Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2019

Nothing New, A History of Second-Hand (2019), by Robyn Annear

Nothing New, a History of Second-Hand is a beaut book, perfect for Christmas gifts or a present at any other time.  It is a comprehensive history lightened by quirky details and fascinating trivia, and Robyn Annear’s off-beat sense of humour will have you chuckling over all sorts of things while you wonder about a story you were never told before.  But if someone doesn’t give the book to you this festive season, then you will have to buy a copy for yourself because it is also an insight into how we have created our current waste problem.  It took the ABC’s TV program War on Waste coupled with China’s refusal to accept imports of Australia’s waste for us to realise that our buy-now-throw-away economy has created a massive problem that we have to solve.  If the system could manage waste in the past, then we with our superior technologies can surely manage it now.  But what it will take, as Annear shows us, is not merely for individuals to take responsibility for their own domestic behaviours, but for corporate Australia to redesign its processes so that nothing is wasted.  And that involves a much bigger change in attitudes and values.

As well as all that, Nothing New is also an indispensable reference for writers of historical fiction.  Read it from cover-to-cover to catch the atmosphere of domestic life in past times, and to discover not just the minutiae of what Robyn Annear rightly describes as the circular economy’ but also the values of the times, and how nothing—nothing!—was wasted.

This is the blurb:

‘Given the way we live now,’ writes Robyn Annear, ‘it would be easy to suppose that newness has always been venerated.’ But as this wonderfully entertaining short history makes clear, modern consumerism is an aberration. Mostly, everyday objects—from cast-off cookware to clothing worn down to rags—have enjoyed long lives and the appreciation of serial owners.

Nothing New is itself an emporium: a treasure store of anecdotes and little-known facts that will intrigue and enlighten the devoted bargain-hunter and the dilettante browser alike.

There’s just so much here that’s interesting!  For example, people had no problem with the idea of second-hand until the discovery of germs.  Germ theory was a game changer.  It is for me too.  I can come at the idea of items that couldn’t possibly still be hosting germs, but then there are bugs: I know that you can come a cropper with second-hand furniture if it’s got woodworm in it.

And then there’s a fascinating discussion about the role of charities.  Annear is a social historian, and she’s alert to all kinds of patronising kinds of charities such as the missionaries who were only willing to help the ‘deserving’ poor with their second-hand gear.  Prior to the rise of consumer culture, barter was how many people got along, but now charity shops are part of the waste collection system and in many places they sell ‘vintage’ clothes at high prices to people who consider themselves ‘custodians’ of the article.  The charity then uses the profits to supply the needy with food and other services rather than make the goods available at low prices.

Did you know that there are over 2500 Op Shops in Australia, one in nearly every suburb?

For those of us with nostalgic memories of the ABCTV program Collectors there’s a whole chapter called ‘The Antiquarian Thicket’.

As the past—or a romantic ideal of it—was commodified by consumer culture, the antique endowed status on its acolytes.  With the exception of a few parson-antiquarians who dug up their own treasures, it was the moneyed and aspirational who were the collectors to begin with.  (p.170)

Then the middle classes took it up, even inventing the whatnot, a spindly stand with shelves specially designed for the display of bijou ornaments.  But however modest, collecting was a still a luxury until it became popular in the 20th century.  Annear says that the rise of collecting in the 1920s and 30s gave value to second-hand goods, and may have been a reaction to the soullessness of the times.

Religion was on the wane and urbanism on the rise, while mass consumerism promoted homogeneity and change for the sake of it.  Collecting things ‘old and beautiful’, on the other hand, satisfied ‘a deeply held need for enchantment, glamour and poetry in everyday life.’ And by valorising the old over the new, the collector was asserting nonconformity, rejecting the easy and the ordinary in favour of self-expression.  (p.173)

(I’m not sure that the books I collect are a symbol of glamour… more a sign of nerdiness, I suspect!)

The chapter about clothing is a real eye-opener.

The world and its op shops are swamped with cheaply produced and easily shed goods—clothing, homewares, toys, you name it—as well as the casualties of technological change, often in the shape of books.  [Ouch!] Over the past twenty years, China’s industrialisation and economic engagement have brought down the price of many if not most goods.  At the same time, fashion has picked up speed.

Across the globe during the 1990s and 2000s, import quotas on textiles were relaxed as part of the liberalisation of markets.  Imports from low-wage countries were far cheaper than garments manufactured locally in places like Europe, America and Australia: people could afford to buy more of them, and they did.  While clothing prices fell by more than twenty per cent, consumption rose by as much as a third.  But it wasn’t just about affordability.  The internet, along with innovations in production and supply chains, made it easier than ever to stimulate and satisfy consumer desires.  Traditionally, new fashions would be released each season—summer, autumn, winter, spring.  Now, mass-market clothiers like Zara and H&M can introduce new short-run fashion lines every few weeks.

A cheap garment produced by the fast-fashion complex made not be made to last, but it will certainly outlive the fleeting trend it was meant to embody. With replacement far outpacing dilapidation, the result is ‘fashion pollution’. (p.250)

Did you know Australians buy double the global average of new clothing?  Only Americans outdo us.

Did you know that 60% of an Australian woman’s wardrobe is inactive? I was shocked to learn that each garment is worn on average just seven times before being retired.  And yet I remember a segment from War on Waste which featured young women who wore things only once before chucking them out.  I thought they were an extreme being featured for shock value…

It can’t go on…

I’ve read nearly all of Robyn Annear’s books, and loved them all especially Bearbrass, but I think I like this one best.

