internet brought instant information, barristers (lawyers) needed to travel to different courts in various regions around the UK. They owned a lot of law texts and needed to take them with them as they travelled for reference. Barristers’ bookcases were designed to come apart in sections and had glass doors on them, making them a smart solution to transport the books within the bookcase sections from one location to another with carriages.
At the time, books were very expensive and only the wealthiest of people could afford them. If you did own books, you wanted to protect them, and so barrister bookcases worked well with their glass doors to protect from dust and moisture. It was a sign of status to not only own books, but to own fancy barrister-style bookcases to store them in. Wealthy men such as lawyers, doctors, bankers, and accountants often had this style of bookcase for their book collections.
This style of bookcase became popular because of its style and function, and soon libraries, universities and other book-owning companies were using the barrister bookcases as well.
Though they’ve become a classic style of furniture, including modern versions, they are still most commonly known as barrister bookcases after their original users.
What Are the Key Features of Vintage Barrister Bookcases?
Antique and vintage barrister bookcases are pieces of furniture that have a timeless elegance. There are a few key features that make a bookcase a barrister-style bookcase. Then there are also a few features that vary based on their age and company of manufacture.
Modular, Stacking Sections
One of the most important features of a barrister bookcase is that it is comprised of separate shelf sections. You can stack these sections into different height bookcases, often 2, 3, 4, or even 5 sections high.
My parents’ wood barrister bookcases definitely came apart because they rearranged their two and four section bookcases into two three-section bookcases. But our vintage metal barrister bookcase had me wondering if it actually came apart, even though it looked like two separate sections from the outside. So I went investigating and discovered screws on the roofs of each section that are indeed holding them together. And I have seen taller versions of our same vintage metal bookcase with more sections when doing searches on the internet.
The other key feature of barrister bookcases is that each shelf has a glass door that lifts up and back to rest along the roof of the shelf. These glass doors have thin frames around them, making them great for maintaining visibility of the items within. But they also help protect the items from moisture, dust and sunlight. Some of the oldest and most valuable pieces have leaded glass in the doors.
Barrister bookcases are made out of materials that vary with age. Older, antique barrister bookcases were constructed from hardwoods such as oak, mahogany and walnut.
Later, more industrial-style barrister bookcases were made out of steel and painted various colours including dark grey and blue-greens. So far I’ve found examples of these vintage metal barrister bookcases with dates ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s.
There are many modern versions and reproductions of barrister-style bookcases as well, made of wood, metal and other materials.
Size and Depth
The sizes and depths of the bookcases vary, and some are deeper than others. In general however, barrister bookcases are great shallow pieces of furniture which allows them to placed in a wide variety of locations in the home, including hallways.
When barrister bookcases were originally used to transport books, it made sense to include carrying handles on the sides of each section. Therefore you can find some of the oldest bookcases with handles.
As well, the oldest bookcases didn’t tend to have legs under the bottom shelf, instead having a short platform. Slightly newer wood and vintage metal barrister bookcases most often have legs underneath them.
Most antique and vintage barrister bookcases will also have a label from the maker somewhere on them, either on the front or inside.
Our Vintage Barrister Bookcase
Growing up, my parents had two wooden barrister bookcases. They kept one at two sections tall and full of books, and the other one at four sections tall and full of neat antique items. It always reminded me of a museum and I thought they were really special as a child.
One summer, we made our first trip to the Tin Barn Market, an awesome vintage store in a small town near us. There, we fell in love with the most beautiful blue-green vintage metal barrister bookcase. (And if you’ve been following, I love everything Teal, Turquoise and Aqua!) We also happened to have a puppy who got into everything, and so some closed-but-still-visible display space would be incredibly helpful. We snapped it up in a heartbeat!
Our barrister bookcase was made by the General Fireproofing Co. of Youngstown, Ohio, which operated from 1902 to 1990. It has some wear with the paint, but is generally in very good shape. I love the colour of the original paint and it is the most beautiful shade of blue-green that is hard to describe. Given the condition and the paint colour, my best guess is that it is from the mid-century. We also love its nod to industrial style.
To hear more about how we came to own our barrister bookcase, check out Vintage School Lockers.
The Benefits of Decorating with a Vintage Barrister Bookcase
There are many benefits of decorating with a vintage barrister bookcase in your home.
Barrister bookcases are timeless and attractive pieces that can integrate well with many decor styles. Choosing between older wood bookcases and more vintage, industrial-style metal bookcases offers further opportunities to work with the look you’re going for.
Barrister-style bookcases offer great flexibility with their rearrangeable sections – especially if you have a matching pair. You can switch up the heights to have one shorter and one taller, or create two equal bookcases for symmetry.
Versatile Size and Depth
Barrister bookcases are a great narrow depth and size, allowing you to place them in many locations and rooms in your home, including hallways, entries or dining rooms. Taller bookcases make great use of vertical space to maximize display space. Half-height bookcases are great for putting art above to create a focal point.
Glass Doors Offer Protection
The glass doors of barrister bookcases offer protection from a variety of things. They keep out dust and moisture which is always helpful.
In addition, the glass doors help to protect items you love from pets and children. Having closed but visible display space is one of my favourite things about barrister bookcases. Children and pets might leave finger and nose prints on the glass, but it’s much better than having your treasures chewed or broken.
Putting your favourite treasures behind glass instantly elevates them to prized items, just like they are on display in a glass case at a museum. It sends a message that your items are special and worth protecting and showcasing.
Things to Display in a Vintage Barrister Bookcase
There are many items you could display in a barrister-style bookcase. Here are some of my ideas:
Imagine that! But obviously books are the most logical thing to store in a bookcase designed to hold books. Just like they did in the past, the doors help to protect the books from dust and moisture.
Some barrister bookcases are not deep enough to store records in, but some are. A vinyl collection would like right at home, especially in a funky industrial style barrister bookcase.
China cabinet items
Turn your barrister bookcase into a fun version of a China cabinet to display your best dishes, serving pieces and glassware. White pieces would stand out well inside a dark cabinet.
A half-height barrister-style bookcase would make a great mini bar with a tray and decanters on top. Showcase your fancy glassware and bottles inside.
I happen to think that folding up bright and colourful quilts and stacking them inside of shelves would be a great thing to display in a barrister bookcase. I might have to try that myself some day!
Vintage treasures stored in a barrister bookcase are not only safe from dust, pets, and children, but they are elevated to appear even more special and prized. Putting treasures behind glass definitely makes you feel fancy.
A whole variety!
Use your imagination for other items that you could display in a vintage barrister bookcase. Or place a variety of objects inside for an eclectic and personalized look. You can even switch them up seasonally.
Tip: Try putting some lighter and brighter objects inside, or put your vintage barrister bookcase in a well lit area. This helps to ensure that darker items don’t get lost in the shadows of the bookcase shelves.
Decorating with a Vintage Barrister Bookcase
You’ll love decorating with antique and vintage barrister bookcases because of their versatility, their timeless style, and the way they elevate your treasures to prized objects. Keep your eyes peeled for them when you’re hunting for vintage finds. I regularly see them for sale on Facebook Marketplace where we live in a variety of sizes, styles, and conditions. If we had more room I’d definitely buy more because of how useful they are to decorate with.
I want to hear from you. Do you own a barrister-style bookcase? Would you put one in your own home? If so, what would you store in it? Let me know in the comments below.
All the best,