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Designing the Tools for America’s ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Movement

Time magazine’s cover for August 2, 1954, presented a plaid-shirted American male with chiseled features, sculpted hair, and the multiple powers of a Hindu god. Using each of his eight arms, he “repairs” the journal’s masthead, paints a wall, buffs a car, saws lumber, cuts a tree limb, and rides a lawnmower matched to the journal’s famous red border. The surrealistic image by Boris Zybasheff—a vision of the suburban homeowner as a confident whir of activity with a tool for each task—announced the feature article inside: “Do-It-Yourself: The New Billion-Dollar Hobby.” 

According to historian Steven M. Gelber, the term “do-it-yourself” (today popularly condensed to DIY) dates to at least 1912; Business Week resalvaged the term in its issue for June 2, 1952, when it announced: “This is the age of do-it-yourself.”1  The postwar hobbyist phenomenon led to a related term—the “shoulder trade”—connoting the growing number of do-it-yourselfers carrying wooden planks out of lumber stores. Construction industry branches adjusted their materials to meet the needs of a lucrative amateur market: US Plywood Corporation offered new 16-inch-wide sheets (rather than the standard 48-inch), and rubber companies produced new foam rubber materials for at-home furniture makers and upholsterers encouraged by simpler modern styles.2  Paint companies developed latex paint and paint rollers in addition to the professional-grade oil-based paints, thus creating one of the most affordable ways to spruce up a home. Reynolds produced easy-to-cut aluminum in sheets, tubes, and rods and suggested a host of projects for it, from spice shelves to contemporary “Eamesian” aluminum tables, referring to the midcentury furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames.3 

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Boris Zybasheff, Time cover, August 2, 1954. (Copyright 1954 Time Inc. Used under license)

New construction began on nearly two million single-family homes in 1950, a massive increase after a wartime low of 139,000 and the “largest number of housing starts in American history.”4  Meanwhile, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act had initiated a five-day, forty-hour workweek, creating more leisure time than ever before. These conditions, combined with a spate of manual and industrial skills acquired during the Great Depression and World War II, formulated the ideal conditions for a do-it-yourself revolution. Home repair and handicraft emerged as satisfying brands of work that crossed socioeconomic borders. By the mid-1950s, only reading and watching television ranked as more popular forms of recreation.5 

Time’s feature article spotlighted the passions of actual hobbyists across the country, including vice president of US Steel David Austin’s $5,000 woodworking shop, and singer Perry Como’s and movie star Jane Russell’s love of handicraft. Russell was in no way an anomaly either. Even though advertisements commonly depicted women pointing out what needed to be done to men standing at the ready to fix it, US Plywood learned from its dealers that husbands and wives were shopping in lumberyards together and that a large number of women were shopping alone.6 

Power tools were a $25 million market in 1940 and rose nearly tenfold to $200 million by 1954.7  Even as manufacturers scaled their tool lines down to portable versions, they made them powerful enough to meet the needs of a growing class of semi-professionals. This field of product development drew the attention of Industrial Design magazine’s editors, who devoted a lengthy feature to the subject’s popularity titled “Power Tools: The Newest Home Appliance.”8  The article discussed methods for restyling portable power tools for eye appeal—both “fashion color” treatments (such as Henry Dreyfuss’s yellow DeWalt lathe) and dynamic new shapes that conveyed a sense of power. Rockwell Manufacturing, DeWalt (a subsidiary of American Machine and Foundry Company), and Black & Decker all introduced new portable electric tools on the market. Peter Muller-Munk Associates (PMMA) worked for most of these firms on various projects, but their first and most extensive relationship was with Syracuse-based toolmaker Porter-Cable Machine Company.

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Detail of an advertisement for Blue Bell casual wear, for “practical folks who do-it-themselves,” Life, September 5, 1955. (Courtesy PMMA archives)

