Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Do-it-yourself exhibit traces history of home improvements

October 28, 2002


— Rosie the Riveter held her own in factories during World War II, only to find that wielding hammer and nails at home was still viewed as "clean, thumping exercise" mainly for men.

America wasn't yet ready to make women full partners with men in the burgeoning do-it-yourself home improvement movement that has since spawned hundreds of television programs, magazines and home project books.

But a new show at the National Building Museum, "Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th Century America," says that the home improvement movement has through the years strengthened family ties. It finds that the "can-do" attitude of returning GIs and their baby-boom offspring spurred the $45 billion-a-year home improvement business now so much a part of Americans' leisure activities.

The show's organizers trace the roots of the do-it-yourself movement to the first leisure power tool, a foot-operated jigsaw used to make the fancy decorative scrollwork known as gingerbread, which launched a woodworking fad in the 1870s and 1880s. Women were already familiar with foot-operated sewing machines, and scroll-sawing became a hobby of both sexes.

But though women in the 1800s shouldered many of the physical labors of keeping the home scrubbing clothes, floors and babies when it came to hammering a nail they mostly left the job to menfolk.

That began to change as women, replacing men in American industry during two world wars, gained the skills and confidence to become avid do-it-yourselfers. But men remained the prime targets of toolmakers.

"Driving nails is work, no doubt about it. But it's also the kind of clean, thumping exercise a man can enjoy," declared a Stanley Tools advertisement in the October 1956 issue of Popular Mechanics. "There's smacking satisfaction in belting a shiny tenpenny into a stout 2 x 4 studding ... Hammers up, men."

Labor adds value

Rising prosperity and increased leisure time with the spread of the five-day work week gave working and middle-class Americans the time and money to improve their homes. The Federal Housing Agency, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, provided loans with government guarantees for remodeling.

Home ownership spread. With it came the motive to acquire "sweat equity" work that increased the value of a family's main asset, its home. GIs returning from World War II encountered a host of new products and step-by-step instructions for how to use them.

"Members of this 'can-do' generation, primed by their fathers' basement workbenches and by Uncle Sam's Depression-era push to modernize the nation's housing stock, eagerly embraced the developing 'how-to' marketplace," the exhibit says.

Glossy magazines like "House and Garden" and contests they sponsored inspired people to compete. Cheap paper patterns, like the dress patterns many women used to make their own clothes, were sold. Mail-order houses would ship materials, or even the pieces of a whole house, for a family to put together.

Makers of motorized drills and other electrified tools redesigned them in lighter weights and brighter colors. Some were made with attachments so that a drill could also be used as a buffer, sander, silver polisher even a milkshake mixer. New floor and wall coverings were marketed as easy to install. Wallpaper, for instance, began to be made in conveniently shaped pieces, complete with adhesives, as well as long rolls that had to be cut and pasted.

Hardware stores used to market largely to professionals, said Chrysanthe B. Broikos, a museum curator. But as more Americans took up do-it-yourself as a hobby spurred by the rising cost of hiring professional plumbers and painters mom-and-pop stores evolved into today's chains of supermarkets to supply private workshops.

These old houses

The most recent trend in home improvement, Broikos said, is the restoration of old houses. Earlier this month the Public Broadcasting System opened the 24th season of "This Old House" by redoing a 1922 colonial revival house, which is itself a modernized version of 200-year-old style.

Today's bookstores devote whole sections to do-it-yourself books, including many directed at women. The cover of a recent paperback entitled "Dare to Repair" depicts a young woman like Rosie the Riveter of World War II fame, with a snappy polka-dot bandanna over her hair, pointing proudly to well-developed biceps.

The book, by Julie Sussman and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet, calls itself "a do-it-herself guide to fixing (almost) anything in the home."

The museum show remains open through Aug. 10.

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