The Surprisingly Interesting History of Self Storage

Jon Fesmire |

Storage is nothing new. We’ve had it throughout recorded history, and probably even in prehistoric times as well. The big change in the last few centuries, however, has been the rise of businesses that allow people to store their belongings in specialized rooms or warehouses, and that’s what self storage is today.

Let’s take a brief look at the long history of self storage.

Prehistoric Granaries to Now

In 2009, excavations in Jordan uncovered something unexpected: the world’s oldest granaries, which predated the known advent of agriculture by 1,000 years. These mud and stone storage units date back to about 9,000 B.C. Agricultural societies also stored grain and food so they could get through the winter, and, naturally, we still use granaries, but we have many other ways to store food today.

Aside from food, those who could afford it have stored family belongings in their basements, attics, and extra rooms for centuries. So, how does self storage fit into the picture? We’re getting to that.

Moving and Storage in 19th Century America

Today’s self storage industry owes a major thank you to The Berkins Moving and Storage Company. Today simply titled “Berkins,” this company had its start in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1891. Brothers Martin & John Berkins started their operation with twelve employees and three horse-drawn vans. Soon, their brother, Teake Berkins, opened a Berkins branch in Omaha, Nebraska.

The company had a seemingly erratic expansion, jumping into one state after another. It expanded operations into California in 1895, and Daniel, the youngest brother, opened a branch in Chicago in 1900, then another in Seattle, Washington in 1903. The Washington branch was the first furniture storage facility in the Pacific Northwest. That same year, Martin opened the first gas-powered moving service in Los Angeles, California. Then, in 1905, and the company built the first reinforced steel and concrete building in Los Angeles, The Berkins Warehouse.

At this point the brothers officially call their company “The Berkins Moving and Storage Company,” and other companies were able to store stock with them. The company is still active today.

Cars and Highways

So, Berkins showed the need for storage and moving companies, but true self storage for the everyman was still decades away.

This brings us to Trachte Building Systems, which is, today, one of the world’s major builders of self storage facilities. In the 1920s, as more people purchased cars, a need arose for a place to keep these new vehicles, so Trachte Building Systems opened in 1928 as a builder of portable storage units cars, more than 20 million of them.

Eventually, the public’s newfound mobility led to new possibilities for storage. Though not obvious at first, the ability for an individual to easily carry more over longer distances meant it would be possible to bring one’s own belongings to a remote storage unit. One thing that made this possible was the U.S. Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950s, allowing people to get out of their immediate residential area, to remote parts of their town or city, and to other cities, easily.

Going Into Self Storage

True self storage as we know it today, began in 1964 when Russ Williams and Bob Munn, his stepson, opened A1 U-Store-It U-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key in Odessa, Texas. That’s a long name, to be sure, but the concept was new. Having a long name that explained the basics made sense. This first storage facility was marketed to oil companies as a place to store their supplies, and the building was made from cinder blocks, corrugated steel, and a wooden overhead door. Perhaps this was a modest start, but a start nevertheless.

Then, in 1972, the major players, Public Storage and Shurgard National Storage Centers, came on the scene, and others soon followed. This included smaller, mom and pop self storage businesses, many of them serving small areas.

Modern Self Storage

Today, the self storage industry is huge. The industry revenue for 2018 was an estimated $38 billion. There are approximately 50,000 storage facilities in the U.S. with a combined 2.3 billion square feet in storage space. Approximately 9.4% of American households rent a self storage unit, and the average rent for a unit, averaging all sizes in all markets, is $91.14.

The Self Storage Co-Op

Heard of Storelocal? That’s our parent company, and an important part of modern self storage history. That’s because Storelocal brought an old concept, one used by other types of companies, such as grocery stores, to the self storage industry, and that’s the concept of the cooperative.

There are many large self storage businesses who are able to offer low rental prices. However, you may want to rent from a local company and still save money. Storelocal allows smaller storage businesses to work together with the power of a large corporation, which, for the consumer, translates to better facilities and lower prices.

The self storage industry has proven to be robust and needed, and we expect it to continue to expand for years to come.