Porter-Cable first engaged PMMA in 1948 or 1949 to design a low-cost, lightweight 6-inch portable electric saw for nonprofessionals. Having the current 8-inch saw and preliminary engineering specs for the smaller version (prepared under Porter-Cable’s chief engineer Art Emmons) from which to work, PMMA applied their design skills to a new tool that could be sold at a retail price of just $65. Designers chose more economical die-cast (rather than sand-cast) aluminum to reduce weight (and cost) and to provide high tensile strength, and eliminated the miter adjustment commonly found on 8-inch saws to further reduce production costs.9  Aluminum die castings also allowed for “the freedom of the designer in arriving at a pleasing external form” with complex curves.10  The resulting Guild-6 power saw could cut two inches deep through lumber, plywood, and aluminum siding. Weighing a mere twelve pounds and with a newly styled blade guard, handle, and depth adjusting knob, the PMMA-designed tool was described by Industrial Design as having a “more massive appearance” while its distinctive lean provided an “intimation of speed.”11 

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PMMA-designed tools for Porter-Cable: finishing sander, Guild model 106, with carefully calculated handle angle and knob for two-handed use; portable electric saw, model 108; router, model 150, with flat plastic top to enable easy changing of bits; portable electric saw, Guild model A-6; and portable belt sander, model 500, a well-balanced tool, styled like a locomotive. (Tom Little/Carnegie Museum of Art)

With Porter-Cable in their portfolio, PMMA went on to design tools for other major companies in both small and large industry, including a portable line for Stanley Tools and a much-lauded milling machine for Kearney & Trecker.12  PMMA’s major redesign in 1957 of DeWalt’s radial arm saw, introduced as the new “Imperial” and designed for medium to heavy industry, is typical of the firm’s concern with human engineering (ergonomics).13  relocated the tool’s controls to the front of the arm, for example, so the operator no longer had to reach over the spinning blade to stop the machine.14  From portable tools for the expanding market of handicraftsmen to machines for large industry, PMMA was designing with the end user foremost in mind.

This essay is excerpted from the book Silver to Steel, published by Carnegie Museum of Art, DelMonico, and Prestel. The exhibition Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art from November 21, 2015 to April 11, 2016. Silver to Steel is co-organized by Rachel Delphia, The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, and Jewel Stern, independent scholar and curator. To learn more about this period of sweeping change in the city’s history, visit the Pittsburgh Modern story archive.


Endnotes

  1. Steven M. Gelber, “Do-It-Yourself: Constructing, Repairing and Maintaining Domestic Masculinity,” American Quarterly 49, no. 1 (March 1997): 95.
  2. “Do-It-Yourself: The New Billion-Dollar Hobby,” Time, August 2, 1954, 66.
  3. “Do-It and You,” Industrial Design 1, no. 4 (August 1954): 91.
  4. US Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States; cited in Gelber, “Do-It-Yourself,” 96.
  5. William Astor and Charlotte Astor, “Private Associations and Commercial Activities,” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science 313 (September 1957): 96; cited in Gelber, “Do-It-Yourself,” 97.
  6. “Do-It and You,” 87.
  7. Exhibition description, Do-It-Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th-Century America, National Building Museum, Washington, DC, October 19, 2002–August 17, 2003, http://www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/diy.html.
  8. “Power Tools: The Newest Home Appliance,” Industrial Design 1, no. 1 (February 1954): 30–37.
  9. For a discussion of the benefits of die casting to PMMA’s work for Porter-Cable, see Paul Karlen, “Portable Tools Need Precision in Appearance as Well as in Dimension,” Precision Molding, February 1954, 47–48. Porter-Cable went from sand casting to diecasting (a process with much tighter tolerances). This allowed them to strategically slim cross sections, which resulted in much of the lost weight. The previous version was also aluminum. For a detailed description of the working relationship between PMMA and Porter-Cable’s engineers and PMMA’s specific design modifications, see “Design of a Portable Saw,” Die Castings, December 1949, 55.
  10. “Design of a Portable Saw,” 32–34, 55–56.
  11. “Power Tools: The Newest Home Appliance,” 36.
  12. For Kearney & Trecker, see Industrial Design 7, no. 11 (November 1960): 87–89.
  13. Staff Report, “Power Positioning and Control for Machine Flexibility and Safety,” 101–3. Ergonomics developed during World War II as a study concerned with fitting humans to their surroundings, equipment, and tools, thereby increasing safety and decreasing physical fatigue. This field of study moved into the larger sphere of consumer product design and was famously championed in the 1950s by Henry Dreyfuss, who published his studies in Designing for People (1955) and The Measure of Man (1960).
  14. “Fitting the Machine to the Man: ‘Human Engineering’ Spurs Productivity,” Dun’s Review and Modern Industry 76, no. 1 (July 1963): 56–57.