From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies

From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies

From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies

From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies


In this surprising new look at how clothing, style, and commerce came together to change American culture, Jennifer Le Zotte examines how secondhand goods sold at thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales came to be both profitable and culturally influential. Initially, selling used goods in the United States was seen as a questionable enterprise focused largely on the poor. But as the twentieth century progressed, multimillion-dollar businesses like Goodwill Industries developed, catering not only to the needy but increasingly to well-off customers looking to make a statement. Le Zotte traces the origins and meanings of "secondhand style" and explores how buying pre-owned goods went from a signifier of poverty to a declaration of rebellion.

Considering buyers and sellers from across the political and economic spectrum, Le Zotte shows how conservative and progressive social activists--from religious and business leaders to anti-Vietnam protesters and drag queens--shrewdly used the exchange of secondhand goods for economic and political ends. At the same time, artists and performers, from Marcel Duchamp and Fanny Brice to Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, all helped make secondhand style a visual marker for youth in revolt.


Modern consumer society is symbolized at least as much by the mountains of
rubbish, the garage and jumble sales, the columns of advertisements of second-hand
goods for sale and the second-hand car lots, as it is by the ubiquitous propaganda
on behalf of new goods.

—Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

In 1906, the wistful-eyed, auburn-haired commander of the United States Salvation Army took center stage at Carnegie Hall. Flanked by a troop of “slum sisters” wearing the torn gingham dresses of tenement wives, Evangeline Booth regaled wealthy theatergoers with tales of the charitable organizations work among the poor, especially her own time spent living in tenements, proselytizing to the unfortunate. Booth glamorized the labor in song and sensationalized the clothing with her demeanor. The New York Times described her outfit and bearing as though she were famed Broadway dancer and actor Irene Castle: the diminutive Commander Booth wore “a tartan shawl, a tattered print skirt, and broken-heeled shoes laced with string.”

Booth, the wealthy youngest daughter of the founder of the Salvation Army, frequently used cross-class dress to p19 sacrifice of worldly pleasures—including fashion, which was an increasingly important part of Gilded Age life. By the end of the nineteenth century, all of the Salvation Army’s soldiers were required to wear a uniform, a practice intended to announce separation from secular life, distinction from conventional Protestantism, and unity within the organization. Before the Army itself produced and sold standard uniform garments, Salvationists patched together uniforms from anything that “suggested the soldier”: hussars’ coats, artillery regiment garb, helmets from the Household Troop Bands, or even just yachting caps. In other words, the first Salvation Army uniforms also used secondhand items.

Conveniently for early Salvationists, the Carnegie Hall performers, and real-life slum workers, the Salvation Army had easy access to enormous stores of old clothes. In 1906, both the Salvation Army and Boston’s Goodwill Industries were building charitable salvaging businesses reliant on the acquisition . . .

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