Second-hand Stories: An Archaeology of Thrift Shops

One of my biggest guilty pleasures is watching YouTube videos  – especially when I should be doing something else, like writing up my PhD dissertation (oops). Perhaps one of my favourite category of YouTube vlogs is the the “low-key thrift store video”, where the host of the channel takes the viewers to their local Goodwills and Salvation Army-type stores and see what kind of treasures can be found inside. And it makes sense why these videos resonate with me so much – like many other Millennials who find themselves perpetually in-debt and strapped for cash, I have probably bought a good 45% of my belongings second-hand through thrift stores (or charity shops, as they say in the UK). But the other reason is that thrift stores spark so much archaeological intrigue in me! Thrift stores are basically museums of artefacts from across various periods of time, a place in which “the old” can be retrofitted into “the new”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 39] The Junk Shop - YouTube
Like many archaeological sites, thrift stores also have a plethora of old ceramic artefacts! (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 39: The Junk Shop” Credit: Clint Basinger 2018)
Oddly enough, however, I did not find a huge amount of literature on the archaeology of thrift stores when doing my research for this post. There’s plenty of academic papers available analysing the economies of thrift stores and the shifts in demographics of thrift store customers, of course…but very few anthropological/archaeological perspectives. And, to be fair, I hadn’t though about it either until I watched the most recent episode of the Lazy Game Review‘s YouTube series, LGR Thrifts. On Episode 42, LGR host Clint Basinger makes a comment about the influx of goods being donated to thrift stores in January 2019, speculating that this was part of the “Marie Kondo” affect, where folks were getting rid of most of their material goods after watching the Netflix series (I’ve also written about a Marie Kondo-approach to archaeology here!). It made me think about the life stories of thrift store goods – where did they originate from? How were they utilised in past lives, and how are they seen/utilised today? Why were they given to a thrift store in the first place? Will they ever get reused again? With so many questions, I’m quite surprised this isn’t a larger field of interest for archaeologists.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 27] Das Trash - YouTube
A collection of thrift store electronics from a variety of different time periods (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 27: Das Trash” Credit: Clint Basinger 2016)
So, what would the “archaeology of thrift stores” entail? What is it about this concept that intrigues me? Most of the literature that I could find about thrift stores from an archaeological perspective focused on the idea of the “hipster material culture”; perhaps the word “hipster” is a bit outdated now, but the association is related to the release of Macklemore’s 2012 hit, Thrift Shop, which seemed to help popularise the notion that much of the hipster’s material culture is gathered through thrift stores. As Dawid Kobialka writes shortly after the debut of the music video:

“By the same token, thrift shops are, as it were, cultural heritage sites in which are staged and saved artefacts from the past, usually from the ’80s and ’90s. They will soon certainly become of interest for archaeologists too. They are places in which the past meets the present. They are about inclusive heritage where most of us can afford to buy something from the past.”

Dawid Kobialka (2013)

Kobialka’s further emphasises the two contrasting aspects of thrift stores as archaeological sites: on one hand, they represent an accumulation or large-scale deposit of artefacts. On the other hand, they also represent a new type of material culture based on reusing older artefacts. And it is this dichotomy of sorts that I’m most interested in! I’ve written before about my fascination with archaeological recycling and reusing culture – where materials from the past are ultimately reused by later peoples, creating a more complex life story of the objects in question. Thrift stores are a sort of crossroads where artefacts await their own recycling or reusing – in many ways, the thrift store can also be seen as a liminal space where objects exist in a state between “artefact” and “still-in-use”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 31] Wintry Wins - YouTube
You never know what you may find in a thrift store…(Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 31: Wintry Wins!” Credit: Clint Basinger 2017)
Of course, there’s certainly a lot of issues that one would face if attempting to “excavate” a thrift store – for example, how would we tackle this “site” systematically? But I also believe that there is a wealth of questions one could ask about these “assemblages” that are accumulated at these sites, some of which perhaps may have larger outcomes on the ways in which we view archaeological assemblages and artefacts in general.

Besides, I love a good excuse to find some more second-hand books and vinyl records…maybe look forward to another post in the future detailing my own excavation of a thrift store!

References

Basinger, C. (2019) LGR Thrifts: Episode 42. YouTube Video, retrieved through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LazyGameReviews/posts.

Kobialka, D. (2013) Popping Tags: Thrift Shopping with Macklemore. PopAnth. Retrieved from https://popanth.com/article/thrift-shopping-with-macklemore.