PS: I think Robyn Annear needs her own TV show…

Author: Robyn Annear
Title: A History of Second Hand 
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781922268303
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Nothing New: A History of Second-hand and direct from text Publishing (where you can also buy it as an eBook).



  1. Ouch! Sounds most alarming, and I’m pretty shocked by the turnover of clothing (I speak as someone who tends to wear a thing – if I like it – until it falls to bits). Mass production and global consumerism has a lot to answer for… :(


    • I”m still wearing my work wardrobe though I retired five years ago. I had five sets of Australian-made black pants and tees, which I wore with coloured scarves & jewellery in summer, and a coloured jacket in winter. They show no signs of wearing out at all.
      And when I accidentally stained one of the tees, i didn’t chuck it out, I bought an iron-on applique and covered it up just fine!
      These are my mother’s values, which she absorbed during ‘mend and make do’ during the war.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The clothing issue is something that desperately needs tackling. You just have to go to a town centre on a Saturday afternoon and see the hordes of shoppers buying stuff just for that night to see consumerism in full flow. And don’t even get me started on manufacturers who blithely use non recyclable material , just relying on local authorities to clean up the mess


    • There is a Buy Nothing this Month movement here in Australia, (see which is apparently gathering momentum.
      But it helps us not at all if we don’t replace the 2-year-old toaster in November but buy it in December instead. What we need is a toaster that doesn’t have built-in obsolescence.
      On the bright side, there’s a new shop in nearby Hampton which sells pre-loved special occasion dresses to wear once and then return. Hampton is a wealthy suburb and the frocks on display in the window are drop-dead gorgeous, What I like about it is that it’s catering for legitimate wear-once dresses, like the shops that recycle wedding and debut outfits.


      • That buy nothing initiative would be a good way for people to start thinking about their waste and purchasing habits. Hopefully they see the benefits so much they want to go further than a month. We put loads of our stuff onto a Freecycle type site locally – it’s quite astonishing that even if we are giving away the product people expect us to also deliver to their doorstep….


        • Ah that’s the modern world for you.
          This week when I politely expressed a mild complaint at a retailer’s I was told off by the sensitive young soul that I wasn’t making him feel good about his job. It’s not his job to provide me with good service, much less entertain any idea that the customer is always right, it’s my job to make him feel valued. No wonder people shop online!


          • Sharp intake of breath and much rolling of eyebrows at that example. Bet you didn’t go to that store any longer or if you did, you avoided that sales person


  3. A huge problem and no real sign of any change. As someone who uses OP shops for most of my clothing it has resulted in far too many clothes because they are affordable and a quick fix if feeling low. Books too have helped build a substantial library which has given more pleasure than just about anything else in my life. I will read this one and hopefully begin the process of some serious culling. Am sure I’m not alone in noticing that with the massive increase in clothing there seems to be less well dressed people. What’s going on?


    • LOL I do agree with you that many people don’t look well-dressed. I remember when I was young and I wanted the latest fashion (1970s fluoros, geometric pant suits, Beatle jackets et al) and I had no sense of what would actually suit me. (I was a bean pole, so you can imagine, the photos tell the story.) Now I know what suits me, and I wear it all the time, foregoing any purchases at all in the years when the colour palette of the moment is wrong for me and not feeling bothered about it because I have nice things from the years before.
      I guess what I have is a ‘collection’ of classics built up over years and because it’s based around black, white and blue, everything goes with everything else.
      I don’t think what I’ve done is cheaper, but it’s all well-made and ethically produced.


  4. Yes Robyn should have a TV show.


    • She is a national treasure!


  5. The book sounds fascinating. I’ve shopped for clothing in Op Shops for years and living in a cold climate I’ve bought georgeous hand knitted Irish cardigans for $5 and designer label skirts for the same. Recycling clothes rather than throwing them out and buying cheap stuff from the stores (probably made in sweat shops overseas) seems ethical to me We’re much too wasteful in this society.

    As a child growing up in a comfortably middle class family in Sydney, hand-me-down clothes from other children was the norm – and mine were passed on to others as well. Also our Mum sewed much of our clothing and even darned the socks – I still have her darning mushroom and I still use it to darn holes in cardigans, jumpers etc! Her generation lived through the Depression and WWII so they didn’t waste things… I guess some of that attitude was passed on to we children. I don’t know about kids growing up today though.


    • Yes, hand-me-downs were the norm for us too, but I think that may have been because families were larger. We all inherited our older sisters’ school uniform, and we passed it on to younger sisters. They were, of course, much better made in those days.
      As a middle child, I loved it when I had something new!


  6. Great review…and clothes…I never buy new items!
    As you said, Lisa, a closet full of basics that suit me is just fine!
    New trend here in The Netherlands: Amsterdam has 5 Top eco-friendly fashion stores. For anyone who is interested….


    • Gosh, that’s really impressive.
      ANd Amsterdam leads the way with bikes as a form of transport too:)


  7. So glad you drew my attention to this one Lisa – considering it for my TBR and Christmas presents. I’m an opshop frequenter even as I try to deaccumulate.


    • It’s a beautifully produced book—hardback with nice end-papers and properly bound so it would make a very nice gift:)


  8. […] Nothing New, A History of Second-Hand, by Robyn Annear […]


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