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Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960

Author(s):Harris, Richard
Reviewer(s):Snowden, Kenneth

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Richard Harris, Building a Market: The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960.? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xii + 431 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-31766-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kenneth Snowden, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina Greensboro.

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Richard Harris argues that the development of the home improvement industry in the U.S. has been neglected by historians despite its large presence and growing importance over the twentieth century.? To remedy the situation Harris provides a ?closely woven historical narrative? that delineates this new area of scholarship while explaining why and how home improvement became ?ubiquitous? in retail markets and the media.? His? task is daunting because the chronology he lays out takes place over five decades and cuts across disciplines including technological and consumer history, housing and urban development, and family history.? One cannot expect the last word to be written about an area of scholarship as it is being introduced, and there are some gaps and weaknesses in Harris?s account.? But this is an impressive volume that lays out the motivation, the historical background and the conceptual framework that will stimulate and shape more research in a topic that deserves much more attention.? Building a Market deserves to be read and considered by a wide range of historians.?? I learned a lot from it and you will too.

The historical chronology is laid out in three sections: origins (1900-1930), crisis (1927-1945) and resolution (1945-1960).? Harris argues that there was a watershed in middle class attitudes during the first period as indifference towards homeownership before World War I gave way to the ?own your own home? movement of the 1920s.? The new enthusiasm for homeownership provided a foundation for increased interest in home improvement and the products and services related to it.? An impediment to the development of this market at that time, however, was a building materials distribution network that was dominated by lumber dealers and structured to serve only building professionals.? This business model was put under pressure during the 1920s when new types of building materials began to replace wood and the market for mail-order, build-your-own-home kits expanded.? Harris shows that the confluence of these factors caused some building material suppliers to reconsider their business models and introduce one-stop home improvement stores that catered to homeowners.

During the 1930s, the traditional lumber dealer model and new housing construction declined even further.? Home improvement activity held up a bit better, however, as there was increased demand for residential additions and alterations so that the existing housing stock could better accommodate the Depression-era shift from homeownership to tenancy.? Two key developments supported this activity.? First, manufacturers of building materials found it in their interests to promote and stimulate home improvement activities with advertising, informational campaigns and even by providing homeowners with credit to finance their purchases of building materials.? In describing these activities, Harris relies heavily on his own case study of Johns Manville.? Title I of the National Housing Act of 1934 provided even more support for home improvement expenditures.? This provision authorized the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to insure 20 percent of the principal on private loans made to homeowners for the purpose of home modernization.? Title I activity grew quickly between 1934 and 1937, much more rapidly, in fact, than the more familiar Title II mortgage insurance program.?

The final step in Harris?s chronology focuses on the role the ?build your own home? movement played in addressing the post-World War II housing shortage.? This activity created even stronger incentives for sellers of building materials to develop retail infrastructures that included one-stop shopping locations customized for amateur builders, do-it-your-selfers and women as well as men.?

A summary this brief cannot do justice to the complexity of Harris?s argument, to his painstaking scholarship, or to his creativity in building a coherent and believable story that captures so many of the forces that shaped home improvement activity over the early twentieth century.? The book does not, however, address alternative explanations and potential challenges ? and I will offer two.?

To begin with, there is much more evidence and argument in this book about the development of homeowner-friendly retail systems in the building materials industry than about actual home improvement activity.? Harris notes (p. 47) that official Census measures of additions and alterations tend to under-measure non-market home improvement activity ? and he could also have noted that these measures exclude routine maintenance work which surely generates a large volume of sales in home improvement stores.? Given these measurement issues, Harris could be clearer about the activities that are included and excluded in his definition of home improvement.? For example, a large share of additions and alterations to residential structures is performed by building contractors, but Harris seems to focus more narrowly on home improvements by owner-occupiers.? On the other hand, there is extended discussion in the book of owner-builders during the 1950s which would appear not to be home improvement when it is defined as ?the way dwellings are changed once they have been put in place? (p. 5).?

The discussion would also have benefitted by paying attention to the role that building material suppliers played in the pre-Depression mortgage market.? During the 1920s these firms were heavily involved in organizing Building & Loan associations and were active in an unprecedented expansion of second mortgage debt.? They did so to finance the customers of the contractors that they served in the building materials market.? The weakening of these networks in the 1930s, therefore, provided additional impetus for the creation of credit programs by building materials manufacturers and the FHA.??????

Ken Snowden is a co-author (with Price Fishback and Jonathan Rose) of Well Worth Saving: How the New Deal Safeguarded Homeownership (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and other papers on the history of the U.S. mortgage market.

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Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII