Bric-a-brac, also sometimes spelled bric-à-brac, is an old term for decorative objects or ornaments. The term is no longer used much anymore, as these items are more often referred to as collectibles or knick knacks.
The definition of bric-a-brac has changed over the years. During the Victorian era, collections of various ornaments were often displayed around the house, such as on the mantle, on shelves, and in decorative curio cabinets. Popular bric-a-brac objects we typically consider knick knacks today include: small vases, figurines, decorative teacups, and other small ornaments.
The major difference between bric-a-brac then and now is the value that is ascribed to it. While knick knacks are usually perceived as being frivolous or worthless nowadays, in the Victorian era they were considered to be valuable and worthwhile. For example, an article published by The New York Times in 1882 defines bric-a-brac as “objects of art.” The definition is followed by descriptions of several collections of very valuable antiques.
A study of the French basis for the term also indicates how the meaning has changed. The term bric-à-brac comes from à bric et à brac, an old French phrase that means “at random, any old way.” This old saying carries no estimation of value. However, the saying dates from approximately 1840, and is no longer commonly used. A more modern French phrase, à bric et à brac, refers to someone who sells nonsense things such as old hardware — random items that aren’t worth very much.
Even if bric-a-brac is considered to have little value these days, it is still popular for people to collect. Just like in Victorian times, bric-a-brac is often kept on shelves and in cabinets. Many people who collect bric-a-brac often have cabinets with glass panes in the doors, called curio cabinets or china cabinets, which displays the ornaments while protecting them from getting dusty.