It doesn’t always feel okay to give second hand things as gifts.
Hell, it rarely feels ‘okay’. It gives me an uncomfortable, squirmy kind of feeling. Embarrassment, as if it is ‘cheap’ and insufficient and miserly to give such gifts. Why is that, and have people always felt that way? Bele Masterman and Brooke McAlary suggested in a recent podcast that it wasn’t always this way, and that prior to the 1950s and the birth of modern consumerism (though that’s a discussion for another day!) people were much happier to give second hand gifts.
I think it’s likely low income people gave second hand gifts more frequently in the past, because they had little expectation of owning or giving ‘new’ things. In part that’s due to changes in perspective on consuming etc., that developed during the 20th century. But it’s also related to the drop in the relative cost of ‘consumer’ goods and the much lower living costs of the post-1950s western world. The substantial reduction in the price of clothes in the later half of the 20th century is a good example of this, both in terms of absolute value and proportion of income spent.
In the pre-1950s western world, people had to invest substantial parts of their household income just in shoes and clothes, let alone cooking pots and bedsteads. Consequently these everyday objects had substantial monetary value second-hand. You just have to look at the history of pawnbrokers, and the types of objects they lent money on – suits, baskets, crockery, curtains – to see this. But now new things are comparatively cheap, and easily obtainable, and this contributes substantially to second-hand things having so little value. Today in the UK we seem to be at the point where only charity shops (which in the UK do not pay the usual commercial taxes etc) can afford to trade in them. The lack of a market to sell second-hand objects, and the highly visible low prices of second-hand pieces has a knock on effect of our perception of them, contributing to us seeing second-hand things as worthless junk. The major exception to this is probably computer games and DVDs, for which specialist resale shops continue to survive. This is also, coincidentally, the one type of object I have consistently given as a second-hand gift – though even then, only to certain people.
Part of the feeling of stinginess associated with second-hand gifts may be related to their common origin in charity shops. I get a large proportion of my ‘stuff’ from charity shops, because they are cheap, and if you have the time to root through a dozen of them in an afternoon there’s a good chance you’ll come away with something great. But if I’m honest, they smell funny, they can be badly organised, and you often come into contact with other customers with less than top personal hygiene. It’s not exactly a classy or necessarily pleasurable shopping experience – though it’s my favourite type of shopping. If you associate second-hand objects with this, and with the notion of ‘charity’ which in the UK we have a track record of being too proud to be comfortable with, then it’s not surprising giving second-hand things as gifts becomes problematic.
And of course, there’s always a little voice saying “This book is only £8 new, why don’t you just buy your friend a new copy?” Untangling where that voice comes from, and why I listen to it, is pretty complex and to a certain extent probably different for each individual. Certainly for those of us who grew up not particularly rich, there’s hints of failure associated with feeling like we have to buy second-hand to afford something. To others it is probably alien to consider buying second-hand when you can easily afford to buy the same thing new. It’s simply a matter of why bother?
But we all know academically that buying second-hand has the potential to do good. Excluding any potential physical depredation of an object, second-hand things aren’t intrinsically worse than their newer versions. Why shouldn’t I save money and buy something second-hand? Other than things like kids clothes, which have a really active market on Facebook and localised networks and retain their value surprisingly well, most things can be found second-hand at a tenth of their original cost. Better than that, I’m not paying for a new thing to be made, so I’m saving resources and energy and donating to charity when I buy it. It’s also worth remembering that the thing I’m buying second-hand may well go to landfill if I don’t participate in providing a decent second-hand market for it.
Buying second-hand has such clear benefits when I think it through!
But as much as these logical justifications help, I’m still left with niggling feelings of guilt and doubt about giving second-hand things. I still know people that I daren’t give such things to, because I know they would look down on them if they knew, and it feels like looking down on my gift is looking down on me. I don’t want to give a gift that feels tarnished to someone because it isn’t new, I want to give a gift that they embrace wholeheartedly.Untying that link between the gifts I give, and my concept of myself, is a whole different thing, but the giving of second-hand things as gifts is a complex issue. It’s also one I haven’t quite managed to get my head to rule my heart on. However this month I’m going to try giving a couple of people second-hand things, and see how they react. Fingers-crossed! Maybe I can expand the practice over Christmas?
Do you give second-hand things as gifts? How has it gone?