New Histories of the Trade in Old Stuff: Reuse and Resale in 20th-Century American Popular Culture

AHA Session 38
Business History Conference 1
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Crystal Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Bryant Simon, Temple University
Ted Ownby, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi

Session Abstract

Recently, historians have begun to contemplate “the new history of capitalism,” a broadly-conceived field comprising global forces and networks, intermediate institutions, and individual actors. Our panel seeks to engage some of the intriguing questions of this new turn, while continuing to draw upon valuable methodologies from cultural history. Consumer culture and capitalism have received increasing amounts of scholarly attention; however, this voluminous literature has prioritized first-order markets, technological and financial innovations, and planned obsolescence’s emphasis on the new. Conversely, our papers relate histories that are centered upon the recirculation and repurposing of pre-owned items. Together, our examinations of secondhand commerce in historical context illuminate an understudied niche of the economy, and one often perceived to be on the shady side. Much of the existing scholarship on the modern resale trade highlights its association with subversive fashion or alternative consumerism, which gained particular prominence through its association with hippies, punks, and other late twentieth-century subcultures. Our contributions, which span the twentieth century, challenge the assignation of secondhand buying and selling to the oppositional realm. Instead, we argue that, despite its non-normative status, recirculation was a customary and necessary part of economic life for many people. Furthermore, through its representation in and influence on (and by) popular culture, the secondhand trade engaged others for whom it was primarily an elective and imaginative activity.

Taken together, these papers consider the customs, cultures and politics which evolved around the niche industry of secondhand commerce. The centrality of recirculation to the material life of some marginalized groups made it a wonderful business opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurs – and an opportunity for reformers to encourage assimilationist change in these communities. This panel also explores how ideologies and practices changed as resale commerce moved from the margins into the mainstream. Ethnicity which was a business liability might later confer legitimacy; cultural rebellion, as symbolized through fashion, could be co-opted and commercialized. Additionally, the representation of minority cultures and marginalized groups in popular culture has frequently meant both amplification and distortion, as external individuals embraced but also appropriated aspects of those cultures. “Participants in secondhand commerce” do not constitute an independent cultural group. However, our papers demonstrate that the reuse and resale trades had economic and social significance to a tremendously diverse range of cultures and subcultures, including but not limited to: working-class consumers, philanthropic women, Jewish scrap entrepreneurs and comic artists, sexual outlaws and CEOs. The shifting and intersecting historical categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class are key to understanding the history of the secondhand trade and its cultural significance. 

By considering the interplay of the resale and reuse trades with popular culture, these papers also address the relationship between art and industry across the twentieth century. Our panel explores the social and cultural consequences of the depiction of entrepreneurship and consumerism in fictional and graphic media. However, it also considers the ways in which art, broadly conceived as music, fashion, imagery, print and advertising culture, affected small-scale niche businesses and global commercial networks.

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