History of Thrift Shopping

History of Thrift Stores and Thrifting

You may see her at a thrift store—Jane Fonda, that beautiful, famous Oscar-winning actress, and activist in her 80s who recently announced she is never buying any new clothes again. She obviously heard the word about sustainability, that around the world, we are creating more clothes than we need.

When we purchase second-hand clothes or buy from online thrift shops, we keep them from going to landfill, which makes us environmentalists! There is so much lovely, diverse apparel available already that we really need to do the environment and our pocketbooks a favor, and—instead of going to the designer clothing store—head to the thrift shop.


The thrift shop, which in the United Kingdom people call the “charity shop” and, in other places around the world, the “opportunity shop,” is a sales location for used goods of all kinds, including apparel, furniture, music, electronic equipment, and general merchandise.

These stores are often run by non-profit agencies that accept donations of serviceable items and then sell them to the public at inexpensive prices. Shoppers head to non-profit, brick-and-mortar secondhand stores run by social agencies in lower-income neighborhoods where one will not find designer dress shops or franchised merchandise stores.

Closely related to the idea of the original thrift store is the “consignment shop.” These stores feature used goods that consumers no longer need but wish to sell to others at steep discounts from the original retail price.

Consignment shops often offer a wide array of specialized items. For instance, some of these second-hand stores sell only brand-name apparel, spotless children’s clothing, or quality furniture. They most often work on a commission basis, with the seller of the goods receiving a cut once sold.

In recent years, thrift shopping has gone virtual, as many shops have developed websites that allow potential customers to browse merchandise on the Internet.

Shoppers are often surprised to discover that there are dozens of national and international thrift stores to browse on the Internet in addition to local online thrift shops. It’s not unusual to hear of celebrities like Tyra Banks and Angelina Jolie talking about shopping for secondhand clothes at thrift stores.

Related: 10 Reasons to Buy Second Hand Rather Than New

Where Did the Idea Come From?

An easy mistake to make is to assume that thrift stores were a purely benevolent outreach of Christian mission groups in the late 19th century. After all, the Salvation Army started collecting donations for its original stores in 1897 with its “salvage brigade,” which allowed that group to provide food and housing for the homeless men who pushed carts through the street soliciting cast-off goods.

Methodist outreach workers started what is now Goodwill in Boston in 1902, not only collecting second-hand goods but providing unemployed workers for area residents who needed cheap labor.

As benevolent as these missions may have seemed, they were actually a response to another phenomenon that Christian leaders observed, as reported by Jennifer Le Zotte in the October 2017 edition of The New England Quarterly.

New immigrants to America, especially European Jews, had trouble finding employment. To earn money, they pushed carts through major cities’ streets, collecting and selling second-hand goods. Though they were scorned for this behavior, these new citizens also made good money.

Thus, when Christian leaders began to emulate this behavior, they did so to make money. These funds were raised to underwrite their mission work. Still, assuming that thrift stores were an outreach effort to the poor is backward. In America, these stores began as an effort to raise money—that could then be used to assist those living in poverty.

It’s interesting to note that the social conditions which prompted the rise of thrift stores around the beginning of the 20th century parallel many of the social conditions that exist today.

Then, as now, new technology had transformed economies around the world; transportation advances made it possible for people to move around the globe faster than ever before; international hostilities and changing borders resulted in waves of immigrants coming to America—and not always receiving the warmest welcome. Then, as now, the thrift store is an adaptable, viable, environmentally sustainable response to many human needs.

What Was the First?

Secondhand clothing bazaars were common as far back as Elizabethan England. The first organization one might genuinely consider a “charity shop” was the Wolverhampton Society for the Blind in Staffordshire, England. Citizens donated used goods for sale, with the proceeds going to provide for the visually impaired.

As noted, the Salvation Army began its thrift shop work in 1897. So effective were these shops that by 1929, half of the organization’s income came from its thrift shop sales. Goodwill, which started its thrift shops seven years later, had a fleet of 1000 trucks by the 1920s. The organization gladly came to the homes of donors to pick up second-hand goods.

Oxfam, a prominent charity supported by its charity store network, began its work in 1947 in Oxford, England. The organization, particularly known for its specialty bookstores, now has more than 700 outlets in England alone.

Consignment shops began to take hold in the 1950s as new synthetic fabrics created a demand for new fabrics and, simultaneously, created mountains of unwanted, used clothing. These stores gave consumers the ability to afford the latest fashion trends as second-hand goods at substantially reduced prices.

Thrift Store Sign
Photo Credit: S Jones on Flicker (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a sense, this is a trick question. Thrift shops were an idea whose time had come in the 1890s following the mass production of clothing made possible by the industrial revolution. Following the thrift store’s birth, any number of historical developments only furthered the popularity of this type of shopping.

The extreme economic hardships of the stock market crash during the Great Depression (and then the Great Recession 80 years later), the lack of raw materials during World Wars I and II, the abundance of new technology and rapidly changing merchandise beginning in the 1950s with the expansion of department stores have all played a role in expanding the need for and the reach of thrift shops.

Later, the fast fashion industry began to produce goods cheaper and with a higher environmental and ethical cost. Thrift stores countered this trend, creating a real alternative to fast fashion's ills.

Of all the factors increasing the popularity of thrifting, and what it means to go thrifting, nothing has played a more significant role than the Internet and the development of second-hand goods’ online sales.

Many consumers might know that eBay and Craigslist both debuted online in 1995. Most would not recognize, however, that these were worldwide thrift shops. In the 25 years since online sales of used goods took hold, the movement has exploded.

Thrifting, both online and in brick-and-mortar shops, is a major global economic force. Researchers report that about 17% of American consumers engage in thrift shopping every year. How much money is spent each year by thrifters? The estimate just for apparel resale is $18 billion. By 2021, the online and in-person resale industry is projected to draw $33 billion.

National Thrift Shop Day

Anything that’s this significant to our pocketbooks and our clothes closet deserves to have its own special holiday. This is certainly true for thrifting. Therefore, August 17 of each year has been designated as National Thrift Shop Day in the USA.

While there are holidays like New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving that we clearly know how to celebrate, we may be uncertain exactly how to celebrate Thrift Shop Day. The best way, apparently, is to find well-kept but unwanted items in your home and take them to a resale location near you.

Again, each donation to a thrift shop is also an act of recycling and, thus, a step toward protecting the environment. Alternatively, you can do your spare closet, basement, attic, or storage shed a favor by listing your unwanted goods on one of the many quality Internet thrift sites.

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