Histories of DIY subcultures (non-music) from pre-internet days
September 28, 2021 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for any books, articles, or documentaries about pre-2000 DIY subcultures (but not music genres/scenes) that had an active life of at least 1-5 years and had some sort of impact or influence on society or eventually became mainstream.
posted by perhapses to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The ur-tech maker subculture was amateur radio. W2PA has an extensive (and pretty interesting!) history of ham radio dating back to the invention of radio. It talks a lot about the original luminaries in the field, how folks got their start building radios, the formation of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and its newsletter (QST). See also the Wikipedia article on the history of amateur radio.

It's arguable that ham radio is "mainstream," despite having existed for over a century, but it's inarguable that radio amateurs have had a huge effect on telecommunications over the years. Hams have consistently been on the bleeding edge of radio frequencies: the process goes something like:

1. Amateur radio gets allocated a part of the RF spectrum that is considered practically useless and thus unprofitable.
2. Amateurs figure out how to make use of this new spectrum. They push the boundaries and figure out how to communicate over longer and longer distances.
3. Commercial entities and the military take notice and the regulators reallocate that spectrum to commerce, leaving amateurs a much smaller slice of the original spectrum.

An example of this is shortwave radio: it was originally considered far too high frequency to be useful, and then hams figured out how to use it to talk across oceans, at which point the spectrum became primarily allocated to commerce and the military. This is all working as intended from the regulator's point of view -- the reason amateur radio exists is, in part, to encourage this experimentation -- but hams do get kinda salty about it sometimes.
posted by kdar at 8:36 PM on September 28, 2021 [16 favorites]

Look into Popular Electronics magazines from the 1950s and 1960s
posted by TimHare at 9:09 PM on September 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Survival Research Labs got its start in the late 70's.

There was a history of the Guerilla Girls published recently for their 35th anniversary.

This 1998 article about underground street racers inspired the Fast and Furious franchise.

In that same vein, Hot Rod magazine has been around for decades, though I couldn't point you to any specific article.

There are a few documentaries about Burning Man. Here is one available on YouTube.
posted by subocoyne at 10:41 PM on September 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Would special effects filmmaking count? Cinemagic magazine, and S-8 Filmmaker would be the magazines to look for.
posted by Sophont at 12:23 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Homebrew Computer Club existed from March '75 to Dec '86. They changed the world.

From a Time magazine article about the club's 2013 reunion: "…the open exchange of ideas that went on at its biweekly meetings did as much as anything to jumpstart the entire personal-computing revolution. It was the crucible for an entire industry."

From Steve Wozniak's autobiography: "After my first meeting, I started designing the computer that would later be known as the Apple I. It was that inspiring."

PDFs of club newsletters
from Aug '75 to Dec '77
Article with references to sources that include, or are all about, the club
posted by Homer42 at 4:48 AM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Though music related, and arguably not DIY, I think of the Vogue/Ballroom scene. Quick search brings up this doc from 2006.

There may be something for drag culture, which has DIY elements.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 5:00 AM on September 29, 2021

Early skateboarding culture was definitely DIY, from ramps to hardware to decks. This page from an exhibit gives a decent peek into it, but surely there are better sources. This sort of content is probably peppered throughout so many skating documentaries. It would be neat to see a focused piece.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 5:07 AM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Agree that amateur radio is probably the ur-example.

Cosplay (building often-elaborate costumes to dress up as characters at conventions) was already a thing in 2000, and between Adam Savage and the MCU, I'd say it's pretty mainstream now. Heck, anime/manga fan-translation/subbing maybe meets your definition, too. I'm too young to remember most of the pre-internet stuff, but people were passing around nth-gen VHS copies of fansubs (copies of shows with fan-translated/encoded subtitles) via mail / around arty video stores in the mid-90s, if not before.
posted by Alterscape at 6:09 AM on September 29, 2021

Agreed with ham radio. (I'm just barely old enough to have learned how to shave a crystal by hand. But, not old enough to have actually used it except to prove that it worked.)

Wearable computing might also be a candidate. My second-hand understanding is that the folks working on such things were largely a small community of people who knew each other, at least in the '80s and '90s. I guess some of them were actually employed to make weird computer interface prototypes, which may or may not count as DIY.
posted by eotvos at 8:06 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

We've talked about amateur radio and the homebrew computer groups.

The next DIY culture that sprung from the mixing of those two groups was the BBS community.

