Jennifer Le Zotte’s provocative and engaging book examines how the once marginal and morally suspect enterprise of selling used goods in the United States grew over the course of the twentieth century into a set of profitable multimillion-dollar businesses that attracted customers from across the class spectrum. These secondhand shoppers included the needy, who relied on secondhand goods to make ends meet; the better-off, who scoured thrift stores, flea markets, and garage stores to fashion subcultural identities; and the frugal, environmentally conscious buyers who actively resisted consumer culture’s siren call to buy the new and improved. A refreshing and essential addition to studies of consumer culture and the new history of capitalism, From Goodwill to Grunge presents a richly textured cultural and economic analysis of secondhand commerce and its changing relationship to the firsthand economy. Le Zotte begins her story in the mid-nineteenth century, when operators of junk shops, pushcarts, and pawnshops—businesses dominated by Jewish immigrants—sold used goods mostly to the poor. Middle-class consumers, suspicious of Jewish dealers and fearful that wearing preowned clothes would endanger their health and reputation, shunned used clothes and steered clear of the vice-ridden neighborhoods where secondhand commerce often transpired. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestant-run salvage businesses such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries took steps to destigmatize and sanitize secondhand commerce. They thoroughly laundered clothes before selling them, emulated the orderly displays of department stores, and provided employment to the immigrant poor and physically disabled, who repaired the preowned clothes. In so doing, Goodwill and the Salvation Army positioned themselves as philanthropic capitalists who profited from recycling used goods while promising to aid the needy and to Americanize and Christianize their foreign-born employees. Some wealthy Salvationists periodically donned ragged clothing to demonstrate their solidarity with the poor and their disaffection from capitalism’s encouragement of self-indulgence and progressive obsolescence. By the 1920s, the Salvation Army and Goodwill had successfully rebranded the nineteenth-century “junk shop” as a “thrift store” and had matched or surpassed the growth of major chain stores—a sure sign of consumers’ growing acceptance of thrift-store shopping as an affordable alternative to department-store shopping. During the interwar period, the rise of mass flea markets increased the allure of secondhand commerce and revived dying public marketplaces that were struggling to survive in the wake of anti-peddling ordinances and chain stores’ growing monopoly on food sales. Flea markets also stimulated elite interest in creatively reappropriating used goods to make modernist art and rebellious fashionable attire. In a fascinating chapter, Le Zotte illuminates how Dada and surrealist artists drew inspiration from their “experience of disorder” and their “chance encounters” with unlikely objects while shopping at flea markets (54). While Dadaists deployed industrial detritus and household objects in their art and fashion, others mined flea markets for decades-old Americana and reveled in haggling over prices—a practice banished from fixed-price chains and department stores. Le Zotte’s narrative, somewhat surprisingly, largely bypasses the period from the Depression through the end of World War II, when commodity shortages and thin pocketbooks would seem to have made secondhand commerce more essential, even as donations to thrift shops dwindled. A more extended consideration of how these conditions changed the meanings and practices of secondhand exchange would have enriched the analysis. Le Zotte instead shifts attention to a new site of secondhand commerce: the garage sales of postwar suburbia, which built on the popularity and home-selling tactics of Tupperware and Avon and generated one billion dollars annually by the 1970s. Typically run by women, garage sales simultaneously challenged and buttressed mainstream commerce, enabling some buyers to resist marketing pressures to buy the newest items while generating income for the sellers that could justify new purchases. Challenging the standard narrative of suburban conformity, Le Zotte argues that “maverick consumers” (104) used “quirky items from garage sales … as markers of … unusual taste, aesthetic acumen, and prized individuality” (101) while sellers “operated as … lightly rogue capitalists, pursuing profit outside established and taxed corridors” (104). While Le Zotte embeds the first half of her book in the cultural and political economies of thrift shops, flea markets, and garage sales, the second half of the book takes a more exclusively cultural turn. Le Zotte probes the meanings of vintage clothing and analyzes how a variety of subcultures—hippies, drag queens, queer activists, grunge rockers—appropriated secondhand clothes to renounce bourgeois conventions, critique mainstream norms of gender and sexuality, “express stylized admiration for the poor and oppressed” (158), and affirm their superiority to the easily duped masses. Rather than viewing secondhand styles simply as a youthful backlash against the conservatism of older generations, Le Zotte observes that many “retro” styles such as grunge also held a “nostalgic allure for youth familiar with older designs from romanticized depictions” in popular culture (219). From Goodwill to Grunge is an impressive and imaginative work of scholarship that will become essential reading for historians of capitalism, fashion, and consumer culture. Le Zotte compels us to think in new ways about how secondhand commerce intersects with mainstream commerce and how secondhand economies have become thoroughly integrated into the American middle class. An engaging and accessible read, the book ought to find a welcome place in upper-division and graduate-level courses. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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