During the heyday of American economic and geographical expansion, in the late 19th century, the men who sold real estate occupied a distinct vocational niche. They were slightly less respectable than, say, riverboat gamblers -- but undoubtedly more so than pirates on the open seas. It was a good job for someone who didn’t mind leaving town quickly.
But about 100 years ago, something important began to happen, as Jeffrey M. Hornstein recounts in A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century American Middle Class,  published this spring by Duke University Press. Some of those engaged in the trade started to understand themselves as professionals.
They created local realty boards and introduced licensing as means by which reputable practitioners could distinguish themselves from grifters. And in time, they were well enough organized to lobby the federal government on housing policy –- favoring developments that encouraged the building of single-family units, rather than public housing. Their efforts, as Hornstein writes, "would effectively create a broad new white middle class haven in the suburbs, while leaving behind the upper class and the poor in cities increasingly polarized by race and wealth."
I picked up A Nation of Realtors expecting a mixture of social history and Glengarry Glen Ross. It's actually something different: a contribution to understanding how certain aspects of middle-class identity took shape -- both among the men (and later, increasingly, women) who identified themselves as Realtors and among their customers. Particularly interesting is the chapter "Applied Realology," which recounts the early efforts of a handful of academics to create a field of study that would then (in turn) bolster the profession’s claims to legitimacy and rigor.
Hornstein recently answered a series of questions about his book -- a brief shift of his attention back to scholarly concerns, since he is now organizing director of Service Employees International Union, Local 36, in Philadelphia.
Q:Before getting to your book, let me ask about your move from historical research to union organizing. What's the story behind that?
A: I was applying to graduate school in my senior year of college and my advisor told me that while he was sure I could handle grad school, he saw me as more of "a politician than a political scientist." I had always been involved in organizing people and was a campus leader. But I also enjoyed academic work, and went on to get two graduate degrees, one in political science from Penn, another in history from the University of Maryland.
While I was doing the history Ph.D. at Maryland, a group of teaching assistants got together and realized that we were an exploited group that could benefit from a union. Helping to form an organizing committee, affiliating with a national union, getting to know hard-boiled organizers (many of whom were also intellectuals), and attempting to persuade my peers that they needed to take control of their own working conditions through collective action captured my imagination and interest much more than research, writing, or teaching.
After a long intellectual and personal journey, I finally defended my dissertation. The academic job market looked bleak, particularly as a graduate of a non-elite institution. And when I was honest with myself, I realized that my experience forming a graduate employee union engaged me far more than the intellectual work.
Armed with this insight, I put the diss in a box, and two weeks later, I was at the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute getting my first taste of what it would be like to organize workers as a vocation. In the dark barroom in the basement of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, a recruiter from an SEIU local in Ohio approached me and asked me if I’d like to spend the next few years of my life living in Red Roof Inns, trying to help low-wage workers improve their lives. Two weeks later, I landed in Columbus, Ohio and I was soon hooked.
And I would add this: The supply of talented and committed organizers is far outstripped by the demand. The labor movement’s current crisis is, frankly, a huge opportunity for energetic and idealistic people to make a real difference. Hard work and commitment is really rewarded in the labor movement, and one can move quickly into positions of responsibility. It’s very demanding and often frustrating work, but it’s about as fulfilling a vocation as I could imagine.
Q:You discuss the emergence of realtors as the rise of a new kind of social identity, "the business professional." But I'm left wondering about early local real-estate boards. They sound kind of like lodges or fraternal groups, as much as anything else. In what sense are they comparable to today's professional organizations, as opposed to, say, the Elks or the Jaycees?
A: Indeed, early boards were very much like fraternal organizations. They were all male and clubby, there was often a "board home" that offered a retreat space, and so on. Early real estate board newsletters are rife with the sorts of jokes about women and minorities that were standard fare in the 1910s and 1920s -- jokes that, I argue, help to police the boundaries of masculinity.
In the early chapters of the book, I provide brief sketches of the workings of the Chicago and Philadelphia real estate boards, as well as a sort of anthropological view of early real estate conventions. My favorite was the 1915 Los Angeles convention, during which the main social event was a drag party. In my view, the conventions, the board meetings, the social events, the publications, all formed a homosocial space in which a particular sort of masculinity was performed, where the conventions of middle-class masculinity were established and reinforced.
