Building a Market

The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

448 pages | 62 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2012
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226317663 Published August 2012
E-book $7.00 to $36.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226317687 Published August 2012

Each year, North Americans spend as much money fixing up their homes as they do buying new ones. This obsession with improving our dwellings has given rise to a multibillion-dollar industry that includes countless books, consumer magazines, a cable television network, and thousands of home improvement stores.
Building a Market charts the rise of the home improvement industry in the United States and Canada from the end of World War I into the late 1950s. Drawing on the insights of business, social, and urban historians, and making use of a wide range of documentary sources, Richard Harris shows how the middle-class preference for home ownership first emerged in the 1920s—and how manufacturers, retailers, and the federal government combined to establish the massive home improvement market and a pervasive culture of Do-It-Yourself. 
Deeply insightful, Building a Market is the carefully crafted history of the emergence and evolution of a home improvement revolution that changed not just American culture but the American landscape as well.

John F. Bauman | University of Southern Maine

“While much has been written about homeownership, until now no history has explored the flip side of home owning, home repair, home maintenance, and home remodeling. In this unique, highly readable, and richly illustrated study, Richard Harris unscrambles the fascinating saga behind the building of the home improvement market. Part consumer history, part business history, and part planning and development history, Harris’s work carries us from the small lumberyards of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to Johns-Manville showrooms and the modern Home Depot. It is an illuminating and enjoyable ride.”


“Making judicious use of a notable array of sources—advice manuals, industry publications, government reports, popular magazines, oral interviews—Harris constructs a remarkable detailed yet very readable narrative. He documents the shifting attitudes and practices of the many players (middle-class homeowners, lumberyards, manufacturers of tools and building materials, retailers, the media, and the government) necessary to an economy and ideology of home improvement. . . . An important perspective on the American dream of home ownership. Highly recommended.”

Journal of American History

“In an ambitious and meticulously researched work, Richard Harris explores the surprisingly understudied subject of home improvement in the United States. . . . Harris has crafted a readable work on an important topic that deserves to be widely read by scholars of business history, urban history, and social history.”

American Historical Review

Building a Market is a scholarly book that fluently fuses broad research, a talent for teasing meaning from reluctant sources, rich contextualization drawn from a range of disciplines, economic savvy, sensitive distinctions in demographics and regional predilections, and a sympathy for different characters and situations that allows Harris to evenhandedly articulate competing points of view and thus depict history in all its opacities, uncertainties, and fitful progress. . . . Historical change is portrayed as the product of many provisional factors that are themselves responses to prior conditions and uneven flows of information, a coherent story amidst an atmosphere of contingency and flux. In the process, the single-family house moves from transcendent myth to evanescent fact, less the root of individual freedom and blossom of national character than the uncertain fruit of available goods and services. Finally, Harris is simply a good writer. His authorial voice is clear, warm, and occasionally wry. For all the detail mustered and complexity rendered, Building a Market is a pleasure to read.”

Journal of Historical Geography
“Harris recounts a history not so much of home improvement as we might imagine it today, but of house building by many thousands of American families. The book is meticulously researched, well-illustrated, and presents a detailed account of how an industry which we largely take for granted came into being.”
List of Abbreviations

ONE / Introduction


TWO / The Foundation of Home Ownership
THREE / An Industry Unready to Improve
FOUR / The Realm of the Retailer
FIVE / The Birth of the Home Improvement Store

PART II:  CRISIS, 1927–1945

SIX / A Perfect Storm for the Building Industry
SEVEN / Manufacturers Save the Retailer
EIGHT / The State Makes Credit


NINE / Mr. and Mrs. Builder
TEN / Help for the Amateur
ELEVEN / The Improvement Business Coalesces
TWELVE / A Zelig of the American Cultural Economy

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