The Truth Behind DIY

“I have found quite a few impressive pieces of architecture (and inventions throughout history) that, though many people probably don’t realize it, were historically significant do-it-yourself projects.”

May 8th, 2018
10 minute read

WHAT IS IT?

People are constantly striving for independence—and new ways to prove to themselves that they can become more self-sufficient. This can mean different things to different people. It can mean being able to change your own tire, fix the leaky sink in your bathroom, or even create one-of-a-kind decorations for your child’s birthday party. Whatever the case, we crave the feeling of accomplishment and success that comes from getting things done without the help of a professional—and without having to pay one.

These things fit under the umbrella term that our modern society has dubbed DIY, or “do-it-yourself.” DIY is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “[the] activity of decorating, building, and making repairs at home by oneself rather than employing a professional.” Even though people often categorize DIY as a form of household maintenance, it has always been so much more than that.

A home-made, do-it-yourself flower arrangement.

Recently, the term seems to have exploded into an all-encompassing word for anyone who decides to do anything themselves instead of searching for a solution at their local Walmart or by hiring a professional. “I’m a strong, independent woman, and I don’t need a man” has turned into “I don’t need a florist for my wedding! I have an entire board on Pinterest!”

This, essentially, is the modern interpretation of DIY and partially explains why it has evolved into such a mainstream concept. In reality, DIY has been a part of our history for over a thousand years, pre-dating the creation of Pinterest and the trend of pretty lights being decoratively placed into mason jars by stay-at-home moms

WHY DO IT YOURSELF?

When evaluating different kinds of DIY projects, it is interesting to explore people’s motivations and how it affects the types of projects they choose to embark on. Some people do things around the house because it’s cheaper than hiring a professional. This can sometimes be ill-advised, due to possible bodily harm, but people continue to tackle tasks that might be better left to a professional anyway. Most projects, like building a treehouse for your child, are rather cheap to do but people are willing to fork up their money for the freedom to hunker down on the couch while someone else does the labor. For some, it’s worth paying extra to know that the job was done right and that they don’t have to be responsible for it. Others prefer to be self-proclaimed do-it-yourselfers when it comes to projects that don’t involve rocket scienceor do.

A delicious meat and cheese board inspired by Pinterest.

Other goals of DIY, like craftsmanship and empowerment, are bringing DIY enthusiasts to Pinterest in droves. It gives them the sought-after feeling of not needing other people’s help to create cool things. I, personally, get almost all of my new cooking adventures from Pinterest. It isn’t quite as impressive as building your own house, but it still keeps me from relying on a chef or a local McDonald’s for dinner.

My main motivation when it comes to learning a new recipe is the opportunity to feel empowered by “bringing home the bacon,” in addition to showing my culinary craftsmanship by putting my own spin on other people’s recipes. You can glean similar DIY skills from places like Youtube and Google, since people love to blog about various DIY ideas. The types of projects tend to vary a bit between different platforms, but you can easily find what you’re looking for on one of these sites.

DIY Timeline

Now that we have defined what it means to “do it yourself” and explored a few of the reasons why people might embark on these endeavors, it’s time to get into the fun stuff. I, and I’m sure many others, have never really considered how much of our history is encompassed by DIY. Before the age of modern technology, there were many more reasons for people to complete tasks themselves. I have found quite a few impressive pieces of architecture (and inventions throughout history) that, though many people probably don’t realize it, were historically significant do-it-yourself projects.

Greek architecture on display in ancient ruins.

DIY dates back much farther than people might assume. We can start with one of the most ancient examples of DIY architecture that I’ve come across, though it is almost certainly not the oldest that has been built. We know so little about what ancient civilizations left behind besides the small portion of remains that archaeologists have been able to unearth.

DIY Architecture

For example, houses and major pieces of architecture are now part of a mainstream business model. People very rarely find themselves in a position where they want to, or are able to, build a house on their own. In the not-so-distant past, though, if you wanted a house, it was up to you to design and build it. Even before the basic structure of what a house should be was established, people were designing and writing instructions for others who wanted to build a house or building of their own.

One of the first recorded examples of this process was unearthed in 2010 when archaeologists discovered what was nicknamed the first “IKEA building.” What is even more surprising than the structure’s nickname is its age. This luxury building, inspired by Greek architecture, was dated to the 6th century BC. More impressive still, it came with instructions inscribed on parts of the building so that others could understand how it was built and how it could be replicated.

A pickaxe sits, waiting to unearth the past at an archaeological dig.

While experts have nicknamed it an “IKEA building,” I’ll go one step further and call it one of the earliest successful DIY projects, which was replicated by others for centuries. Also, just because it is labeled as one of the earliest DIY projects of its time doesn’t mean that it was the only structure or item being reproduced in true DIY fashion. The archeological discoveries that have been made so far are a small fraction of the advancements that civilizations made before and after this DIY building was erected. We may never know about some of the most impressive aspects of various civilizations self-made creations.

Jump forward hundreds of years to the early 1900’s—when prepackaged houses first hit the market, especially the Aladdin readi-cut homes from 1906. They were marketed as being essentially fool-proof. Supposedly, anyone who could hammer a nail into a piece of wood could build a house, boat, or garage with a readi-cut home kit. However, I haven’t heard first-hand accounts from anyone who has tried to complete this process, so I’m still a bit skeptical.

Nonetheless, the concept exploded throughout the first quarter of the 20th century. Large-scale brands that we know today, like Sears, were competing to create the best and most cost-effective ready-made products, from various styles of houses to cabinets—and more. Though people may not realize it immediately, these types of houses and ready-made products in general were large-scale DIY products.

A millennial handles her finances on a laptop.

