A Nation of Realtors®

A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class

A Nation of Realtors®

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Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 3 illustrations, 5 tables Published: May 2005

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > U.S. History

How is it that in the twentieth century virtually all Americans came to think of themselves as “middle class”? In this cultural history of real estate brokerage, Jeffrey M. Hornstein argues that the rise of the Realtors as dealers in both domestic space and the ideology of home ownership provides tremendous insight into this critical question. At the dawn of the twentieth century, a group of prominent real estate brokers attempted to transform their occupation into a profession. Drawing on traditional notions of the learned professions, they developed a new identity—the professional entrepreneur—and a brand name, “Realtor.” The Realtors worked doggedly to make home ownership a central element of what became known as the “American dream.” Hornstein analyzes the internal evolution of the occupation, particularly the gender dynamics culminating in the rise of women brokers to predominance after the Second World War. At the same time, he examines the ways organized real estate brokers influenced American housing policy throughout the century.

Hornstein draws on trade journals, government documents on housing policy, material from the archives of the National Association of Realtors and local real estate boards, demographic data, and fictional accounts of real estate agents. He chronicles the early efforts of real estate brokers to establish their profession by creating local and national boards, business practices, ethical codes, and educational programs and by working to influence laws from local zoning ordinances to national housing policy. A rich and original work of American history, A Nation of Realtors® illuminates class, gender, and business through a look at the development of a profession and its enormously successful effort to make the owner-occupied, single-family home a key element of twentieth-century American identity.


A Nation of Realtors® tells the institutional story of the limited success of this largely male trade movement until the 1960s and lays out the dynamics of women realtors becoming the driving force for the American dream in residential home ownership in the second half of the century. . . . Realtors become a paradigmatic example of a relentless and comprehensive American ideology. The content of this study is useful and convincing. . . .” — Burton J. Bledstein, Journal of American History

“[A] highly readable narrative. . . . The book is a valuable tool for the classroom in a variety of fields. Although clearly a study of the professionalization of the realtor, it provides insight into the context of the process. Hornstein’s treatment of the reform movements and the concomitant rise of a new middle class during the Progressive era provides the student with an easily accessible model for studying the cultural history of the twentieth century as well as the history of one American business.” — Barbara M. Kelly, American Historical Review

“[An] excellent case study of professionalization and class consolidation. . . . As convincing as Hornstein’s overarching thesis is, this book also provides a careful and richly detailed institutional history.”
— Marina Moskowitz,, Enterprise & Society

“Business historians will welcome this study of the real-estate industry’s professionalization between the 1880s and the 1950s and its power to affect national housing policies and shape the nation’s suburbs. Social historians will find a thoughtful exploration of the making of the middle class. And gender historians will be doubly fascinated by the way early male brokers sought to assert their endangered masculine identity through professionalization, while women brokers … negotiated their way past gender barriers to assert a new female identity.” — Merry Ovnick, Business History Review

“In a well-written and meticulously researched account of how the occupation of selling homes became realtors®, Horstein 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.”
— Daniel E. Bender, Journal of Social History

“In this empirically rich and analytically sophisticated study, Hornstein persuasively argues that real estate professionals provide a ‘paradigmatic case in the history of the new twentieth-century middle class’ (201). . . . Because it is well written, strongly argued, and full of fascinating profiles and descriptions (such as of the annual conventions), this would make an ideal choice for an upper level undergraduate course in twentieth-century U.S. history as well as graduate classes in a variety of areas.”
— Lawrence Glickman, Labor

“The family home is a touchstone of U.S. identity. Yet as Hornstein shows in his remarkable book, its very ordinariness and desirability is a product of canny real estate professionals, who worked closely with state authorities to define and delimit the possibilities of domicile. . . . A Nation of Realtors® offers a detailed institutional history of the real estate profession from around 1900 to the 1950s, but the real strength of the book lies in Hornstein's analysis of the gender and racial tensions that circulated through the profession and the countless ‘homes’ it helped build.” — Joe Perry, Journal of Women's History

"[A] very readable history of the beginnings of organized real estate. . . . Hornstein has made a significant contribution to the real estate literature and has written a book that will appeal to those interested in social history, business history, and gender studies." — Joseph R. Molinaro, Journal of the American Planning Association

"Hornstein . . . demonstrates an enthusiasm for his topic and the ability to craft a well thought-out narrative detailing the story of an often misunderstood profession. . . . [E]xcellent." — Charles T. Johnson, History: Reviews of New Books

"Hornstein leaves little doubt about the realtor’s profound influence on the American middle class. . . . The realtor may well, as Jeffrey Hornstein persuasively demonstrates, have permanently inscribed the American middle class with the virtues of ownership and professionalism." — Andrew Stark, TLS

"Hornstein skillfully applies abundant evidence from fiction, archives, government documents, and business publications to show how real estate agents deliberately linked pragmatic issues of finance and shelter with cultural values of domesticity and middle-class status. . . . [H]e adds important insights for explaining how those American ideals and a major field of business activity have developed. Summing Up: Recommended. Public and academic library collections, lower-division undergraduate and up." — P. W. Laird, Choice

"One book that would be of interest to real estate personnel and cultural historians as well is Jeffrey M. Hornstein's A Nation of Realtors. The book convincingly argues that the rise of the middle class in the 20th century and the idea of homeownership as the American dream resulted from the efforts of real estate entrepreneurs who succeeded in turning their endeavors into a profession. It won't help you buy or sell a house, but will provide a clearer understanding of why you are doing so."
' — Al Heavens, Realty Times

"Parts of this story are familiar. . . . But Hornstein has woven these strands together in a novel way while adding elements hitherto unknown, especially those that hint at the diversity within a group that some have treated as monolithic. For that reason this book will become a valuable reference work for anyone interested in the history of real estate and urban housing."
— Richard S. Harris, H-Urban, H-Net Reviews

A Nation of Realtors® will be an instant classic. It is a brilliant window into the cultural politics of the real estate industry, the best study we have of Realtors, and an incisive analysis of the making of the modern American middle class. Jeffrey M. Hornstein’s writing sparkles with an unusually sophisticated and accessible theoretical engagement of his archival sources.” — Daniel J. Walkowitz, coeditor of Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space

“An ingenious and illuminating interpretation of a topic that is at the center of middle-class life in the twentieth-century United States but that historians have somehow managed to overlook until now. The ‘American dream’ will never look quite the same in the light of Jeffrey M. Hornstein’s fine book.” — Jackson Lears, author of Something for Nothing: Luck in America and editor-in-chief of Raritan


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jeffrey M. Hornstein is District Organizing Coordinator for Local 32BJ of the Service
Employees International Union in Philadelphia. He has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. "Doing Something Definite": The Emergence of Real Estate Brokerage as a Career, 1883–1908 12

2. Real Estate Brokerage and the Formation of a (National) Middle-Class Consciousness, 1907–1915 28

3. Character, Competency, and Real (Estate) Professionalism, 1915–1921 53

4. Applied Realology: Administration, Education, and the Consequences of Partial Professionalization in the 1920s 84

5. The Realtors Go to Washington: Enshrining Homeownership in the 1930s 118

6. "Rosie the Realtor" and the Re-Gendering of Real Estate Brokerage, 1938–1950 156

7. Domesticity, Gender, and Real Estate in the 1950s and Beyond 185

Conclusion 201

Appendix 207

Notes 209

Bibliography 233

Index 247
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3540-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3528-3
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