Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960

Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960

by Richard Harris


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Each year, North Americans spend as much money fixing up their homes as they do buying new ones. This obsession with improving our dwellings has given rise to a multibillion-dollar industry that includes countless books, consumer magazines, a cable television network, and thousands of home improvement stores.
Building a Market charts the rise of the home improvement industry in the United States and Canada from the end of World War I into the late 1950s. Drawing on the insights of business, social, and urban historians, and making use of a wide range of documentary sources, Richard Harris shows how the middle-class preference for home ownership first emerged in the 1920s—and how manufacturers, retailers, and the federal government combined to establish the massive home improvement market and a pervasive culture of Do-It-Yourself. 
Deeply insightful, Building a Market is the carefully crafted history of the emergence and evolution of a home improvement revolution that changed not just American culture but the American landscape as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226317663
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/27/2012
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Richard Harris is professor of geography at McMaster University. He is the author of Unplanned Suburbs:Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950 and Creeping Conformity: How Canada Become Suburban, 1900-1960.

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Building a Market

The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31766-3

Chapter One


Contrary to popular belief, houses don't stand still. They either march forward or they slip back.

—Julius Gregory, House and Garden, 1934

Today, home improvement is ubiquitous, but its history remains inscrutable. If you own your home, you may relish the challenges of fixing that leaky faucet, redecorating the living room, or subdividing the basement to accommodate a home office. Alternatively, if you are like me, you may view these jobs as chores, best evaded with that all-purpose tool, the telephone. Either way, you cannot long escape the need for repairs and maintenance, or easily resist the temptation of making alterations and additions. On that premise a whole industry depends: eager lenders; the manufacturers of tools, appliances, and materials; a retail sector that includes the second-largest big-box chain in the United States; and a range of media—including consumer magazines, TV shows, and now websites and blogs—that instruct, entertain, and feed our desires. How could it be otherwise? And yet, not so long ago, it was. Our collective commitment to home improvement dates back decades, not centuries. So does the industry that sustains that commitment. In fact, it is possible to be very precise. It was in 1952 that do-it-yourself (DIY) emerged as a distinctive market, and by 1954 it was a recognized fad. Within two years, there was an identifiable home improvement industry to service not only amateurs but those who preferred to use the yellow pages. How did this suddenly happen? Oddly, nobody has thought to ask.

It turns out that the rise of the home improvement industry didn't happen overnight. It took decades, and involved a wide range of cultural and economic forces. Indeed, I argue that this story is in many ways that of America in the twentieth century. It involves rising affluence and growing consumer debt, together with the emergence of home ownership as the "American" (not to mention the Canadian and the Australian) middle-class dream. It couples the partial domestication of men with an equally incomplete emancipation of women. Decade by decade, it was shaped by major events: Progressive-era trust-busting in the 1900s; the rise of the automobile in the prosperous 1920s; the crisis of the Depression, leading to the rise of New Deal intervention in the markets for housing and credit; and World War II, with its aftermath of housing shortages and can-do optimism. War and peace, boom and bust, class and gender, dreams and realities, state and society, culture and economy—all figure prominently in the story.

One of the reasons that the story is so complex is that it blurs some of basic social categories that we like to take for granted but which turn out to be overly neat. These include the distinctions we make between production and consumption, and the roles still deemed to be appropriate, separately, for men and women. Home improvement has some obviously productive aspects, but it is the property-owning consumer who gets the ball rolling, who shops for materials, and who often tackles the job himself. In fact, as far as we can tell, do-it-yourself has accounted for roughly half of all the improvement work done by home owners in the postwar decades. The producer and consumer, then, are often one and the same, with neither being very effectively counted in economic statistics. More importantly, this combination presents a conundrum to building suppliers and lenders. To whom, and how, should they market their goods and services? Meanwhile, contractors must insert themselves into the mix as best they can.

Confusing the picture further, home improvement sits uneasily at an intersection of gender roles. The building industry has long been a male preserve, and when home owners take over their tasks it still seems natural to speak of the home handyman. But to this day, it is women who care most about the home and who do most of the shopping. Today, when families do work on their home, it is not always clear who will take on the tasks. The same was true when amateur repairs and alterations were first becoming common. Would men do everything? Would women invade the lumberyard, shopping for the ideas, materials, and tools that their husbands would use? Would they tackle improvement jobs themselves, as extensions of housework? The answers were uncertain and varied, but they mattered, not only for family life but for retailers and manufacturers. Already discombobulated by the rise of the amateur, companies had to think about marketing to women, who had particular expectations about product design, showroom cleanliness, and staff demeanor. Lying at the shifting intersection of culture and economy, then, the rise of the home improvement industry makes for a richly intriguing story.

