Mail-order houses

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.

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.

'Anyone can build this house'

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 latest in modern conveniences

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.

In some cases, the houses were more modern than the communities in which they were built. Electricity and municipal water systems were not available in every locale where Sears homes were sold. To meet this need, Sears advertised houses without bathrooms well into the 1920s. And for $23, you could always purchase a dandy outhouse. This also explains, in part, why Sears sold heating, electrical, and plumbing equipment separately, and not as part of the kit.

Eventually, Sears offered about 370 different models, all designed by architects working for the company. Buyers could customize any of them – choose a different style roof, add more windows or change the size of them, or raise the roof and add two more rooms upstairs. The company let people essentially design their homes, if they wanted to and could afford the changes.

Noticing Sears's success, other companies – Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine – also entered the mail-order house business. Often their success paralleled Sears's. But Sears had that popular catalog and enduring name recognition, so that today the term "Sears home" is often used incorrectly for all kit-built houses of the 20th century.

A style to fit every pocketbook

Over the years, three qualities of home emerged. Honor Bilt was the best and most expensive. Standard Bilt (also known at one period as Lighter Built) was for warmer climates. And Simplex, or Econo Built, models were modest two-room buildings ideal for use as summer cottages or hunting shacks.

Sears began offering mortgages for its houses in 1911. Easy payment plans made home-buying more easily affordable by the masses, and the loan qualifications were quite lax. A 1920s Sears mortgage application asked a few simple questions about the house and lot, but asked only one financial question: "What is your vocation?" If that blank was filled in, the applicant was given a mortgage.

Who knows how many African-Americans, single women, and new immigrants – who would have otherwise been "red-lined" by the conventional mortgage companies of the day – were able to build a home of their own because of Sears?

Testimonials received from new Sears homeowners bore names suggesting that immigrants constituted a fair percentage of their customers. A sampling: Engelfried, Fitzjearl, Harrar, Hauser, Humpal, Jung, Kaczmasek, Kromp, Letzerich, Lichtenwalter, Mackrodt, Mommaerts, Olpp, Owry, Papay, Schlag, Sechler, Siennicki, Von Lehmen, and Waldhier.

The sale of Sears homes peaked in 1929, according to the 1965 book"Catalogues and Counters, A History of Sears, Roebuck and Company." That year, sales volume hit more than $12 million.

But as the nation entered the Depression and economic woes deepened, sales dropped. In 1930, sales slid to $10.7 million, and in 1931, the number dropped to $8.4 million.

The lack of home sales wasn't affecting just Sears, of course. The United States housing market as a whole was in trouble. Housing starts for the country were down 53 percent in 1930, reported the Chicago Tribune.

The beginning of the end

During the early years of the Depression, Sears continued to sell houses, but more modest ones. Its best-selling home was the Crafton, a 600- to 800-square-foot residence that was offered in four different floor plans, and cost between $911 and $1,165 (about $10,845 and $13,869 in today's dollars).

In 1932, Sears Modern Homes department began operating at a loss for the first time since 1912. The company's annual report stated that sales of the mail-order homes had dropped 40 percent in one year.

For the next few years, there would be stops and starts, but the losses of 1932 marked the beginning of the end.

To make matters worse, Sears had to foreclose on hundreds of its mortgage customers. Those easy-to-qualify-for mortgages began to haunt Sears, and in 1933 the company stopped offering them.

In 1934, Sears liquidated more than $11 million of its home mortgages and closed the Modern Homes department. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $3,000 (and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount), this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) customers from their homes became a public-relations nightmare.

In 1935, the Modern Homes department was reopened, but the days of Sears "easy payment" mortgages were over. The creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 had solved Sears's most-pressing problem: financing.

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

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.'

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