Finding Treasures and Fun in Garage Sales


In the United States the 2nd Saturday of August is National Garage Sale Day. The timing of this yearly event makes sense. August marks the approaching end of summer and families are enjoying their final weekends before the start of the school year. It’s a good time to sell what the kids have outgrown or search for what they will need. The holidays are just around the corner which means most people have an eye towards purging unwanted items and making some money for the expenses that they will face in the upcoming months.

Whether you call it an estate sale, tag sale, yard sale, or garage sale, the sale of your unwanted household items, toys, and clothes in front of your home is something that most of us have either done or gone to looking for deals. For the genealogist, yard sales can mean some great deals on vintage items that we remember our families owning or wish we kept. 

These type of sidewalk sales have been around for a while. According to the website The Ultimate History Project, these sales have their origins in “the rummage sales that first emerged in port cities, around the docks.” The word rummage originally referred “ to the arranging of items such as casks in the hold of a ship.  After a ship put into port, unclaimed or damaged cargo would be hauled out of the hold of the ship and put up for sale---a rummage sale.”[1]

While yard sales might have been  popular during financially difficult times, making it a necessary retail experience for both the buyer and seller, the website notes that the increased commercialism and home ownership the United States experienced after World War II also influenced the popularity of the garage sale. As socio-economic status grows and consumers have the ability to buy items they don’t necessarily need, those items eventually become fodder for a garage sale. Garage sales continue to remain popular today; each year “Americans host an estimated 6.5 to 9 million garage sales.”[2] A family may host one of a handful of garage sales in their hometown on any given weekend but it’s not unusual for whole communities or city to put on a garage sale weekend event. Maybe you would like to spend the weekend doing nothing but shopping bargains. Consider the 127 Yard Sale that covers six states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama) along Highway 127 every August. That’s almost 700 miles of yard sales! You can learn more on the 127 Yard Sale website.

Plenty of online articles warn of what you should and shouldn’t buy at a garage sale because of safety issues or that are just more trouble then they are worth. Topping those lists are technology items and electronics, worn cookware,  and baby care items (car seats and cribs). Are there items that family historians should buy at garage sales? I would suggest looking for:

  • Books and periodicals (history, social history, historical fiction, and vintage cookbooks are just a few ideas);
  • Old maps or atlases for the areas your ancestor lived
  • Vintage photos or personal items you might reunite with another family member (not every garage sale has items strictly from the seller’s family);
  • Old sewing patterns (maybe it’s time to show your family what you or your parents really wore in the 1970s)
  • School supplies (family historians love them)
  • Any kind of item that would help you illustrate a family story (a period piece of dinnerware,  clothing, or an old tool).

If you find  that  item that mom or grandma owned and it makes you feel nostalgic? Buy it! Take it home, tell that story, take photos, and share those memories with your family. Telling a family history with vintage “props” helps tell better family history stories that everyone in the family will want to hear.

After you score some treasures at a garage sale watch the webinar "Metal Paper Clips, Rubber Bands and Tape, OH My!" to learn from an archivist how to handle records, photographs and ephemera that have metal paper clips, rubber bands, tape and other fasteners attached to them.


[1] “Need of Nostalgia? By Sheila M. Morrison,” the Ultimate History Project ( accessed 30 July 2019).

[2] “Garage and Yard Sales,” ( accessed 30 July 2019).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.