Abstract: Dignified Transactions: Secondhand Business, Community Welfare, and Cross-Class Interaction in the United States, c1930-1950

Tara H. Saunders


In the 1930s and 1940s, the genteel business culture of the Junior League's charitable thrift shops was defined by conflicting goals. This paper uses correspondence between the Association of Junior Leagues of America and individual Leagues around the country to examine some of these conflicts and paradoxes, and what they reveal about the interrelationships of class, gender, and economic life from the Depression through the postwar era. League members tried to integrate the objectives of a for-profit business with those of community service, and they struggled to reconcile a noblesse oblige volunteerism with the hard work required to maintain a salvage shop. Additionally, although thrift shop volunteers proclaimed their commitment to uplifting their customers' material and moral circumstances, their actions and attitudes toward thrift shop work often imposed conventional social hierarchies on the financial and interpersonal transactions which occurred in that space. Despite these inconsistencies and shortcomings, Junior League thrift shops provided a rare space in which wealthy volunteers, professional shop clerks, and working-class customers frequently interacted, occasionally collaborated, and often sought to maximize both personal and community welfare.