The History of Garage Sales


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Harris School Rummage Sale, Chicago in 1961 Photo:

Harris School Rummage Sale, Chicago in 1961 Photo:

As far back as the 16th century, people have been unloading their wares on their neighbors. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as setting out a few tables in your driveway and sitting back. While the details are a bit murky, the modern garage sale stems from the word rummage — no coincidence, our favorite activity to do at these sales.

During the 1500s, ships going back and forth over the seven seas were busy making deliveries. At the time, “romage” was a nautical term that described how cargo was packed into the hold of the ship. It later went on to also refer to the search for cargo and the odds and ends packed into the ship. “Rummage” sales developed as captains sold excess and unclaimed cargo at the ports, according to the History Bluff.

By the 1890s, the rummage sale was something that would be held at a communal location, most likely a church to raise money. People would donate their hand-me-downs or warehouses would sweep out unclaimed goods in clearance sales, according to Oxford in 1858. At the time, it was like a charity bazaar with profits from the sales donated to a cause. The idea of rummage sales continued to grow as the U.S. military sold surplus to civilians.

The concept kept spreading as people would use it as way to sell excess items and junk. But it wasn’t until after World War II when people moved to the suburbs and into homes with garages that garage sales became their own thing. Until then, having too many belongs wasn’t a common problem because of the wars and the “want not, waste not” mentality of the Great Depression.

With the movement to garages and yards, families had room to collect a lot of stuff and then when overwhelmed by the junk accumulated, they could set up shop and sell it. In the 1970s garage sales became very popular as the idea of homes became the center of socializing within the community. Now it’s common around the world to set out your wares in front of your home or on the side of the street to be sold or traded.


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