The Origin of American Yard Sales

the origin of american yard sales

Yard sales. You’ve had them. You’ve been to them. You love them. American yard sales are whole events dedicated to buying and selling old items in an attempt to give them a shot at a new life, in a new home, with new memories surrounding them.

Modern American yard sales generally are a pretty big to do. Sellers usually begin advertising for the sale weeks ahead of time, either online or through handwritten signs posted on street corners in the neighborhood. They’ve most likely spent days figuring out prices and a price tag system, whether that be individual tags or a color code buying guide. On the day of the sale, the seller arranges their belongings on the front lawn, or in some cases on tables in the garage, and puts them into clear categories for buyers. Those buyers then come and browse the items for sale, finding hidden treasures among them to bring home.

This is how we know yard sales to be. But the history of yard sales tells us they actually started in a much different fashion.

16th Century Beginnings

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Have you heard of the term “rummage sale?” Maybe that’s just what you naturally call the event described above, or maybe to you it’s a sale at your church to raise funds for the congregation. Whatever definition you know, rummage sales are common across the United States and are actually the humble beginnings of what we know today in American terms as yard sales.

The word rummage literally means to search unsystematically through a mass of things. It has etymological origins from middle Dutch and old French. The term was used to describe the objects being held in the hold of a ship. When the ship came into port, the sailors took all of the cargo that was left over or damaged and held a sale on the pier. This was, for all intents and purposes, a rummage sale.

19th Century Footholds

When it comes to the history of American yard sales, we can’t neglect to mention what took place in the country during the 19th century. The outlook for the country was dismal then. This was a time of uncertainty and tension, division and hatred. It was ugly, and America suffered for it. Not only did we suffer from a patriotic standpoint, but the economy was hit hard. Suddenly US citizens needed to do even more to keep food on the table.

This is when churches and charities stepped up. They took in donations and began selling unwanted or unused items to those who couldn’t afford much of anything. These sales would be held in any space large enough for people to rummage through piles to find what they need. In this sense, the term “rummage sale” has actually held up its original meaning to today. With such division in the country due to war, everyone wanted to do something to make a difference for either the Union or Confederate side. Women could not fight, but they could host these rummage sales to earn some extra money for their respective side.

As the cloud of the Civil War fell over the United States, people were rummaging more than ever. That’s when the term fully came into effect and became the precursor to what Americans call a yard sale.

20th Century Settling

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The 20th century was pivotal when it comes to the history of yard sales. It was a time of great change for the United States. Instead of leaving rummage sales to churches and charities, people started selling their own belongings to make some extra cash. This was the beginning of what we know as the American yard sale. This type of event became essential in times of economic crisis, like that of the Great Depression. Americans had to fend for themselves in terms of basic needs, and the only way most people could get things like clothes and furniture was from each other.

The need and appeal of yard sales took a nosedive after World War II. Since America was no longer in survival mode, the economy thrived and people could buy new, bigger and better things. The American people didn’t want secondhand items, they wanted big houses, cars, and even TVs. The problem, of course, came when they ran out of room for these flashy things. Now they needed to make space for the new and improved. This is an important time in the history of yard sales since this is when the term “garage sale” also came into being. Why? Because the bigger and better homes families were buying started to come with garages. The entire atmosphere of the US shifted in those years. Now, the phenomenon of the American yard sale that was once a necessity for survival was just a way to clear out your attic space.

Present Day Normalcy

Chances are when you hear the term “yard sale” today your mind doesn’t automatically go to French cargo in shipyards. Yard sales today are as common as ever. We seem them year after year, particularly in the warm weather months. For some folks, yard sales have become almost like a sport. People go yard sale hunting for the best items at the best prices like there’s a prize to be won. Retro has become cool. Old has become the desired new. Whether there’s some hidden psychology there, we don’t know. But we do know that for many Americans, yard sale hunting is the thing to do these days. The younger generation is now hungry for things that were popular in their grandparent’s time, like records, for instance. The appeal of pop-culture items and sentimentality is now bookmarked in the history of yard sales!

The Future of Yard Sales

Technology has already taken yard sales to a new level. It’s made it easy to find sales and search for items online from the comfort of your home. As for what the future holds for American yard sales, it’s hard to know. Hopefully they won’t become a necessity again. Maybe someday we’ll have Earth stuff yard sales on Mars. Who knows? Either way, the history of yard sales show us the interesting path it’s taken. Learning its origin story will hopefully help us moving forward into the future toward new (maybe repurposed!) opportunities!

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