Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Harris, Richard. Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp 431. Illustrations, photographs[Record]

  • Jonathan McQuarrie

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  • Jonathan McQuarrie
    University of Toronto

Following the question can lead to some interesting places. Richard Harris follows a venerable and valuable method of historical inquiry: find the lacuna in scholarship, identify unasked questions, and find what exists in those gaps. In this case, Harris asks a direct question, compelling in its simplicity but rich in the details: what sparked the lucrative do-it-yourself (DIY) movement? The reader follows a largely chronological study of some fifty years of history of the home improvement industry, beginning with World War One with the increasing stature of home ownership among the North American middle class, and ending in 1960, with the DIY movement firmly established as one of the cultural touchstones and economic outlays of that class. The book primarily focuses on the United States, though occasionally referring to developments in Canada, and, to a lesser extent, Australia. Few are better suited for an analysis of the DIY movement than Harris, who is likely familiar to readers for his important works on Canadian suburbanization, including the relatively recent Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban of 2004. The work adds a material dimension to the story of North American suburbanization by exploring the expansion of an array of new methods of home construction and improvement. It traces the roots of DIY to the long standing practice of owner construction, particularly among working class immigrant groups, the emergence of new materials for home construction (like gyprock drywall), kit homes in small towns, and the prefabricated homes that became popular in mid-sized towns like Peoria, Illinois, (a town famously serving as a quintessential ‘average market’(16)). Discussion of the materials and types of houses used complemented by a wealth of photos provides urban historians with a vivid illustration of the changing appearance of the suburban environment during the mid-20th century. The work also historicizes the now ubiquitous home improvement store that so shape urban spaces, tracing their slow and uneven emergence from unfriendly lumber lots tucked away in dark places along rail lines to the bright and car-accessible home centres that catered to the DIYer. Underlying the narrative of the emergence of the home improvement industry is the broader question of market formation. The state, industry, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers all receive attention as Harris explores the dynamic interaction between these sectors in forging a new home improvement market. Of all these sectors, the manufacturer and the state seem to emerge as the prime movers in the industry, a position that challenges the attention typically placed on consumer behaviour. Through the pages of trade journals and in the archives of manufacturing firms like Johns-Manville, a firm familiar to historians for its ties to the asbestos industry (a literature that Harris might have drawn on a bit more), we see building supply manufacturers step in, offering retailers advice on how to sell supplies to the home consumer. Harris suggests that in 1932, the firm “began what became the most significant marketing campaign for home improvement of any private company” (163). Manufacturers were also among the first to begin advancing credit to prospective consumers. In terms of credit and the state, the work also draws attention to a relatively underexplored programme launched in 1934 by the Federal Housing Administration, Title I, which encouraged bank loans to homeowners for ‘modernization’ purposes. Underscoring the uneven trajectory of home improvement, many people used Title I as a means to secure loans for constructing their own home; something the FHA did not like to acknowledge as it evoked the specter of ‘shanty town neighbourhoods’ which undercut the modernizing logic of home improvement (214). The discussion of home improvement credit …