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The Human Genome Project hasn't yet identified a human pack-rat gene, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there to suggest we're hard-wired to hang onto our possessions. Maybe it evolved as a way to survive scarcity. Maybe we were just fascinated by bright, shiny objects. Whatever the reason, the desire to acquire and store our excess valuables is as old as the human race. From the Dead Sea Scrolls stashed away for millennia inside clay jars to the Great Pyramids at Giza and the first Chinese emperor's buried terracotta army, humans have found ways to store the things they treasure.
Of course, it isn't practical to bury your winter clothing in the backyard every spring. And few of us have the resources needed to construct a pyramid. Fortunately, there's a more practical, affordable solution: self storage, also known as mini storage.
The first commercially viable storage company in the United States is thought to have been founded in 1889, in Sioux City, Iowa by Martin and John Bekins, the sons of Dutch immigrants. A third brother, Teake, joined the prospering concern and was sent off to Omaha, Neb. to open another branch. Six years later, Martin decided to expand to California, the site of recent oil discoveries and the terminus of the new transcontinental railway. "The area was also experiencing rapid population growth which meant huge opportunities for entrepreneurs in the moving and storage business."In 1900, Daniel, the youngest Bekins boy, opened a company in Chicago, and three years later took 15 horses and six moving vans to Seattle, where he opened the Pacific Northwest's first furniture storage facility. Eventually, these various ventures became what is today known as Bekins Moving & Storage Company, one of many local and national businesses that would move Americans' possessions to new locations or temporary storage facilities.
Over the ensuing decades, Americans became more mobile, thanks to the availability of automobiles and, ultimately, the development of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. Rental truck and trailer companies like U-Haul enabled enterprising citizens to eliminate the moving company middle-man and do it themselves. The birth of the self storage industry was the next logical development.
In his article for Slate, Tom Vanderbilt claims, "The first self-storage facilities originated in Texas in the late 1960s... They were little more than prefab tin garages, usually situated on the industrial periphery of cities and suburbs, and built on former infill sites or among drive-in theaters and other occupiers of low-cost real estate."
By the early 70s, Vanderbilt writes, the first of what would become the big national self storage companies arrived on the scene. He speculates that the growth of the self storage industry was fueled by a corresponding growth in American affluence and the consumerism that went with it.
Bigger homes were another result of the affluence. While new homes grew from an average of 1,500 square feet in 1970 to 2,392 square feet in 2010, according to National Association of Homebuilders data, they couldn't keep up with homeowners' demands for off-site self storage. Add to that the country's millions of people living in older homes with limited closet and storage space and all those apartment dwellers, and it's easy to see why the self storage industry began to boom.
According to the Self Storage Association's Industry Fact Sheet, "At the end of 1984 there were 6,601 facilities with 289.7 million square feet of rentable space." By the end of 2010, that had grown to 46,500 U.S. self storage facilities with 2.24 billion square feet! The industry's rapid expansion slowed somewhat due to the prolonged recession. Between 2010 and 2011, just 450 new self storage facilities came online. But demand remained high and by August of 2012, The Economist reported there were more than 50,000 self storage facilities in the U.S. used by one in every 10 American families.
As their numbers have increased, self storage facilities have become more upscale, too. Vanderbilt reports in Slate of climate-controlled self storage spaces with architecture and amenities that rival custom homes. Some offer wine cellars, luxurious landscaping and water features. Others provide berths for RVs and boats for people whose homeowner associations prohibit them from parking those vehicles in their own driveways.
There's every reason to believe that a number of social and economic factors will continue to drive our need for self storage units. Divorce rates remain high and as households split up, one or both spouses will need a place to store possessions while seeking new housing. Aging baby boomers are downsizing to smaller homes, but putting prized possessions in storage for their heirs. Americans are on the move again, looking for new employment opportunities in other cities and states, and storing their things until they get settled in. And, as ever, it's just our human nature to buy more stuff than we have room for.
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"Company History", Bekins Moving & Storage Co. website http://www.bekinsmovingandstorage.com/about/company-history.html
"Self storage in America", Tom Vanderbilt, Slate reporter http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2005/07/selfstorage_nation.single.html
"The New American Home in 2015", National Association of Home Builders Economic Group Report, Dec. 2010.
"Self Storage Association 2012 (Mid-Year) Self Storage Industry Fact Sheet" http://www.selfstorage.org/ssa/content/navigationmenu/aboutssa/factsheet/default.htm
"The Economics of Self-Storage", Economist http://www.economist.com/node/21560602