Improvement's Appeal

Its hybrid ambivalence is part of improvement's intellectual appeal. Take the average renovation project—a remodeled kitchen, a refinished attic, or a redecorated living room. Typically, it brings together tradesmen and amateurs, working sequentially or side-by-side in a way that in other contexts is rare. It may see women tackling tasks that even today are considered nontraditional. A basic challenge in constructing the history of the home improvement industry is that of figuring out who—men and women, amateurs and professionals—did what; how the division of labor was negotiated; when and why it changed. The shifting balance mattered for those involved, and also for their supplier, the retailer of tools, matériel, advice and, commonly, credit. To this day, men and women shop differently: the handywoman, accustomed to stores with a more feminine "counter culture,' is inclined to browse, ask "dumb" questions, reflect, and, only then, buy; her mate, diffident about shopping and perhaps no less ignorant of construction, is keener to barrel ahead. And amateurs have different needs than the professional, almost invariably male, who is indifferent to well-lit displays, who knows what he wants, and mostly wants to cut a deal. Worse, from the retailer's point of view, some types of customers are less familiar than others, though this does depend on where you are. In a small town, the building retailer might know most of his customers, but in a city or suburban store the consumer is anonymous. How can retailers satisfy such diverse customers, and especially those pesky women? This vexing and multifaceted conundrum, vital to the retailer, is no less central to any understanding of the home improvement market.

The conundrum of satisfying diverse customers is not the retailer's alone: he—almost all building supply retailers have been men—is the indispensable middleman in a two-way exchange of views that is typically managed by the producer. In one direction this exchange involves advertising and salesmanship directed at the consumer; in the other, it involves discovering which products are selling and which are not, the unavoidable knowledge about consumer preferences that companies may supplement with longer-range market research. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, this guided exchange of information came to be thought of as the domain and purpose of marketing. Instead of the huckster's efforts "to get the consumer to buy what you have," the marketer aims "to have what the consumer wants"; the product became a consequence of marketing, not vice versa. It puts the retailer in the middle of a two-way relationship between producer and consumer. This relationship is rarely more complicated than in the home improvement industry. Any sensible manufacturer markets to particular buyers, and even in a well-defined consumer market such as apparel this is rarely a straightforward task. With a new product, or in a changeable market, there is the challenge of predicting and imagining exactly what the consumer might want. There are questions about the best ways to sell: whether, and how, to brand your product; how much, and where, to advertise; and which retailers to enlist, how best to use them, and so forth. A whole other set of marketing strategies are needed when manufacturers sell to other producers: advertising may need to focus on trade journals while the more limited number of well-informed buyers may be handled personally by agents and specialized dealerships. Unusually, manufacturers as well as retailers in the home improvement field have to think about both types of buyer, the amateur and the professional, and so must mix and vary their marketing methods to an exceptional degree.

The messy complexity of home improvement is intriguing, and also significant. Some scholars have suggested that research on marketing is an important way to understand the interplay of production and consumption, which describes and arguably guides the trajectory of modern consumer society. They have pointed out that this interplay happens in different ways. It depends on the scale and nature of the production system employed by the manufacturer, ranging from speculative mass production to the fashioning of batch or customized products; it depends just as much on the character and needs of the buyer, whether an anonymous consumer or a personal customer and client. Over the past century, writers and the media have given a great deal of attention to the mass producer—Ford in the automobile industry, McDonald's in fast food, and, on a smaller but still impressive scale, the Levitt brothers in house building—and to their relationship with the mass consumer. But many industries contain companies and consumers who relate in other ways, and in this regard no industry contains more significant complexity than residential construction and its partner, home improvement. As its suppliers, building manufacturers and retailers struggle to make sense of a level of complexity than can become bewildering and inscrutable in periods of rapid change. The task of making sense of that fluid complexity, and of the struggles of its major players, is a significant challenge. The story of how home improvement became a business offers us an intriguing window on more than half a century of economic and cultural change, a point to which I return in the concluding chapter.

Contexts and Connections

Consumers and the mass media pay plenty of attention to home improvement, but, at least in their professional capacity, historians and other scholars have ignored it, and to an absurd degree. Reported figures are inadequate, because it is difficult to give proper weight to do-it-yourself activity or to track the informal, under-the-table arrangements that loom large in the commercial segment of the field, but it appears that about as much money is spent on the repair, maintenance, modernization, remodeling, and rehabilitation of existing dwellings as on the construction of new. Indeed, survey data suggest that, in every quarter of the year, something beyond mere repairs is done to about a third of all dwellings, more in higher-income households. Industry insiders know about this. Currently, they track and discuss short-term fluctuations at semiannual meetings organized by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. But neither the national media nor historical scholars pay much attention. Following the onset of the financial recession in 2008, media reported monthly data on sales, prices, mortgages, and housing starts, as experts looked for signs of a bottoming out or market upturn. Evidence on improvements has received little attention. Such neglect is typical. When popular interest in historic preservation and rehabilitation began to gather momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, it passed under the media's radar. As Stewart Brand puts it, we don't seem to be very interested in "how buildings learn."

