What Do Your Estate Sale Finds Say About You?

Rachael Long| October 27, 2022

Sunlight flooded the window-lined breakfast nook of Leslie Shain's 1952-era John Boardman home on a warm September morning in Southeast Missouri. The traditional prairie-style home, flawlessly decorated to fit its mid-century modern design, seemed to stretch out in all directions, begging to be explored.

"Everything in this house is from an estate sale," Shain said, noticing the admiring eyes of her guest. "Everything we own is used."

Shain is a lover of vintage goods and consignment manager for Annie Laurie's Eclectic Emporium in downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The store does most of its business reselling vintage items curated from consigners, designers, and estate sales, but they do host the quirkier estate sales on rare occasions.

Photo Credit: Bradley Phillips from johnboardman.org

Through her work with estate sales — as a shopper and stager — Shain knows that the value of previously loved items often transcends their monetary worth.

"I get made fun of at work because I cry all the time at sales," Shain said, smiling. "It can be a sad thing because you're looking at someone's lifetime of treasures that just end up on a sale table."

While pricing items for an estate sale, Shain once found a handmade bracelet that had been a gift from a granddaughter to her grandmother, with a special note attached. In those instances, it's impossible not to imagine the people behind the stuff.

"It's special to see some of those things, and you just get a sense for their life and what they were like," Shain said.

If possessions can tell stories about their previous owners, then the items picked up may also make statements about those doing the picking.

Photo Credit: Bradley Phillips from johnboardman.org

Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, weighed in on the idea that estate sales can be sources rich in information about the people who buy and sell.

"I think our identity is driving a lot of the things that we do and purchase," he said, explaining that identity is an iterative and interactive process.

Referring to a scholar whose work is referenced in Gosling's 2008 book, "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," the author said, "The way McAdams has talked about it is that we are an author. We're the author of the story about ourselves. And so part of the role of that authorship includes artifacts that help us do that."

Identity is not only about telling the story of who we are, Gosling continued, but it includes an expectation of who we will become — and our stuff can impact that evolution.

Gosling began to explore the mechanisms by which personality connects to the physical world as a graduate student in the late 1990s.

He studied the bedrooms of volunteers, personality tests of the occupants and collected information from their friends. In doing this, he discovered that there are measurable identifiers of personality hiding in plain sight among a person's possessions.

"We essentially look at the items and arrangement and the state of things in people's places, and on the basis of that, we infer about how those items are used or how they are intended to be used," Gosling explained. "And then we can make links from those inferences about the likely characteristics of somebody who would engage in those kinds of actions. There's evidence for how the person lives and what the person does."

A person walking through an estate sale might be able to pick up on certain personality features of the previous owner through their record collection or wardrobe.

But Gosling warned that it is difficult to know the meaning of a single object, so it is always better to look at trends and patterns for a broader sense of a person's attributes.

"In this case," he said of estate sales, "given the arrangement of things is quite important, I would try to get a sense of whether the objects are placed in a way that is naturalistic in how they were used or whether they've been rearranged or placed in a way that conceals that."

The estate sale manager is often called on to make those arrangement decisions in preparation for the sale.

Displaying a lifetime of treasures is an art that involves finding items that make sense together and presenting them in a way that speaks to others.

"We decorate kind of like we do at the shop," Shain said. "We set up displays, and we put things together. For example, maybe there's an antique, early-1900s baby cradle, so I would put all of these creepy dolls in there, and we just try to make it eclectic and fun like we do at the shop."

Photo Credit: Bradley Phillips from johnboardman.org

Whether it's to shop for clothes that reinforce your sense of style, to search for rare items to add to a collection, or a simple curiosity about the person behind the stuff, Shain encouraged everyone to try estate sale shopping at least once.

"There's kind of a rush when you wait in line, and you get in there and walk into someone else's home," she said. "Just try secondhand. You can't always find everything secondhand, but it's fun, and it feels good when you do."

In her own home, Shain's love of vintage, ethically sourced goods is apparent in every room. Plants live everywhere you look, a reflection of her passion to breathe new life into spaces and previously loved items.

She's doing her part to prevent waste while enjoying the sturdiness of well-made clothing, furniture, and dishware. She's proud to live in a home curated with unique items you won't find anywhere else.

Though she admitted some things are more difficult to source secondhand — like towels or mattresses — Shain's stuff certainly tells the story of who she is.

What does your stuff say about you? Take Gosling's approach the next time you walk into an estate sale. Are you drawn to certain items? Do you like them because they reaffirm how you see yourself? Do you find yourself wishing you could unearth the stories behind the stuff?

For those brave enough to peel back the curtain and seek answers to such questions for themselves, more information on Gosling's research can be found at https://gosling.psy.utexas.edu/.

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