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Does this Artefact “Spark Joy”? Marie Kondo as an Archaeological Framework

First, a confession: a few years ago, I did read Marie Kondo’s book and attempted to use the KonMari method to wrangle my large collection of “stuff” that I had managed to cultivate after only a year of living in the UK. Turns out, I am secretly a hoarder and everything sparks joy, so it didn’t really work for me.

With Marie Kondo’s new television show out and causing lots of discourse, it got me thinking about…what else? Archaeology! For those who don’t know, Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering and tidying (also referred to as the KonMari method) is based off of the idea that you should keep items that “spark joy”; by employing this particular mindset, clients are able to minimise their belongings to smaller collections that are more consistent with what they visualise as part of their everyday lives (Kondo 2014).

A drawer of shirts neatly folded according to the KonMari method.
A drawer full of shirts that have been neatly folded according to the KonMari method (Image Credit: Netflix)

But what about archaeological objects? Do we ever think about if they once “sparked joy”?

One thing that always bugged me about archaeology, particularly as an undergraduate student just learning the basics, was how much emphasis was placed on utilisation within interpretation – the main questions are usually “how was this used?” or “how did this make survival easier?” What about, “how did people in the past see this object?” or “did they like this object? Like, a lot?”

Of course, that’s not to say that archaeologists haven’t been discussing this very topic. Or, at the very least, they have been discussing around it. For example, as we move towards post-processualism in archaeology, we find that discussions of material culture turn towards examining the symbolic aspects that need to be interpreted from the artefacts, rather than observed (Hodder 1989).

However, could we possibly develop a Marie Kondo Framework in archaeological interpretation? Kondo’s methodology is based heavily on philosophical and aesthetic theories – is there any way we can carry this over into archaeology? Arguably, there must have been some artefacts that were deemed important and valuable not because it was a tool or  made of rare material; instead, these were valuable due to sentimentality, or aesthetics, or hell, maybe they were just a bunch of lucky stones for all I know.

Well, it’s complicated – particularly because philosophy gets involved. In a lot of ways, this question is similar to asking what “worth” means in an object. Is it about the materials used to make it? Or the personal worth, which can be dictated by emotions and experiential context? Is there even a solid definition of “impersonal worth” that can be used as a basis, reflecting the universal concept of what the value of an object is (Matthes 2015)? Yeah, my brain hurts too.

There is also the issue of ethics, in that questions of the personal in archaeology can easily lead to bias. Perhaps to you, this statue may look like it has symbolic significance. Maybe it was a deity that looked over the residents of this house, or perhaps a good luck charm that kept bad omens away? It’s easy to assign grand visions of high spiritual value and sentimentality to an artefact…that could easily just have been something an ancient person’s child made and was kept around like a drawing on a fridge. Ultimately that’s the big issue with artefacts and interpretation – as you delve deeper into the more philosophical and abstract, you end up with countless other questions regarding the “essence” of an artefact that undoubtedly cannot be answered (Shanks 1998).

However, I’d argue there are some approaches that can come close to getting a better idea of what the personal value of an artefact was. There are small indicators, of course – for example, you could argue artefacts that are worn and mended made reflect excessive amount of use and the desire to keep said artefact even after breaking. There are also some methodological approaches to examining possible concepts of value, such as utilising ethnographic studies and extrapolating results from this (Tehrani and Riede 2008).

We will never truly understand how people in the past felt about certain things, particularly prior to written record. But we occasionally get hints here and there, and that’s exciting! I think perhaps a Marie Kondo Framework is less about discovering what people in the past found joy in, and about remembering that people in the past did feel joy. And many other things! And although we may not be able to calculate that using lab analysis or statistics, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the people whose lives we are recovering through excavation are still people.

References

Hodder, I. (1989) The Meanings of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression. HarperCollins Academic.

Kondo, Marie. (2014) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever. Vermilion.

Matthes, E.H. (2015) Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage. Ethics 125(4). pp. 999-1027.

Shanks, M. (1998) The Life of an Artifact in an Interpretive Archaeology. Fennoscandia archaeologica XV. pp. 15-30.

Tehrani, J. and Riede, F. (2008) Towards an Archaeology of Pedagogy: Learning, Teaching, and the Generation of Material Culture Traditions. World Archaeology 40(3). pp. 316-331.