Researchers and historical scholars have paid little attention to the way dwellings are changed once they have been put in place. Economists rarely consider improvements when they model housing demand, while social scientists and historians have neglected what families do to, as opposed to within, their homes. We have been told how women, especially, have carried the burden of housework, and how in working-class families they often brought paid work into the home. But how much work did different classes of people do on their own homes, and how have men and women divided up the tasks? We have no idea. Historians of technology have properly emphasized the importance of considering the mundane as well as the spectacular, and the everyday actor-networks within which innovations occur and spread. In particular, Ruth Cowan has suggested that a consumer's-eye view offers valuable insights into the way technologies diffuse. In that spirit, several writers have told us interesting things about the evolution and significance of technologies that have made housework easier and lighter. But they have ignored the methods of building and rebuilding, although these have usually required technologies simple enough for any amateur to use. Cowan's own history of American technology, for example, ignores the subject.

Historians of consumption have followed suit. Of course, they have written about the various goods, from clothing to furniture and appliances, that are purchased and then stored in houses, and about the individual and collective significance of these possessions. Grant McCracken has commented, a little ingeniously, that "when our culture is insinuated into our physical landscape, our housing, and its furnishing, the premises of our existence are also the premises of our existence." But few have considered the significance of houses as consumer items: about the significance for the buyer of architectural style, for example, or of different building materials. Then, too, it has become normal to speak of the ways in which purchasers even of mass-production goods use them to find, create, and change their meaning, thereby communicating and sharing identity. As Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood argued, influentially, "the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense." This line of argument has been fruitfully explored by historians. In an early and influential example, Lizabeth Cohen showed how immigrants and workers in Chicago put their own stamp on standard goods. The implication is that consumers are active not only as buyers but also as users. Speaking generally, as John Fiske puts it, "every act of consumption is an act of cultural production, for consumption is always the production of meaning." Maybe so. But for all the talk about the "cultural work" that consumers do, not much has been said about the physical labor they perform on what is after all the most expensive purchase of all. Occasionally, there are surprising denials. For example, in her subtle and otherwise well-informed survey of the field of consumer history, Susan Strasser comments that do-it-yourself is just a hobby because "literally consumers, we do not sew clothes or build houses." More typically, there is silence. Major recent surveys of consumer culture ignore the making and meaning of the dwelling. Historians of consumption have followed their cue and ignored the subject.

Students of American business have done no better. Those guided by Alfred Chandler have concentrated on corporations that experienced a managerial revolution, but not including manufacturers of building supplies such as American Radiator, United States Gypsum, or Johns-Manville. Less surprisingly, they have passed over the building trade, with its myriad producers, back-of-the-envelope calculations, muddled and malleable subcontracting, and general air of disorder. These are characteristics doubly true of the renovation business. Indeed, convinced of the merits of bureaucratically organized large-scale production, generations of observers have happily damned the building industry for its inefficiency. Since this was an economic arena where branding, advertising, and market research were slow to gain a foothold, marketing texts and histories have not noticed it. Paul Cherington's The Consumer Looks at Advertising (1928) is typical. Cherington was research director at J. Walter Thompson, the country's leading advertising agency. In The Consumer, he surveyed how advertising had improved many industries and how it might be applied to others. Housing did not get a mention. More surprisingly, building has been ignored by those who have written about "the other side of industrialization," including industries that involved subcontracting networks that served niche markets, or single clients. The neglect of local building suppliers is especially unfortunate. It has been argued that the history of retailing in general, with the exception of department stores, is a poor cousin. Main street retailers are mentioned in surveys of small business, but have been accorded little significance even by those who recognize the importance of marketing. And nobody noticed the hardware store or the lumber dealer. The latter, especially, was a curiosity: a retailer who could not be found on main street; who sold to producers and almost entirely to men; who made deliveries after other businesses had given up on the practice; and among whom chain forms of organization had begun in the late 1800s, later going into decline at just the moment when this type of business began to gain momentum for other lines (figure 1). Much more than hardware stores, lumber dealers mattered, and they figure prominently in the present story: they were by far the main source of materials, advice, and credit to the small builder and the amateur alike. In 1918, however, they were embedded firmly in the lumber trade, and in order to play a major role in the consumer market for home improvement they would have to disentangle their loyalties and linkages. For that reason, the first part of this book pays close attention to the lumber trade, and the retailer's slow process of disentanglement.


Excerpted from Building a Market by RICHARD HARRIS Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

ONE / Introduction


TWO / The Foundation of Home Ownership
THREE / An Industry Unready to Improve
FOUR / The Realm of the Retailer
FIVE / The Birth of the Home Improvement Store

PART II:  CRISIS, 1927–1945

SIX / A Perfect Storm for the Building Industry
SEVEN / Manufacturers Save the Retailer
EIGHT / The State Makes Credit


NINE / Mr. and Mrs. Builder
TEN / Help for the Amateur
ELEVEN / The Improvement Business Coalesces
TWELVE / A Zelig of the American Cultural Economy


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