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Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th Century America - 2002-11-23

Before the 1900s, few American homeowners gave much thought to making home improvements themselves; any painting, building, or remodeling was left to a professional hired to do the job. Today, home improvement is a multi-billion dollar industry with approximately one third of all American homeowners embarking upon some kind of home improvement every year. The trend toward the "home-owner-as-handyman" began about a century ago, says National Building Museum curator, Chrysanthe Broikos.

She says that's when wealthier people with more leisure time began to take an interest in home improvement as a hobby. "For example, in the late 1890's, woodworking became very popular and it's ornamental, not structural at all. It's not finishing off the basement or adding a garage," she says. "It's a design feature. So woodworking was one of the main ways that people gained confidence, maybe build a stool or a flower box or something that allows you to take on something bigger."

The exhibit, "Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th Century America", is presented as a real house under construction, where visitors can walk through rooms and witness the evolution of tools and projects through time. A 19th century foot-powered scroll saw used to carve intricate wood designs resembles a kind of sewing machine, and marked the beginning of the woodworking craze. By the 1930's, electric appliances and indoor plumbing fueled the push to modernize bathrooms and kitchens.

In one display, visitors can see an electric sander that triples as a polisher and back massager.

"What's being marketed here is something not just for dad or the workshop you can polish a table or use it in the kitchen or the living room or the bedroom, says Ms. Broikos. "It's for everywhere in the house."

National Building Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos says the World War II played an important role in getting both men and women accustomed to working with machinery and tools. "Not only for men on the battle front having to use their wits and resources just to survive and wielding guns. But the women on the home front in the plants are using rivet guns and drills, gaining confidence that would be required to undertake these projects after the war," she says.

But it was in the post-war years, with the flight of families to suburbia that the home improvement movement really took off. Magazines and television shows aimed at the weekend worker became a mainstay. A 1950s television ad for a paint roller company demonstrates the ease and efficiency of their product.

"Part of that consumer culture that began to flourish in the 50s is all part of living out that dream and being able to fulfill it through your own two hands, says Ms. Broikos. She says since the 1970s there has been an interest in nostalgia and preserving the historic features often found in older homes. "Now, of course, not only do we talk about modernization, but we talk about restoration and renovation. We really seem to have this interest in 'authentic' things."

Ms. Broikos says now with home ownership at its highest level in history, people are investing more in their homes. The local hardware store is being replaced by such "big box" chains such as Home Depot, where customers can shop for everything from nuts and bolts to a complete new kitchen under one roof.

But even with the availability of professional advice and tools, museum visitor Kay Olsen of Vienna, Virginia says that doesn't necessarily guarantee success. She says she and her husband have no talent whatsoever for home improvement projects… even though they've tried.

Olsen: ". . .only under duress, but sometimes venture forth into bad ideas."
Rupli: "What are some of the projects you've tried?"
Olsen: "We've re-tiled the kitchen floor, we've re-floored the foyer, of course we've done lots of painting. We've had the bathroom done a couple of times, but we're not silly enough to embark upon that one by ourselves."
Rupli: "You mean men don't just instinctively know how to do those projects?"
Olsen: "He's very intelligent but not necessarily handy."

Museum visitor Gary Portas who was visiting from California has this impression of the home improvement exhibit.

Portas: "I'm 60-years-old I've seen a lot of these tools and the whole concept of 'do-it-yourself- took off with my age. So a lot of this stuff is just memories, it's not seeing it for the first time."
Rupli: "What is the most ambitious project you ever undertook?"
Portas: "Finishing the basement, I guess."
Rupli: "How did you know how to do that?"
Portas: "Just buy a bunch of boards, and you pick up a book and read. But that's just my generation."

It may be this generation as well. More young people today than ever before are also trying their hands at remodeling basements . . . as well as building patio decks, and making other improvements on their homes.

It's not just because it's less expensive. As the exhibit at the National Building Museum illustrates, an increasing number of Americans seem to get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure working with their hands and a tool to make their houses into the homes they always dreamed they could be.

Do-It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th Century America will be on exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington through August, 2003.