In the early 1920's, the emphasis began to shift from fraternalism to a more technocratic, professional modality. Herbert Nelson took the helm at the National Association of Real Estate Boards in 1923, and he started to make NAREB look much more like a modern professional organization. In some respects he created the mold. He made long-term strategic plans, asserted the necessity for a permanent Realtor presence in Washington, D.C., pushed for standards for licensing, worked with Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department to promulgate a standard zoning act, and linked up with Professor Richard T. Ely [of the University of Wisconsin at Madison] to help "scientize" the field.
Nelson served as executive director of NAREB for over 30 years. During his tenure, the organization grew, differentiated, specialized, and became a powerful national political actor. In sum, it became a true modern professional association in most ways. Yet like most other professional organizations prior to the ascendancy of feminism and the major incursion of women into the professions, masculine clubbiness remained an important element in the organizational culture well into the 1970s.
In sum, the story I tell about the complex interdependencies of class, gender, and work identities is largely about the Realtors’ attempts to transform an Elks-like organization into a modern, "professional" business association.
Q:On the one hand, they see what they are doing as a kind of applied social science -- also creating, as you put it, "a professional metanarrative." On the other hand, you note that Ely's Institute for Research in Land Economics was a casualty of the end of the real estate bubble. Doesn't that justify some cynicism about realtors' quest for academic legitimacy?
A: I don’t see the Realtors or the social scientists like Ely in cynical terms at all. In fact, both parties are quite earnest about what they’re doing, in my view. Ely was nothing if not a true believer in the socially transformative power of his research and of social scientific research in general. He managed to persuade a faction of influential Realtors, primarily large-scale developers ("community-builders") such as J.C. Nichols, that research was the key to professionalism, prosperity, and high-quality real estate development.
Ely’s Institute was not a casualty of the implosion of the 1926 Florida real estate bubble as such. But the real estate collapse and the ensuing Depression made it much harder for the Realtors to make claims to authority based on disinterested science.
It’s not that the grounding of the whole field of Land Economics was problematic – at least no more so than any other field of social or human science, particularly one that produces knowledge that can be used for commercial purposes.
The academic field was in its infancy in the 1910s and 1920s, and there were intra-disciplinary squabbles between the older, more historical economists like Ely and the younger generation, which was much more model- and mathematics-driven. At the same time, there were sharp divisions among Realtors between those who believed that professionalism required science (and licensing, and zoning, and so on) and those who rejected this idea.
So, yes, the Elyian attempt at organizing the real estate industry on a purely ‘scientific’ basis, operating primarily in the interest of the social good, was largely a failure. However, the 1920s mark a watershed in that the National Association became a major producer and consumer of social scientific knowledge. Business schools began to offer real estate as a course of study. Textbooks, replete with charts and graphs and economic equations, proliferated. Prominent academics threw their lot in with the Realtors.
In the end, the industry established its own think tank, the Urban Land Institute, the motto of which is “Under All, The Land” -- taken straight from Ely’s work. But the profession itself remained divided over the value of ‘science’ – the community-builders generally supported efforts to scientize the field, while those on the more speculative end of the profession were generally opposed.
But again, I don’t think that the grounding of the field of land economics is any more questionable than any other subfield of economics, such as finance or accounting.
Q:Your book left me with a sort of chicken-and-egg question. You connect the growth of the profession with certain cultural norms -- the tendency to define oneself as middle-class, the expectation of private home ownership, etc. Didn't those aspirations have really deep roots in American culture, which the Realtors simply appealed to as part of their own legitimization? Or were they more the result of lobbying, advertising, and other activities of the real-estate profession?
A: Absolutely, these tendencies have roots deep in American culture. The term "middle class" was not really used until the late 19th century -- "middling sorts" was the more prevalent term before then. The "classless society" has long been a trope in American culture, the idea that with hard work, perseverance, and a little luck, anyone can "make it" in America, that the boundaries between social positions are fluid, etc.
But it’s not until the early-to-mid 20th century that homeownership and middle-class identity come to be conflated. The "American Dream" is redefined from being about political freedom to being about homeownership. At around the same time, debt is redefined as "credit" and "equity."
So, yes, I ‘d agree to some extent that the Realtors tapped into longstanding cultural norms as part of their efforts at self-legitimization. Like most successful political actors, they harnessed cultural commonsense for their own ends – namely, to make homeownership integral to middle-class identity. Their political work enabled them, in the midst of the Depression, to get the National Housing Act passed as they wrote it -- with provisions that greatly privileged just the sort of single-family, suburban homes leading members of NAREB were intent on building.
The Realtors used the cultural material at hand to make their interests seem to be the interests of the whole society. But, as we know from many fine studies of suburban development, many people and many competing visions of the American landscape were marginalized in the process.