Jason Scott's BBS: The Documentary (youtube rip) covers this in really excellent detail.

You also had the hack/phreak community that ran parallel to and inside the BBS culture. 2600 Magazine was a central figure in this. Emmanuel Goldstein has published a few books (The Best of 2600, Dear Hacker) that are interesting reads.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:44 AM on September 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

Food preservation has been a constant since hunter/gatherers, but home food preservation has been mostly not necessary since, say, 1900. In the meantime there have been some phases and fads: canning in jars, frozen food, dried foods, vacuum bags, etc.

Model airplanes began with airplanes. Flying models have been hand thrown, control line, and now radio control. Now with the advent of drones being used for all sorts of videos, it's gotten a professional aspect. Lots of stuff is now being done by drones that formerly had to be done by helicopter, or not at all if the whirlybird was too expensive or too dangerous.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:57 AM on September 29, 2021

Harrowsmith magazine drew on and built up the back to the land movement of the 1970s (Canadian)
Mother Earth News is another. Self sufficiency and DIY are core values.
posted by Enid Lareg at 9:00 AM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Fanzines- SFF, music, football (soccer, that is), comedy- I'm not sure if they went mainstream in the sense that it's really popular to create zines as zines now, but I'd say they did impact culture- they were a strong influence on early blogs (and a lot of people who started writing for zines went on to careers in writing of one kind or another).
Quick recap history ; SF zines in particular are quite well documented, eg the massive efanzines.com archive.
posted by Shark Hat at 10:29 AM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

This sounds like the kind of thing that RE/search would be good for, although I can't point to any specific publication.

The cultures around recreational drugs are pretty much DIY by definition. Erowid is where I'd start looking for more information on that. Pot certainly has become mainstream.
posted by adamrice at 10:55 AM on September 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Very generally - 1970s organic gardening / Sunset magazine / food co-op movement.

Right around your time cut-off - the publication of the book Stitch ‘n Bitch by Debbie Stoller, which had a strong influence on making knitting popular in the early 2000s, and very mainstream now for younger generations.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

My uncle was a hippie-turned-actor who has written a lot of reflections about what the hippie culture did and did not give back to the world. His book The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular Education talks a little bit about the legacy of the hippie/free culture cultures and how you can see parts of them in a lot of the things we take for granted in the world today. I feel the same way about infoshops and zine culture that comes from a lot of early anarchist DIY cultures. A lot got made about the various mutual aid networks that sprung up both in response to COVID but also among BIPOC organizer groups after George Floyd's murder. A few books

- Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture
- Lessons From Mutual Aid During the Coronavirus Crisis
- Anarchism and Geography: A Brief Genealogy of Anarchist Geographies
- Black People Were the Original “Craftivists”

I've also been fascinated by the Jane Collective aka the Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation who taught women how to do their own abortions or find safe places/ways to have abortions in the days pre Roe v. Wade. Did not quite hit the five year mark but definitely made a mark.
posted by jessamyn at 12:01 PM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Homebrew Computer Club idea.

For my money, the best chronicles of early home computing (and it was very DIY in the early days) are Steven Levy's Hackers and Paul Freiberger & Michael Swaine's Fire In The Valley.
posted by lhauser at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

You might take a look at the history and deep dives into the Whole Earth Catalog. There are video links to anniversary commemoration events and articles

“Looking At the 'Whole Earth Catalog' While the World Falls Apart”
Garage Magazine - VICE
·Apr '20

“The Whole Earth Catalog, Where Counterculture Met ...”

·Apr '21

“The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s ‘Whole Earth Catalog’”
The New Yorker
Nov 16 2018
posted by calgirl at 9:14 PM on September 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

This may be a bit late, but early rock climbing culture was pretty diy. There was a good interview of one of the founders of Black Diamond recently.
posted by crossswords at 10:23 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Though music related, and arguably not DIY, I think of the Vogue/Ballroom scene.

The definitive doc on this is Paris is Burning, isn’t it? Also, the movement depicted in the film was very much DIY, and I would argue eventually changed mainstream culture a lot.
posted by SomethinsWrong at 5:52 AM on September 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. Jack Karaoke got close to hitting on what my project is that inspired the question. I'm considering writing about my experience running a series of backyard skateboard contests in the early 1980s when skateboarding was considered dead by the media. Looking forward to digging into these links and resources.
posted by perhapses at 4:04 PM on September 30, 2021

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