Stowing it for Some Other Life: A History of Self-Storage

Sound of music“Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start,” sang Julie Andrews in the chipper film classic, “The Sound of Music.” Let’s take a note out of her staff and apply this approach to the self-storage world: How did America go from a blank, big sky country to the self-storage empire that is has become, boasting a staggering 2.35 Billion square feet of storage space and giving birth to nearly eighty percent of the world’s storage unit companies? And where do you fit as a treasure hunter and storage auction junkie in this metal-door universe, this grand utopia of legal pillaging? We’ll lay off the heavy stuff and keep our timeline pretty do-ray-mi for now.

Underground Storage is Ancient History

The evolution of self-storage is all about a transition from people remaining stationary and essentially hiding their goods to a modern landscape of excess and moving around, where collectors shore up all of their belongings, junk and treasure alike.


Ancient China showcased some of the earliest models of self-storage. This was some six thousand years ago. Chinese belongings were hoisted down into deep gorges inside large clay pots. Essentially believing that there was no difference between life and death, this type of storage developed as a more secular version of underground, mansion tombs, mostly for the wealthy, where all the pretty little decoratives they’d collected in this life could be brought into the next.

For those with a Chinese global dominance issue, let’s try to keep things in perspective. This method of self-storage was extremely unreliable.  Ancient people's belongings have gotten lost for two centuries with this underground method (think "Terracotta Soldiers").  At least the airport will reimburse you for your lost baggage after a few weeks.

Trachte steel garageSelf-Storage Visionaries in Wisconsin

Skipping forward to a time in place that could not be more different, it was in Madison, Wisconsin that a couple of disgruntled farm boys with a chip on their shoulder took their collective two hundred dollars and invested it in the tin industry. The Trachte Brothers, having learned the trade from their father, set up shop in 1901 and began turning tricks unprecedented in the world. As time moved on and new inventions boomed, these boys envisioning and threw up anything from boat houses to telephone booths. They were eventually best known for constructing something to what we conduct our storage unit auction wars out of today, a steel building with a roll-up door (i.e. the garage). Renting and selling these edifices to wealthy neighbors who wanted a little something similar for their cars, storage rentals began, in crude concept.

Putting it All Together

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Forty years after a brilliant Texas oilman named Russ Williams refined the Trachte Brothers core idea by renting out linked garages to local Odessa residents to keep their excess valuables, the 2000’s have seen an absurd boom in self-storage facilities. Between 2000 and 2005, three thousand new facilities have been constructed all across the country consistently each year. America has amassed a core of 30,000 different storage facility companies, coating the landscape with over two billion square feet of roll-up unit complexes. Now, one in every ten American families has got one.

A Land of Storage Lockers

What is the source of this surge in self-storage, and the subsequent leaving of ones goods for dead? This trend is occurring because more and more Americans are seeing themselves in a larger, more global context and their country as their own backyard. In short, they are moving and moving a lot. They are storing up their goodies in material purgatory, and then leaving them all behind no matter what the cost—or, as is probably more the case, planning to come gather their former fixtures at a later date and never getting around to it.

storage deluxeBecause of an understandably growing burden placed on facility owners to keep their business afloat, many states are restructuring their Personal Storage Laws to give facility owners more power to put abandoned units up for auction much sooner and with much less notice. In the state of Florida, one of the top three most unit plotted states, we can already see that storage laws are swinging more in the favor of perplexed and frustrated facility owners. In Florida, belongings of stowers can be up for auction as soon as quickly as thirty-four days of non-payment.


The evolution into a mass surplus of material wealth shine in the favor of treasure hunters. Seventy-five percent of American storage unit companies are reporting growth still. In turn, more people on the move means more goodies hidden away, a mounting treasure trove that is becoming available much sooner to the public.

Whether it was in preparation for riches in the after life, or now, in hopes of somehow storing up enough personal treasures to return to or abandon forever in an America always on the move, you stand on the verge of a strange and interesting history of hoarding.  Now is a great time to try your hand at the local storage auctions.


Photo Credits:
Back to Blog
Leave a reply