The term “do-it-yourself ” or DIY now refers to one of the most popular, if enforced, leisure occupations within the Western world. It is supported by an equally large manufacturing and retail sector. A largely post-1945 phenomenon it covers a huge range of practical household tasks that are now carried out by the resident of the home rather than a specialized professional. This is especially so in countries like the United Kingdom, where private property ownership is high, and primarily appeals to people on low or middle incomes, the wealthy being able to afford interior designers and professional craftspeople.

In the United Kingdom, 70 percent of families lived in rented accommodation before 1939. The repairs were the responsibility of the landlord and there was little incentive to redecorate or improve someone else’s property. Also, labor was cheaper and culturally such manual work was not seen as the preserve of the middle-class office worker. Couples often worked together on their gardens and the “man of the house” may have hung the occasional picture, but to attempt the work of the professional painter, plumber, or electrician would have appeared eccentric.

Even if one had wanted to attempt such things the odds were stacked in favor of the professional. There were few detailed manuals and household guides were rudimentary in this area. To take decorating as an example, the wallpaper still came with a selvedge and had to be trimmed, either by hand or with a machine fitted with circular blades. The adhesive paste had to be mixed in a bucket.

World War II brought hardships and shortages and a “make-do-and-mend” attitude, which was in turn followed by a desire to improve the domestic environment. The two attitudes were not necessarily polarities; those who had to mend or make things often found that they enjoyed the creative or technical challenge and translated former tasks into hobbies.

The slowly rising affluence of the postwar period led to rising expectations and the need to replace bomb damaged houses with new towns and suburbs. Despite this, many young married couples still had to live with one set of their parents for a few years before they could find a place of their own, which was often rented. Buying a house was expensive and could require a 30–40 percent deposit. Local governments built many houses and usually decorated them The London County Council used green, cream, and battleship gray; Stevenage new town in Hertfordshire used white walls and gray paintwork. Some local governments let tenants decorate their own houses, others did not, and local government workmen appeared to redecorate two rooms every four or five years. Many people aspired to better brighter homes, inspired by events such as the 1951 Festival of Britain, but often the materials (wallpapers, for example) were scarce in the early 1950s. The influence of the “American dream home,” deluxe modern interiors featured in magazines and Hollywood films, was also important.

By 1957, the industry was big enough to stage a Do-It-Yourself show at London’s Olympia Exhibition Center. It ran for three weeks and attracted over a quarter of a million people. Magazines such as Practical Householder, Handyman, and Do-It-Yourself appeared in the late 1950s, and companies began to respond to this changing mood. They offered step-by-step guides to projects such as converting attics, boxing in stair rails, and removing old fireplaces. They recommended the right tools and helped popularize new materials such as Formica and Melamine. Black & Decker, for example, began to produce power tools aimed at the home market.

These materials were able to transform previously dull rooms, especially kitchens, where a laminate could be glued to old furniture and worktops. Not everyone approved; Richard Hoggart, writing in his influential The Uses of Literacy, glumly commentated on the changes in the working-class home of 1957. “Chain-store modernismus, all bad veneer and sprayed on varnish stain, is replacing the old mahogany; multicolored plastic and chrome biscuit barrels and bird cages have come in.”

Despite the fears of some cultural critics, the market continued to grow. The rising affordability of television provided a mass audience for televised DIY programs such as the BBC show hosted by Barry Bucknell. In 1962, the BBC bought a derelict house in West London, which Bucknell “did up” over a period of months, removing old fireplaces and covering paneled doors and stairs. The project inspired many terraced house dwellers to transform their homes into brighter more modern spaces. Over 2,000 people came to view the house before it was sold. The Daily Mail Ideal Home Show began to introduce DIY displays.

By the 1960s the pioneering days of DIY were over and it had become an accepted part of modern life. The range of paints, tools, and equipment continued to expand as the stigma of doing it yourself fell away. Paint companies such as Crown and Dulux produced “fashion” colors aimed at the homeowner rather than the professional. Dulux is the paints division of ICI and was a pioneer in promoting DIY paint. It remains one of the major brands within the United Kingdom. Its success illustrates how the company aimed itself at the new DIY consumers. In 1961 it introduced an Old English sheepdog into its advertising, both on television and in magazines. Much of the advertising was directed at women and the dog achieved remarkable brand recognition, so much so that Old English sheepdogs are often referred to as “Dulux Dogs.”

The lead content of paints was reduced and then removed. Nondrip paints were introduced in the 1970s, followed by one-coat gloss paints in the 1980s. The large DIY stores began to introduce their own lines of paints in the 1980s.Wallpapers became washable and ready pasted. DIY was seen as an important pastime and many households were proud that they had “done it themselves.”

Culturally, DIY has tended to follow marriage or a long-term commitment. One suburban male interviewed in 1998 probably speaks for many:

I never used to do any DIY before I was married. When I lived at home, I just used to play football every weekend and that was it. And quite honestly when we got married it was just a question of you went out and, if you could find somewhere to live and you could afford it, then you bought it, and if there was anything to be done then you did it yourself. You couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it for you. I’ve just learned as I’ve gone along.

DIY was given a further boost by the economic uncertainties of the early 1970s, following global recession and the increase in oil prices in 1973. Many people could not afford to buy a new house and invested in improving what they had. Even so home ownership did rise in this decade, and a British survey carried out in 1979 showed that 51 percent of the male respondents claimed that DIY was one of their main leisure pursuits.

DIY continues to be a major pastime, covering home painting and decorating, electrical work, gardening, car maintenance, and small-scale building work. America has had a different experience of DIY due to its size and diversity. For many established eastern farmers and the homesteaders attracted to the prairies in the 1910s and 1920s, doing it yourself was a way of life. Many urban Americans continued to rent their apartments. The rise of suburbia in the United States led to similar trends as those in the United Kingsom, although professional decorators and repair companies have survived longer in the U.S. labor market. Nevertheless U.S. companies such as Black & Decker and a host of smaller companies produce tools, fittings, and accessories. Large supermarkets have DIY sections. In the United Kingdom, the Sainsbury group introduced Homebase stores in the early 1980s and the Woolworth’s group their B&Q stores. The U.S. market has Black & Decker’s own stores and also large suburban outlets such as Builders Square, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and Sears.

The domestic area continues to be a center for much of modern life as computers and the Internet offer home-based services. There is a growing trend toward working at home in some sectors. As a result, the desire for attractive affordable surroundings remains high.