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The History of The Thrift Store in America

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Despite the fact that clothes have been repurposed by people throughout the centuries, the invention of the American thrift store is a relatively new one. While clothes were used, reused, and used again in days of old, this all began to change towards the end of the 19th century, when cities expanded; bringing with them the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution

With clothing now being produced on a mass scale, it became more affordable to buy, and Americans felt less of a need to keep their clothing once it spoiled or a child grew out of it, for example. Clothing in effect, became disposable, and as urban populations continued to grow, living spaces shrunk and clothes were thrown away along with many other items.

Money to be made from thrift items

Pawn shops were created at around this time to try and help those with items to sell, and to give people an opportunity to buy things such as clothes, if they were hard up and couldn’t afford to buy their own. However, wearing clothes that had previously been worn by a stranger had a stigma attached to it then, in part because the items were a sign of a lack of money, and also due to the bias attached to the people selling the items. Often available from pushcarts owned by Jewish immigrants, few people wanted to buy from those who were often outcast from society for antisemitism.

That said, there was clearly money to be made from used clothing and other items, and the Christian ministries soon saw it as a way to fund their outreach programs.

The ‘salvage brigade’ and Goodwill

Launched in 1897 from a men’s shelter, the Salvation Army’s ‘salvage brigade’ was formed of a group of community residents who would go from house to house asking for used clothes, with food and lodging given to them in exchange. In 1902, Goodwill was launched by a Methodist minister in Boston, who hired poor and disabled people to gather the used clothing and carry out repairs on them as required, from a shop in the neighborhood. Immigrants were then able to find clothes that they could afford, becoming Americanized in the process.

Many of these so-called ‘thrift’ stores were also offering social service operations alongside the goods they sold, much as they do to this day.

Thrift stores in the 1920’s

Growing in popularity, thrift stores began to be organized in the same way as traditional department stores, and thanks to the clever way in which the shops were marketed, middle-class housewives could feel good about buying something new, that also enabled them to give something back to their community.

Come 1935, and thrift stores were popping up all over the country.

The Great Depression

Support soon began to outstrip demand in the Great Depression, and during World War II, but during post-war prosperity, thrift stores did a roaring trade as people began to donate items again, in order to buy newer, more modern and colorful items.

Vintage clothing

In the 1950’s, wealthier consumers began buying ‘vintage’ clothing, and the trend hasn’t wavered since. In the 21st century, vintage and used clothing can easily be purchased online, too, although many prefer to see the items first-hand before buying them.

Now part of a $14 billion industry, thrift stores are a mainstay of American society, and if you haven’t yet discovered the many benefits of thrift store shopping, stop in to your local Goodwill today!

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