How Thrift Stores Became Cool

Until the 20th century, thrift stores were often scorned due to “a vague sense that such goods were sullied or unwholesome.” Caitlin Moniz and Zack Stanton mark the shift:

The secondhand business model was co-opted by Christian charities, which anti-Semitic Americans saw as more suitable and wholesome than Jewish secondhand shops.

In 1902, Reverend Edgar J. Helms founded what would later be known as Goodwill Industries, which employed the poor and disabled in gathering old goods for reuse. Located in New England, Helms sought to “take wasted things donated by the public and employ wasted men and women to bring both things and persons back to usefulness and well-being.” As Goodwill Industries declared with its new motto in 1922, it was “not charity, but a chance.”

“At the same time,” writes [Jennifer] Le Zotte, “as urban populations swelled, the size of residential living quarters shrank, as did the areas where unused goods might be stored.” Industrialization produced a more frequent turnover of household goods. These factors were accompanied by a boom in immigration, and an increased demand for secondhand goods by these new Americans, for whom it served as a means of assimilation.

The early 20th century was also a transition period for the ideals of giving. Philanthropists, often prominent capitalists, were interested in new theories of poverty that could reshape their approach to charity; thrift was not so much a Christian virtue as an economic one. Philanthropy, writes Le Zotte, was instrumental in “distanc[ing] secondhand exchange from its negative associations while simultaneously affiliating it with benevolence.”