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Building a Market

The Rise of the Home Improvement Industry, 1914-1960

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.

448 pages | 62 halftones, 5 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Historical Studies of Urban America

Geography: Urban Geography

History: American History, Urban History


“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.”

John F. Bauman | University of Southern Maine

“Weaving together social, economic, business, and gender history, Building a Market will force scholars to rethink the nature of American home ownership, the impact of the Federal Housing Administration, and the hegemonic powers often attributed to consumer culture, mass marketing, large-scale business organization, and technological innovation. Harris reveals that market mechanisms have been the arena for a shifting interplay of individuals’ desires, industrial supply, manufacturing methods, capital and credit, and government policy. If the market system in modern society is more complex and fragmented than we have been led to believe, Building a Market reveals its power in allowing and constraining Americans to build their homes and live their lives.”

Alexander Von Hoffman | Harvard University

“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.”


“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.”

Journal of American History

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.”

American Historical Review

“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.”

Journal of Historical Geography

“Harris’s thorough study provides the most satisfying set of answers to date to questions that he and other scholars have raised. And in synthesizing a voluminous amount of trade literature and charting the historical development of a complex market, Harris establishes a clear framework for future deeper inquiries into the motivations and experiences of amateur builders and do-it-yourselfers.”

Technology and Culture

“Few are better suited for an analysis of the DIY movement than Harris. . . . By drawing our attention to a vast and relatively neglected aspect of home ownership, and providing a wealth of information from which new studies can be launched, Harris has contributed considerably to a wide range of scholarly audiences.”

Urban History Review

“How did the home improvement industry coming into being? This is the question that animates Harris’s impressively researched, carefully argued, and wide-ranging analysis of the rise of ‘do-it-yourself’ from the First World War into the 1960s. . . . Building a Market is an important chapter in how capitalism has historically had the capacity to renew itself, doing so on the back of widening forms of exploitation that both make class and its consciousness of difference, on the one hand, and mystify it, on the other.”

University of Toronto Quarterly

“Rounding off the strengths of Building a Market is Harris’s clear and engaging prose and his splendid work of documentation. . . . Overall, I found this to be a highly enjoyably and informative read, and would encourage anyone with an interest in housing, urban development, consumer culture, or the history of business to add this important tome to their collection.”

Canadian Geographer

“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 important 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.”

Economic History

Building a Market makes a substantial contribution to the literature on American cities, homes, and neighborhoods.”

Building & Landscapes

“A remarkably rich, multilayered book that addresses vital but long neglected dimensions of the twentieth-century North American housing market. . . . Harris leaves it to his reader to draw out the larger social implications, the neighborhood effects of housing maintenance that underlie abandonment and gentrification, as well as preservation and filtering. But he makes crystal clear that scholars of the housing market who focus only on new construction have missed literally half the story.”

Business History Review

Table of Contents

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



Society of Architectural Historians: Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award

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