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Mail-order houses

Fans of Sears homes are leading an effort to identify and perserve these kit-built houses from the early 20th century

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The company no longer actively pushed its catalog homes but continued to quietly sell houses when customers sent in their order forms.

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Between 1932 and 1940, Sears probably sold another 15,000 to 20,000 homes, perhaps fewer. When the last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940, Americans had purchased an estimated 75,000 homes.

Enduring quality

Despite their modest beginnings and the unskilled labor that built many of them, these houses have endured. And throughout the country, interest in Sears homes is growing. One old Sears home in Chevy Chase, Md., sold for $816,000 last year.

In the historic community of Carlinville, Ill., the local chamber of commerce has created an entire tourism event around that town's "Standard Addition," a group of 152 Sears homes that fills 12 blocks. The town's annual Christmas festival draws thousands of tourists from hundreds of miles away.

In Battleground, Ind., near West Lafayette, a Sears Modern home called "the Hillrose" was re-created several years ago by architects who carefully studied the old mail-order catalog in which it was offered. It's now part of a museum exhibit that offers an interpretive display of a working farm.

When Sears's Modern Homes department closed in 1940, the sales records were destroyed. These many decades later, locating the 75,000 or so homes offered in so many different designs and often customized by the owners can be challenging for historians. The same holds true for those who wonder if they live in a Sears home (see sidebar) and others who would like to identify and restore some of these homes.

Illinois probably has the largest collection in the US, but Sears homes are located in all 48 contiguous states, and a few are just over the Canadian border.

Today, most people living in these homes that began life in the pages of a mail-order catalog consider Sears homes to be a treasure.

Like all hidden treasure, afficionados say, these homes just need to be dug out, polished up a bit, and then set out for all the world to cherish and enjoy.

Can you identify a Sears Modern home?

The quick and easy way to identify a Sears home is to look for stamped lumber in the basement. The framing members in Sears homes bore a letter and a two- or three-digit number – such as C589 – imprinted in blue, black, or red ink.

However, this doesn't necessarily hold true for the early models. Imprinted lumber was not part of many pre-1920 Sears homes, so the absence of stamped lumber does not prove you do not have a Sears home.

Look for identifying marks or labels (which may say "Norwood Sash and Door" or "Sears Roebuck") on the back of trim moldings.

Look around the attic and basement for old papers, labels, shipping receipts, or any other papers or information. A homeowner in Alton, Ill., was elated to find a full set of his home's blueprints in a dark recess of the attic, with the words "Sears Roebuck and Company" stamped on each page.

Another way to identify a Sears home is to obtain the book "Houses by Mail: A Guide To Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company," by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl (John Wiley & Sons, $27.95), the definitive guide to Sears homes, and see if your home is among those pictured.

But if your home is not listed, you may still have a Sears Modern home. Sears offered low-cost architectural services, too, and would customize one of its kit homes to meet a customer's special needs: Want three dormers instead of one? Move a door? Add a porch? Take out a few windows? No problem!

A man whose mother ordered a kit home in the 1920s told me: "My mother was looking through the Modern Homes catalog and couldn't decide between two different houses. She liked the top half (roof lines) of one house and the bottom of another house. She cut these two pictures out of the catalog and taped them together. She really liked the looks of her 'modified' house. She sent this taped creation to Sears – with a note asking if they could send her this house with that roof line – and they said, 'We sure can.' "

Imagine trying to identify that as a Sears house, 80 years later.

• Rosemary Thornton is the author of 'The Houses the Sears Built.'