Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960 by Richard Harris (review)
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Richard Harris Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 431 pages, 67 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-022-631768-7, $45.00 HB

Over the past century home improvement has become an essential element of the building industry in the United States and Canada. Improvement provided a buttress against economic downturns and housing slumps. When the economy was up, home improvement went up too, often apace with new construction. It prompted building product manufacturers and retailers to recognize and then depend upon the homeowner-consumer. Today, home improvement is a multibillion-dollar market. It is a cornerstone of the landscapes of big box retail and cable media (Home Depot took in $78.8 billion, and HGTV reached 97 million households in 2013).1 Richard Harris’s Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914–1960 provides a thoroughly researched and insightful overview of the field’s first half century, which will serve as a foundation for the study of its ongoing development and impact.

While architectural historians have examined the evolution of dwelling forms and the alterations made to specific spaces within, few have taken up home improvement as a primary subject. Scholars from a range of other fields—social and economic historians, students of technology, business, and consumption—have likewise overlooked or underestimated the remodeling market as a potential area of inquiry. This is unfortunate. Home improvement reveals how houses, and architecture more generally, continue to accrue, slough off, and shift meaning beyond the moment they are first occupied. It demonstrates regular, if undramatic, technological change and acknowledges residential architecture as a focal point of consumerism and the interplay of retailer, manufacturer, and government. According to Harris, “Given its economic significance, repairs and renovations should account for about half of what historians have to say about housing” (8).

Harris divides the rise of the home improvement market (and his book) into three parts: an early twentieth-century nascent phase, an era of crisis from 1927 to 1945, and a period of resolution between 1945 and 1960. Because a mass renovation market requires mass homeownership, part 1 begins with an examination of the latter. The author notes that “American Dreams” of owning one’s home date only to the 1920s. While members of the middle class did not consider it a priority, manual workers and immigrants saw homeownership as a sign of progress and insurance against unemployment. Constructing a home at least partially themselves, often using mail-order home kits, was a common route to ownership. Infighting, rivalries, and a focus on a building trade clientele left lumber manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers ill prepared for this emerging consumer market. When owner building and kits appeared to challenge entrenched building practices, lumber dealers responded by establishing showrooms and merchandising programs directed specifically toward homeowners.

In part 2 Harris defines the period from just before the Great Depression to the end of World War II as one of instability and uncertainty for the lumber industry. During the late 1920s consumer interest in and purchase of substitute materials and non-house-related consumer goods chipped away at this industry’s revenues. Many dealers responded by offering a greater variety of services and products in their stores. Producers such as Johns-Manville weathered the Depression by diversifying their lines and developing more sophisticated selling approaches. Manufacturers also began to offer credit directly to consumers, thus bypassing local dealers entirely. Recognizing the insufficiency of such efforts, the federal government passed the National Housing Act of 1934, which among its many provisions guaranteed loans for modernizing existing homes.

The book’s third section examines the postwar building boom, with the author giving close attention to the fifteen years between 1945 and 1960. He shows that the growing interaction of manufacturers, sellers, and consumers led to a fully formed home improvement market. Harris attributes the market’s growth partly to amateur improvers and the eventual recognition of this clientele by local retailers. Older and even recently constructed houses—which often featured unfinished basements and attics ready for remodeling—were targeted for improvement as families and discretionary incomes...