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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 is particularly compelling, as it provides an important example of the emergence of a government-backed debt culture that would arrive in earnest during the postwar years, a culture that has increasingly captured the attention of historians.
The chapters on postwar owner building and the expanded role of retailers in assisting them represents the facility with which Harris draws on and appeals to a wide range of historiographies. The social historian will be intrigued by the discussion of gendered labour and the continued designation of female contributions as ‘help.’ Business historians might consider the expanded role of retail in providing training and assistance to aspirant builders. Labour historians will value the discussion of the ways in which skilled labourers interacted with the growing home improvement industry. Urban historians will note the sweat equity expended in the creation of new landscapes dominated by the prefabricated house.
A book that breaks new ground like this opens more questions than can be answered in a single work. Harris admits in the conclusion that “One major issue—race—has not been broached in this story[.]” (337) His justification is reasonable: the trade sources and newspapers he consulted tended to be silent on the issue, and a proper investigation of home improvement beyond the white middle class would require further work. However, introducing this caveat earlier in the work would have been useful to the reader, since there are a number of points where race seemed a particularly salient issue, and its general omission remained puzzling until the end. Potentially, more engagement with secondary literature on black home ownership and experiences would have been valuable—Thomas Sugrue’s works come to mind. This limitation also derives from the work’s heavier focus on manufacturer and industry sources, though the silences in those sources might have borne further interrogation. Harris does note the longer tradition of immigrant families and home building in the United States at points. The Canadian comparisons were generally instructive, but at times, it was difficult to determine what the few Australian examples added to the discussion, other than function as a broadly suggestive example of the utility of further comparisons. The list of abbreviations could be frustrating at times, as it did not match the rather extensive number of abbreviations found in the book.
By drawing our attention to a vast and relatively neglected aspect of home ownership, and providing a wealth of information from which new studies can be launched, Harris has contributed considerably to a wide range of scholarly audiences.