It is interesting to think that a hundred years ago, it was common practice for people to build their own houses, whereas today, some people struggle to fix a wobbly table without calling in the professionals. It also shows how much the times have changed economically. Because they are saddled with higher debt and lower credit scores than earlier generations, our youngest generation has a much harder time accessing the resources, such as loans, needed to purchase homes. This has pushed people who are unable to buy a house toward renting, which happens to include a handy maintenance man at the renter’s beck and call. Yet, none of these changes has reduced the amount that we utilize DIY projects—just in what capacity.

DIY Fashion: From Rags to Unexpected Riches

During the 1930’s, when the Great Depression was in full swing and the U.S. was in the transition between recovering from WWI and preparing to enter WWII, DIY fashion was making an impact on the lives of women and men, but in a very different way than we’re used to. Women were forced to use flour sacks to keep their children clothed by making girls’ dresses and boys’ shirts using the burlap material. Since there was no money for farming families to buy clothes from the store, things were mended or re-purposed to create clothes that would survive being passed down throughout multiple siblings. The motto of the decade being, “repair, reuse, make do, and don’t throw anything away” created the perfect environment for DIY. Except, in this case, they were altering and re-purposing things for survival instead of saving money.

DIY supplies, such as scissors and twine.

The times have certainly changed, and people are more sparkle- and style-oriented. Today, DIY fashion is something that almost everyone is somewhat familiar with. The trend made a big comeback during the bedazzling craze of the early 2000’s and continues today as bloggers make a killing by sharing their unique alterations with followers who want to make a statement with their clothing choices. One example that sticks out to me was a Facebook video that continuously circled my newsfeed for weeks. It demonstrated how, with only a pair of scissors, you could turn a ratty old pair of jeans into a skirt, shorts—or change the style entirely by bleaching the legs. DIY fashion has come a long way over the last one hundred years and continues to increase in popularity as the importance of being unique and setting trends grows in the industry.

How We Use DIY Today

There are a few things that have changed when it comes to popular DIY projects of our time. Firstly, people are looking for projects that are easy to do and won’t break the bank. They are also actively looking for DIY projects to fill free time, which is something that people didn’t have a hundred years ago. People would entertain the idea of doing things themselves as opportunities presented themselves, such as needing a house to live in, but would rarely go looking for projects to fill their time unless they considered themselves a “handy man”. This is largely due to the fact that only in the last few decades have society has moved away from 70-hour work weeks and heinous work conditions. The welcome implementation of labor laws and vacation time have freed up a good chunk of our lives to be able to find DIY hobbies that we actually enjoy to fill the gap.

A raging fire in a backyard fire pit.

A simple Google or Pinterest search can provide you with step-by-step DIY instructions for virtually any kind of project that you would like to embark on. In fact, for some, the Internet is the best place to go. You can also include a difficulty level or price range in your search to make sure that your project matches up with your reason for doing the project yourself. For example, if you want a new fire pit for your backyard, but aren’t thrilled with the idea of purchasing a new one for two or three hundred dollars, you can search “cheap DIY fire pits” and receive hundreds of low-budget options instantly.  

On the other hand, if you have some free time and are looking for a fun project to liven up your backyard, your search might look a bit different. It might be something like “easy outdoor DIY projects.” By making your search broader, the projects that you have to choose from will be more likely to include one that piques your interest. You could wind up with “15 backyard lighting ideas” or something you may never think to add to your yard, like a water garden. Either way, DIY has made its way onto many peoples list of hobbies by making desirable things affordable and easy enough for Joe Schmoe down the street to do, without any urgent trips to the ER.

On the other end of the DIY spectrum lies the world of adaptable technology. Though not everyone thinks that they can be a computer programmer, they are often not aware of the ease and adaptability of open source software. What is open source software, you may ask? It denotes, “software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified.”

Source code on a computer screen.

Essentially, open source is a platform where anyone and everyone is welcome at add to and adjust code to fit their needs—and what they perceive to be the needs of others. While the world is transitioning to a digital platform, so is DIY. In this case, open source is being used for all of the purposes we discussed earlier. You get to be creative without spending an arm and a leg to hire a programmer to make a website, blog, or even an interface to make your phone more user-friendly.

Any open source enthusiast can tell you that these projects are useful in many different fields. Matthew Booe, president and founder of the Open Source Club at the University of Florida, has experimented with the ways that open source projects can be altered to meet anyone’s needs through a variety of practical contexts. According to him, this is mostly thanks to the ability of users to alter other people’s code.

“The most helpful thing for me is that I can build atop of other people’s work, and learn from it, to make something that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Booe said. Without even knowing it, he has identified the root of a DIY project: allowing someone to access instructions that will enable to them to create, or program, exactly what then need without having to figure it all out on their own.  

A computer coder works on a program.

This is also a good example of how DIY is always evolving. People have gone from building things with their hands, following a printed set of instructions, to finding the instructions online—to finally moving the project itself onto an online platform. Though this may seem scary or intimidating to some people, there are open source projects available for every experience level, just as typical DIY projects range from beginner to advanced.

According to Booe, “Firefox is an awesome open source browser that anyone could easily start using. There are also more technical things like programming libraries, such as Jquery, that are targeted specifically toward experienced programmers.” Based on his analysis, I predict that searching through various open source projects will one day be as common and simple as home and fashion DIY projects are now.

If this timeline has shown me anything, it’s that the applications of DIY projects are seemingly endless. Many people associate DIY with household upgrades, but it really just means that you are being innovative and creating things that will hopefully make your life easier. The fact that this 21st century term can be connected to some of the most impressive creations in our history, and what is driving our society now is simply mind-blowing. Now, our job is to decide the direction that DIY will take in the next hundred years, because I don’t see it dropping off anytime soon.  

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