Early Roots of the Rental Industry

Early Roots of the Rental Industry

Erica yearned for the day she had something to pass down to her children and grandchildren. Newly migrated into the middle class, she could not possibly afford to buy the equipment and tools she needed to create a home with possessions. 

However, the newly established tool and equipment rental industry enabled Erica to generate – not just objects but memories, enshrined in these objects.

The early roots of the rental industry lie in the post-World-War-2 era. This was a time where many – like Erica and her husband – Frank were moving to the suburbs. Known as a time of “boundless optimism”, the end of World-War-2 brought with it many new economic opportunities to America as people travelled far and wide across the country. This gave rise to a new and novel kind of demand – a demand for trailer rental. Many associated this trend of trailer rental with the beginning of the rental industry globally. 

This was followed by tool and equipment rental gaining prominence in an age where the do-it-yourself fix-up trend gained popularity amongst homeowners like Erica and Frank, as well as contractors constructing homes/offices/roads and bridges across the country. 

Legend holds that rental as a phenomenon began with one single incident that took place in the Great Depression. Same Greenberg, an entrepreneur was unsuccessfully trying to sell trucks during this time. Given that his trucks were not selling, he agreed to rent or lease it out instead and this is the first recorded instance of rental taking place. 

Yet others like Houston-based F.W. Gartner Co. are also associated with the origins of rental. Gartner Co. opened doors for business as a construction distribution centre in the early 1920s. There was a conundrum wherein the company could not afford to pay for buying a shipment of equipment but the suppliers could not transport it back to the factory it came from either. Consequently, the company in an attempt to put together the money to pay back the producers of the equipment; began to rent out the equipment. In this process realized they had come upon a new business model altogether!

While it is unclear which if any of these incidents specifically lead to the development of the rental industry and rental as a concept, it is evident that the early rental industry was characterized by diversity in styles of functioning and was “experimental”. There was an open flow of ideas and thoughts and no established standards to go by. 

Jim Gartland, an entrepreneur, discovered the insurmountable potential rental had and spent two whole years studying the market. His study culminated in the establishment of the National Rental Yard Register in Oct. 1957 – a magazine dedicated to rental in America. Shortly thereafter, the American Association of Rental Operations (AARO) was established which took on the National Yard Register as its official publication. AARO was the first platform through which renters of varying styles and backgrounds came together to share their success and techniques, their learnings, and growth. 

The 1950s and 60s also witnessed the “We Rent Almost Anything” movement emerge. Here, was an attempt to raise public awareness of the rental concept and a prototypal rental centre would include tools and equipment, camping equipment, home healthcare supplies, party items and appliances like TVs, furniture, refrigerators, washing machines,  and even baby care items like cribs.

In October 1957, Issue 1 of the National Rental Yard Register is published by Jim Gartland and sent over by mail to 4,000 rental dealers. Interestingly, the names of the 4,000 rental businesses were obtained by painstakingly e wading through telephone directories across the US and writing out the addressed by hand. 

October 1957 is well known for another development in the history of the rental industry – the start of a RenTopics column by Bill Grasse, co-owner of Acme Rents. It is noteworthy that this column which gained prominence in 1958, would run for 40 whole years, being the longest standing column in the history of business journalism.

February 1958, is marked by Jim Gartland penning down the process to follow if one desires to evaluate and enumerate a rental business for possible sale. Gartland also wrote about the free flow of information between rental centre owners. In this regard, he highlights a recognition amongst these owners that the future of this nascent industry may be shaped by the success of every individual player; and so by sharing information, each player may be enabled to perform to the best of their unique potential along with popularity for the concept of rental. The expectation was that this, in turn, would lead to the establishment of a robust industry of rentals, one that would expand in the years to come. 

Did rental begin with the leasing of trailers/tools and equipment used by individual consumers like Erica? Or can companies like of Greenberg be attributed with the invention of the rental as a concept? The answer may be “both”, suggesting that rental as a concept has not one origin but multiple origins. Nonetheless, what seems indisputable is that in the early years, the rental industry was characterized by a certain free flow of information between rental centre owners, driven by a single, common desire to establish a new market where experiences were placed above possession. 

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