While home improvement, or "do-it-yourself" (DIY) has been a part of most American households since the erection of the first dwelling in what became the United States, the idea of constructing home additions, finishing basements, and engaging in many forms of refurbishing living spaces as a leisure time pursuit dates only from the end of the nineteenth century.
Historian Steven Gelber notes how a new craftsmanship emerged on weekends in the 1890s among affluent suburban American men who formerly would have hired a handyman, gardener, or carpenter. The appeal was often a nostalgic quest for rural or craft competencies, as expressed predominantly by the middle-class male. The DIY movement was also a creative compensation for unrewarding work, as middle-class men increasingly abandoned entrepreneurship and became white-collar employees. DIY was leisure, a desirable activity with little direct economic advantage, but it was also consistent with a still-powerful work ethic. In addition, it often had practical benefits for the family and could be justified as an investment and as cost saving. It gave men a role, and even a place, in the new suburban home, even while they spent most of their waking hours in the office or commuting. Men renewed their relationship with the home by shifting from work to leisure activities in gardening and minor carpentry.
The boundary between home improvement as work and leisure was certainly porous for most men of relatively modest means and without servants. Since the 1840s, with the development of balloon-frame housing (with walls constructed of nailed precut 2'x 4' strips of lumber), amateur home construction has been a possibility given the low skills required, especially when house plans were available to the ordinary would-be home owner eager to save money. By 1900, however, DIY was embraced even by the wealthy, who had no economic reason to engage in it. At this time, as the old bourgeois ideal of the masculine library separate from the feminine parlor gave way to the gender neutral living room, even men who had no need to do their own repairs or home improvements found a new refuge from wives and children in basements or backyard work rooms. Finally, home improvement activities had the virtue of being a leisure built around traditional male tools—saws, hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, and the like—that reinforced male identity.
New technologies and consumer goods also contributed to the home improvement movement. Handicraft magazines abounded in the interwar years. Popular Mechanics (founded in 1902) mixed reports on the latest advances in science and gadgetry with practical instructions on everything from window repair and toymaking, to the construction of basement workshops and even houses. This magazine offered men domestic leisure while affirming their desire to be part of a wider world of technological competency. These predominately weekend activities made for a "masculine domesticity" in the early twentieth century, according to Margaret Marsh, and were encouraged by wives in the hopes of making husbands "companions," not merely breadwinners. Masculine domesticity represented a moderate compromise with feminism by integrating men into a domestic sphere largely controlled by women. Magazines and toolmakers promoted home improvement projects for the sake of recreating male bonds, presumably lost when fathers no longer passed on job skills to their offspring, making, as an ad for Stanley Tools stated, "father and son partners!"(Better Homes and Gardens, September 1926, p.3).
After World War II, returning veterans embraced the home improvement movement as a way of building family "togetherness" around the security of the home. Government mortgage insurance programs for veterans encouraged home buying and highway construction, and promoted the construction of private houses in the suburbs. Since the later 1930s, the federal guarantees also made home-improvement loans that would allow for the exterior and interior modernization of existing homes through renovations such as exterior finishing, insulation, roofing, heating and cooling systems, easily available. Large builders such as Levitt and Sons accounted for two-thirds of housing construction by 1949, leading to a nearly 20 percent increase in suburban housing between 1950 and 1956 alone. Despite the fact that these tract houses looked alike, wage-earning suburbanites often individualized the appearance of these houses. Thus, contrary to the expectations of many critiques, the "Levittowns" in New York and Pennsylvania, with their hundreds of "cracker box" houses, did not become suburban slums. Remodeling made them into middle-class homes, even though their owners might have remained working-class. Owners converted unfinished attics into bedrooms. They remodeled to eliminate what they saw as wasted floor space, and finished basements into "rec rooms" when children demanded play areas. Even in more substantial homes, by building pine-paneled recreation rooms and creating vine-covered trellises in the backyard, men proved to themselves that they still could do something creative by themselves, and for themselves, apart from the modern world of machines or the corporate office.
Home improvement has emerged as an independent industry since the postwar period. Commercial hobby kits eased tasks for the layman, and magazines provided guidance in giving men a sense of competency in a craft. The advent of the power drill and saw, marketed after World War II, greatly eased home repairs and expanded the DIY cult. These tools of male domesticity helped to comprise a $12 billion per year industry by 1960. Hardware retailers and cooperative chains such as True Value and Ace Hardware began to advertise themselves as suppliers for amateur remodelers. By the 1970s, the neighborhood hardware store increasingly gave way to large, suburban home centers. In further shifting their focus from contractors to DIY customers, home-center chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's greatly expanded their sales volume and, in effect, the home improvement market.
Television home improvement shows, as well, have contributed to the expansion of the industry and the culture of DIY. In 1979, Bob Vila's This Old House debuted on public television. The show followed the step-by-step renovation of a Victorian era house and became a long-running success. As historian Carolyn Goldstein points out, the fascination with the "old" has been of growing importance in home improvement since the 1960s. Nostalgia, and a rising interest in craftsmanship among homeowners, contributed to a popular interest in oldlooking homes with modern amenities such as central heating. Manufacturers and retailers responded to the desire of consumers to uniquely historicize their suburban homes by marketing cheap imitation molding or columns and other Victorian-style elements.
By the late 1990s, highly successful home improvement programs (often sponsored by big retail outlets) had begun to blur the distinction between the traditionally male dominated realm of home improvement (carpentry work, for example) and the largely "feminine" sphere of interior decorating and design. During the 1980s, advertisers, such as those for power tools, began to acknowledge the increasing role of women in DIY activity. No longer solely a male refuge, home improvement projects, as portrayed in cable television's immensely popular Trading Spaces (debuted in 2000), became a leisure activity for couples or for the entire family.
See also: Gardening and Lawn Care, Hobbies and Crafts, Home Decoration, Interwar Leisure and Recreation, Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Postwar to 1980 Leisure and Recreation, Women's Leisure Lifestyles, Woodworking
Gelber, Steven. "Do-It-Yourself: Construction, Repairing, and Maintaining Domestic Masculinity," American Quarterly 49, no. 1 (March 1997): 89–112.
——. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Goldstein, Carolyn M. Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th-Century America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.
Marcus, Bernie, and Arthur Blank (with Bob Andelman). Built From Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew the Home Depot from Nothing into $30 Billion. New York: Crown Business, 1999.
Marling, Karal Ann. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Marsh, Margaret. Suburban Lives. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Vila, Bob, with Jane Davidson. This Old House: Restoring, Rehabilitating, and Renovating an Older House. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.
Gary Cross and Jan Logemann