Think of DIY, and you probably imagine making and building things yourself—decorating or putting up shelves. But DIY goes far beyond home improvements. It isn’t so much a practical skill as a state of mind.
And though we might think of it as 20th-century movement, the roots of DIY actually go back much further.
DIY is traditionally seen to have its roots in the 1950s and 60s, and many factors coincided in making this time a busy one for DIY.
But doing it yourself was by no means a new phenomenon.
A pre-history of DIY
Long before the 20th-century DIY movement, there was a long-held interest in practical work which could happen in the home, not the workplace.
Joseph Moxon’s book Mechanick Exercises is the grandfather of all modern DIY manuals.
Published in 1683–5, it described how to be a blacksmith, cast metal, draw, do joinery with wood, engrave, print books, make maps and mathematical instruments.
…many Gentlemen in this Nation of good Rank and high Quality are conversant in Handy-Works… How pleasant and healthy this their Diversion is, their Minds and Bodyes find.
The 19th century saw many other books describe practical projects in detail, and they weren’t only aimed at men. Mary Gascoigne published her Handbook of Turning in 1842, explaining the art of woodturning using a lathe. She commented:
‘Why should not our fair countrywomen participate in this amusement? Do they fear it is too masculine and laborious for a female hand? If so, that anxiety is easily removed…’
Before the invention of the car, anyone who wanted to play with machines would most likely buy themselves a lathe.
They were expensive machines, so ownership tended to be among the well-off. Holtzapffel of London were their foremost builders, and as well as the basic lathes they produced a whole range of accessories so that increasingly complex projects could be undertaken. The finished products could be highly decorative—to our modern eyes, maybe a little too much so.
But the objective was to show off the turner’s skill at their hobby. In our collection we have many of the specimens made by Holtzapffel’s to show customers what was possible.
Explore some of them here:
Even the classic site of at-home tinkering and making, the garden shed, has earlier roots than we might think. Engineer James Watt’s workshop is a fascinating example of an early at-home making space.
As Watt retired from business in the 1790s he devoted a room in his attic to copying sculpture.
But, like other sheds, the workshop had uses beyond the immediate project in hand. It was a repository for thousands of tools, fragments and small items from earlier projects, kept because of their interest or in case they might be useful in future.
And it was also a museum of memories, of Watt’s dead son whose notebooks, drawings and paintings Watt kept as mementos in a chest.
Help yourself: 19th-century DIY
In 19th-century society, there was a strong moral incentive to help yourself.
Samuel Smiles' 1859 book 'Self Help; With illustrations of character and conduct' was a bestseller. It described how learning was one of the greatest human pleasures, and that it was a person’s duty to educate themselves in lieu of education provided by others.
Gradually, the philosophy of the workplace spread into the home, and ‘productive leisure’ boomed.
Doing things for oneself was a necessity rather than a luxury for many, however. The 19th century saw a population explosion, with huge numbers of extra children. Buying toys was expensive, so they were often made at home instead—the start of a long-lasting trend.
The 20th century’s hardships and wars provided fertile ground for DIY. The economic disasters of the 1920s and 30s encouraged many to take up DIY, keeping up appearances while their incomes dwindled.
The Second World War placed self-reliance centre stage. Dig For Victory, Make Do and Mend, Grow Your Own Food and other wartime slogans trumpeted the importance of practical work at home.
Rationing of food and materials continued into the 1950s and were only belatedly followed by an economic upturn. Finally, people’s DIY skills could be fully brought to the fore.
The 1950s DIY explosion
In the 1950s and 60s, many long-established patterns in peoples’ everyday lives were being uprooted and changing.
A shorter working week meant people had more time to spend on family life and projects around the home. Home ownership was also on the rise, and better pay and longer holidays contributed too. This followed on from a period during and after the Second World War when many everyday essentials were strictly rationed, and skilled labour to carry out projects had been in short supply.
The surge in DIY in the 1950s onwards was fuelled by new media. On the TV, Barry Bucknell’s TV series attracted over five million viewers, who sent him 40,000 letters per week. Bucknell was a hero to post-war women. His frank, straightforward character won over many, who often had tough experiences of wartime factories and manufacturing.
Those watching Bucknell on the TV could pursue their interest in new DIY magazines like Practical Householder. Up to two thirds of each was filled with adverts for DIY products, from wallpaper to power tools.
At first, the magazines concentrated on the basics like bricklaying or wallpaper hanging. But over time they broadened out, covering matters like furniture or interior design. This reflected the widening skills and interests of the nation’s DIY enthusiasts.
Tools for the job
DIY depends on learning how to use the tools you need. Chief among these has been the electric drill, which were first made by Wolf, or Black & Decker, who advertised ‘Electric Tools on Easy Terms’. They quickly became multi-purpose devices.
Practical Householder in December 1955 advertised a ‘Complete Home Workshop’ for only 20 shillings (about £22 today) which made ‘tedious hand labour a thing of the past! A complete set of POWERED tools for drilling, sawing, polishing, sanding, turning and paint and rust removing’.
Electric drills were joined by a range of new tools, often built more cheaply compared to professional tools, for less frequent DIY use at home.
This was the era of new DIY shops such as B&Q, founded in 1969 by Richard Block and David Quayle in Southampton.
And, alongside new tools came new glues, paints, plywoods and other materials, sold direct to consumers rather than to specialist tradesmen. Hardboard made from compressed wood particles found new uses, particularly covering up old doors with a smooth finish. Concealing expertly crafted doors is often frowned upon today, but at the time it was popular for its modern, clean lines, banishing dust and dirty corners.
DIY brings us together
Although DIY is often seen as a male-dominated pastime, its 1950s foundations were broad.
Many adverts from the period show men and women working together, albeit with the men tending towards jobs like sanding or woodwork, and women making curtains or soft furnishings.
These were stereotyped roles within the family, but the overall effect was to bring husbands back to the home from pubs and other ‘male’ pursuits, and encourage them to be with their families.
And, in DIY hobbies like railway modelling, close bonds between fathers and children were encouraged, which had previously been torn asunder by the burdens of heavy full-time work and even the dislocation of war.
Towards a flat-pack future?
More recently, the trend in DIY has been to gradually reduce the amount of skill needed by the user, by building the skill into the product. This can be seen in everything from flatpack furniture to ready-mixed wallpaper paste. DIY will always reflect the wider culture around it, which now places less emphasis on manual skills, and more on lower cost, disposable products, or on items which don’t need to—or can’t—be fixed.
So, we buy cheap ready-made clothes, not altering them individually. If something breaks we discard it and buy a new one. Even cooking has been deskilled in large part, with ready-made sauces and prepared ingredients, microwaves and ready meals.
But on the other hand, we're seeing the rise of a ‘Maker Movement’ which places practical skill at its heart and encourages makers to try things themselves. YouTube is full of guidance on everything from building a new home to repairing a bike.
Hack labs, repair co-ops and community sheds are places where people can go to learn and swap skills in fixing and making things. Are a new generation acquiring the skills and talents of DIY after all?
Find out more
- The Atlantic, Why the maker movement matters
- History Extra, A decade of domesticity: how the 1950s made the modern home
- Science Museum YouTube channel, A brief history of DIY from a curator's shed