What is meant by self-storage? Who started it first? Where was the first storage unit built? How long have storage units been around?

Self-storage has gone through leaps and bounds in recent years, with the market reaching a whopping $87-billion dollars in the US alone. But where did it all begin? Who started self-storage first and how long have storage units been around?

In this article, we’re going to define what is meant by self-storage and explore the history of the industry so we can better understand how it got to be one of the biggest industries in the world.

What is meant by self-storage?

Firstly, what is meant by self-storage? Self-storage (or self-service storage), refers to the industry that lets storage space out – such as rooms, lockers, and containers (aka storage units) – to renters on a short to long-term basis, depending on the individual’s needs.

In essence, when someone either has too many possessions, or they have certain items that they don’t use but want to store safely, or if they are in-between homes and need somewhere to keep the non-essentials, self-storage facilities accommodate their needs.


Who started Self Storage?

So, who actually started self-storage? This one has been a source of much debate over the years. Many claim that self-storage began in ancient China and Rome.

Let’s go all the way back to 4000 B.C. in ancient China. This is largely considered as being the birthplace of self-storage. While there are few sources to back this claim up, it’s not entirely implausible. 

It starts with a man named Xiang Lau, who was out collecting rocks and bones (as you do), and bringing them home to his house. One day, his wave became fed up with all of the clutter in her home and told Xiang Lau that he had to do something about it (or else). As any good wife-fearing man does, he did as he was told. So, Xiang Lau proceeded to build a giant pot and store them underground.

It wasn’t long before his idea caught on with friends and neighbours and they began storing their items using the same underground storage method. Then, Xiang Lau decided to make a profit from his innovation.

To many people, it sounds like a silly fable. However, the likelihood is that these underground pots were used by wealthy Chinese nobles to keep their expensive possessions safe, under lock and key with armed guards on duty.

In any case, it’s fun to imagine that even 6000-years ago, men had a tendency to collect clutter and fear their wife’s wrath.

For others in the self-storage industry, they claim that it was the Roman Empire who were the next notable milestone in the history of man’s quest for self-storage solutions. In fairness, given just how innovative the Romans were—what with introducing sewage networks, aqueducts, and heating—it’s not unreasonable to assume that they were smart enough to figure out self-storage as well.

Given just how much wealth-inequality there was between the patricians and the plebeians, the rich clearly had more expensive loot than they knew what to do with. As such, they likely stored their surplus valuables in secure self-storage facilities.

One of the more recent self-storage legends refers to the British Empire during the 18th and 19th century, where British merchants and voyagers were believed to keep their valuables stored at a bank while they were out on their adventures. As the banks quickly filled up with too many possessions, the goods were then transferred to warehouses which served as a self-storage unit. Again, this is another unsubstantiated rumour, though it seems highly likely, given the circumstances.


Where was the first storage unit built?

Ancient history aside, where was the first-ever storage unit, as we understand them today, built. Now we take a trip to America, back in the late 19th century. Many people trace self-storage back to the Bekins brothers of Omaha Nebraska. They were a moving company founded in 1891, which are widely considered as being the fathers of the modern self-storage industry.


How long have storage units been around?

How long have storage units been around? One could argue that storage units have been around for millennia! However, if we are to go with the earliest self-storage units as we understand them today, storage rooms for rent being around for 131-years is more realistic.


To recap:

  • Self-storage (or self-service storage), refers to the industry that lets storage space out – such as rooms, lockers, and containers (aka storage units) – to renters on a short to long-term basis.
  • The origin of self-storage is believed to be in ancient China, and later ancient Rome.
  • Self-storage as we know it today began back in 1891 when the Bekins brothers of Omaha Nebraska started their moving company together.
  • Self-storage units are thought to have been around for 6,000 years, though 131 is more realistic.
Background image of green self storage facility with opened unit door and cardboard boxes, copy space

In any case, mankind has long been collecting ‘stuff’ and running out of room to keep it all! We have an obsession with collecting things and have an even more difficult time de-cluttering our lives. This is largely due to the fact that we as a species are sentimental and can easily form emotional attachments to things. It all began with our obsession with shiny rocks and precious stones – something that is still very prevalent in our culture today.

We hope that you have found this article interesting. The history of the self-storage industry is long and colourful, and there is still a long way to go! Self-storage is forever on the rise and it is estimated that the industry will continue to grow long into the future.