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A Nation of Realtors[R]: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class.

A Nation of Realtors[R]: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class. By Jeffrey M. Hornstein (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. 264 pp. Cloth $79.95, Paperback $22.95).

I cursed Jeffrey M. Hornstein as I poked aimlessly around the keyboard looking for the[R] sign.[R], however, is central to this important new contribution to a growing literature on the history of professionalization, gender, social geography, and the middle class. In a well-written and meticulously researched account of how the occupation of selling homes became realtors[R], Hornstein connects the study of a profession to the rise of the American ideology of home-ownership as a marker of social well-being and success in the first half of the twentieth century. In a final, important chapter, Hornstein traces how a profession that had developed its collective identity as a respectable male occupation became a site of women's employment.

Over the past decade, there have appeared a wide range of studies, ranging from the medical profession to social work, that have examined the process of professionalization as an articulation of a middle-class identity and as a strategic deployment of ideologies of science. This articulation of expert knowledge helped centralize access to the jobs within the profession. A Nation of Realtors[R] may not challenge this argument, but it does add an important element to the historiography. After all, no other occupation managed not only to invent the name of the profession, but also to trademark it. Through the professional imagination of brokers, the word "realtor"--first appearing in the dictionary in 1917--moved from a brand name for someone selling real estate who was a member of the local branch of the National Association of Real Estate Boards to a generic term. The defining and defending the term "realtor" provides an important window into the process of professional association.

The professionalization of real estate united ideologies of masculine dignity with the emerging authority of social science. As Hornstein suggests, the founding of local real estate boards and their conglomeration into a national association was held together through notions of brotherhood. Friendships, formed through the rituals of masculine bonding and enhanced at national conventions, helped cement a national network of real estate men. They came to see themselves as the masculine heroes who were, in effect, building the nation in a middle-class mold. This sense of fraternity was augmented by the new science of "realology"--the science of selling land. Promoted most notably by the University of Wisconsin's Richard Ely and supported by the National Association, this science was spread through education programs, sometimes housed in state universities.

If professionalization was realized through the awkward marriage of science and manhood, it depended as well on the politics of exclusion. To be a true realtor one had to live up to a standard of moral qualifications. To be a "realtor" meant much more than paying membership dues to a local board. It meant participation in highly gendered rituals of public and associational behavior and the public endorsement of standards of business practice. The realtor was not only the facilitator of the middle class, he was also its living manly manifestation. Thus, the National Association firmly protected its claim to the very term 'realtor', going to court on several occasions to defend against its use as a mere generic term for a broker of land. When Sinclair Lewis in 1922 published his satirical novel Babbitt, mocking the manners and mores of the inter-war middle class, his hero was the local booster and overly fraternal realtor George Babbitt. Babbitt was also a member of his local real estate board.

A Nation of Realtors[R]delivers what it promises. It is, indeed, a cultural history of the American middle class. It makes a strong and amply documented argument that the realtor, in his ideology, his rituals, and his associations, was at the center of articulating a vision of an American middle class defined through home ownership. If the first part of the book details the process of manly professionalization, the second half follows the realtor to Washington, demonstrating how the promotion of home ownership became national policy, even as the nation went from boom to bust. Realtors led Own-Your-Own-Home campaigns in response to the collapse of the housing market at the onset of the Great Depression. Their belief that home ownership was the truest expression of the middle-class ideal was codified in the legislation of the New Deal. The coming of war created further demand for and appreciation of the single family home.

Wartime, however, also transformed the ranks of realtors as women, for the first time, found their way into the ranks of the profession. Though not without a struggle, women, especially, older women, claimed a place in the world of middle-class real estate. Women were entering a field that had its basis in the middle-class world of ritual and fraternity. They claimed their place through the assertion of 'natural knowledge'--as homemakers they simply knew homes better than men. Male brokers, however, resisted women's excursion beginning as early as the 1920s through explicit exclusion from local boards. Women responded through the creation of women's divisions and especially in the context of the war and the celebration of the new working woman, female brokers advanced remarkably successful claims for inclusion.

A Nation of Realtors[R] is one of the first books in the new "Radical Perspectives" series, launched by the Radical History Review. In keeping with the spirit of the journal, A Nation of Realtors[R] effectively blends theory with intensive archival research. At times, the close view of the profession tends to obscure the larger importance of the story. This book is an important contribution to a number of fields that rarely are in dialogue, including the histories of the middle class, professionalization, culture, and cities and suburbs.

Daniel E. Bender

University of Toronto
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Bender, Daniel E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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