Fans of Sears homes are leading an effort to identify and perserve these kit-built houses from the early 20th century
As customers leafed their way through the more than 100,000 items on the 1,200 pages of the 1908 Sears catalog, they may have been startled to see a new item offered among the usual plows, obesity powders, sewing machines, and cook stoves.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A headline on page 594 read: "$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you."
Customers were invited to write in and ask for a copy of Sears's new "Book of Modern Homes," which featured house plans and building materials. That first Modern Homes catalog offered house kits in 44 designs, ranging in price from $495 to $4,115 (about $9,900 to $82,300 in 2002 dollars), and even included one schoolhouse, which was advertised at $11,000.
Few of those early catalog browsers would have realized that the ad and "Book of Modern Homes" were going to change American home-building and -buying habits for the next 32 years.
Buy a house by mail? To many people, it was a novel idea. Yet, the need and desire for affordable housing were just as prevalent in the early 20th century as it is today. Many people
saw the do-it-yourself dwellings offered by Sears as an opportunity to join the ranks of homeowners.
A few weeks after the customer selected a home and placed the order, two railway boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house everything from doorknobs and carved staircases to varnish and roof shingles would arrive at the nearest train depot.
How to get it from the station to the lot was up to the new homeowner. In the early days, people made trip after trip between the building site and the railroad station. Since it would have been difficult to transport all that material long distances, Sears homes were often located within a mile or two of train tracks and in cities that were reachable by rail.
Not always, though. When building sites were outside a town, trains would sometimes stop miles from the nearest depot, at the closest point to a building site, and allow a homeowner to unload his materials.
A 75-page leather-bound instruction book, with the homeowner's name embossed in gold on the cover, gave precise directions on how to build the new home. The book offered this somber (and probably wise) warning: "Do not take anyone's advice as to how this building should be assembled."
Sears promised that "a man of average abilities" could build the house, but also estimated that a carpenter would charge $450 to assemble the kit's 30,000 pieces, which included 750 pounds of nails.
A painter, Sears predicted, would want $34.50 to apply the 27 gallons of paint and varnish that came with the kit. In the 1922 catalog, under the heading "Something you should know," Sears stated that other skilled labor would cost $1 an hour.
Masonry (block, brick, cement) and plaster were not included as part of the package deal, but the bill of materials list advised that 1,300 cement blocks would be needed for the basement walls and foundation.
These building projects were often family affairs. Dad, older kids, in-laws, and even friends and neighbors often spent weeks or months constructing the house. Many homeowners reported to the company that the project was fun.
One reason Sears homes were so popular was that they offered "sweat equity." If someone was willing to assemble those 30,000 pieces into a house, he created a tidy nest egg. Satisfied customers wrote to Sears to say that they now had $1,000 to $2,000 of instant equity in their newly built homes.
The salutary effects of living in a Sears home were extolled throughout the pages of the catalogs. Beyond the financial freedom and comfort that owning one of these homes would surely bring, Sears promised that their "modern homes" would improve the health, morals, and well-being of occupants.
The term "modern home" was part of the vernacular in the early 1900s. It was a descriptive term indicating that a house had amenities such as a (primitive) centralized heating system, electricity, and indoor plumbing.