In the 1860s when Harriet Robinson annually set aside a full month for the spring cleaning of her Malden, Massachusetts home, she had the occasional assistance of hired help, but none from her husband William. Over the years, as the Robinsons improved their house by installing weather stripping, repapering rooms, refinishing furniture, and putting in a new mantle, Harriet’s biographer Claudia Bushman notes that neither she nor William “lifted a finger toward household maintenance.” 1 Some eighty years later, immediately after World War II, when Eve and Sam Goldenberg moved into a somewhat decrepit apartment in the Bronx, Sam patched the holes in the wall himself and they both worked to scrub away the residual odor “of people who don’t care.” 2 After a few years in the Bronx, the Goldenbergs (now the Gordons) moved out to a new subdivision on Long Island where Sam built a brick patio and the surrounding fence, installed a new front door, and drew up plans to build a dormer window on the front facade. Real estate agents for the development would drive prospective buyers to the Gordons’ house so they could admire Sam’s handiwork and, in the words of the family chronicler Donald Katz, “see what a homeowner could do with old-fashioned, all American know-how . . . through the agency of his own hands.” 3
Only there was nothing at all “old-fashioned” about Sam’s work around his suburban homestead in Island Park. Real old-fashioned husbands in the 1860s, even those in modest middle-class circumstances [End Page 66] like William Robinson, usually hired professionals to do the smallest home repair or improvement. Robinson and his socio-economic peers may have been the titular heads of their households, but they had very little to do there. Their wives raised the children and supervised the servants; they retired to the library to smoke their cigars—or left the house altogether to pass their leisure hours with their male friends. One would have to go back to an even earlier time, before there were suburbs, when most people lived on farms, in order to find husbands who had the knowledge and inclination to use tools on their own homes. When industrialization separated living and working spaces it also separated men and women into non-overlapping spheres of competence, and men like Robinson fulfilled their familial obligations by bringing home the money with which their wives ran the household.
The metamorphosis of the restrained and distant Victorian father into the engaged and present suburban dad was one of the more significant changes in the structure of the modern family, and the male use of tools around the house was a critical component of that change. Historians Mark Carnes and Clyde Griffen recently asked, “When did Mr. Fixit and the master of the barbecue appear and did these circumscribed modifications in role alter the older division of gender spheres significantly?” 4 This article answers part of that question; “Mr. Fixit” put in his first formal appearance just after the turn of the century, although there had been calls and precursors as early as the 1870s. Furthermore, his appearance did indeed indicate an important alteration of the male sphere. By taking over chores previously done by professionals, the do-it-yourselfer created a new place for himself inside the house. In theory it overlapped with a widening female household sphere, but in practice it was sufficiently distinct so that by end of the 1950s the very term “do-it-yourself” would become part of the definition of suburban husbanding.
In the process of reacquainting themselves with manual skills, male householders renegotiated the way they functioned with their wives and the way that each related to their residence. The increasingly equalitarian rhetoric of democratic households in the twentieth century acknowledged the right of women to use tools in the same way as men, and calls for female emancipation on the tool front appeared for the first time in the Progressive era. Clearly, there was a steady expansion throughout the twentieth century of the kinds of do-it-yourself tasks [End Page...