Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Transformed American Life

Two of the books that most shaped Amer­i­can cul­ture both hap­pened to bear the nick­name “The Big Book.” While the sec­ond of these, the A.A. Man­u­al, pub­lished in 1939, changed the coun­try with 12-Step recov­ery groups, the first of these, the Sears Cat­a­log, trans­formed Amer­i­ca with mass con­sump­tion, offer­ing cus­tomers in every part of the coun­try access to mod­ern con­ve­niences and retail goods of all kinds at unheard of prices. Begin­ning in 1908, Sears start­ed sell­ing entire hous­es, in approx­i­mate­ly 25-ton kits trans­port­ed by rail­road, con­sist­ing of 30,000 pre-cut parts, plumb­ing and elec­tri­cal fix­tures, and up to 750 pounds of nails.

“In an era before com­mer­cial avi­a­tion and long-haul truck­ing,” Curbed mar­vels, “Sears, Roe­buck & Co. set up an oper­a­tion that would pack­age and ship more than 400 dif­fer­ent types of homes and build­ings to any­body who had the cash and access to a cat­a­log.”

They start­ed small, and just as they didn’t come up with the con­cept of the mail order cat­a­log, Sears didn’t invent the kit house, though they sug­gest as much in their telling of the sto­ry. Instead they may have tak­en the idea from anoth­er com­pa­ny called Aladdin. Aladdin hous­es have been for­got­ten, how­ev­er, and even Sears’ main com­peti­tor, Mont­gomery Ward, didn’t catch up until 1921 and only last­ed ten years in the kit house busi­ness.

Sears hous­es, on the oth­er hand, are cel­e­brat­ed and sought out as mod­els of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can home, and for good rea­son. Between 1908 and 1939, Sears sold 70–75,000 hous­es in 447 dif­fer­ent styles all over the coun­try. “From Crafts­man to Cape Cods, they offered a cus­tom home at bud­gets and sizes that could accom­mo­date any size fam­i­ly,” writes Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics.

These Sears homes weren’t cheap low-end hous­es. Many of them were built using the finest qual­i­ty build­ing mate­ri­als avail­able dur­ing that time. It’s not uncom­mon to find Sears homes today with oak floors, cypress sid­ing, and cedar shin­gles.

What’s even more extra­or­di­nary is that 50% of these were built by the home­own­ers them­selves, usu­al­ly, as in a barn-rais­ing, with the gen­er­ous help of fam­i­ly, friends, and neigh­bors. The oth­er half sold were built pro­fes­sion­al­ly. “Often,” writes Messy Nessy, “local builders and car­pen­try com­pa­nies pur­chased homes from Sears to build as mod­el homes and mar­ket their ser­vices to poten­tial cus­tomers.”

These hous­es could have a sig­nif­i­cant effect on the char­ac­ter of a neigh­bor­hood. Not only could poten­tial buy­ers see first­hand, and par­tic­i­pate in, the con­struc­tion. They could order the same or a sim­i­lar mod­el, cus­tomize it, and even—as the com­pa­ny tells us in its own short his­to­ry of the “Sears Mod­ern Home”—design their own homes and “sub­mit the blue­prints to Sears, which would then ship off the appro­pri­ate pre­cut and fit­ted mate­ri­als.”

Sears sounds mod­est about its impact. The com­pa­ny writes it was not “an inno­v­a­tive home design­er” but instead “a very able fol­low­er of pop­u­lar home designs but with the added advan­tage of mod­i­fy­ing hous­es and hard­ware accord­ing to buy­er tastes.” Yet Sears hous­es aren’t beloved for their for­ward-look­ing designs, but for their stur­di­ness and vari­ety, as well as for their impact on “the emo­tion­al lives of rur­al folk,” as Messy Nessy puts it.

“The Sears mail-order cat­a­logues were sit­ting on kitchen coun­ter­tops inside mil­lions of Amer­i­can homes, allow­ing poten­tial home­own­ers to both visu­al­ize their new home and pur­chase it as eas­i­ly as they might have bought a new toast­er.” Build­ing a house required a lit­tle more invest­ment than plug­ging in a toast­er, and required a 75-page instruc­tion book, but that’s anoth­er part of why Sears house hunters are such a ded­i­cat­ed bunch, awestruck at each still-stand­ing mod­el they’re able to pho­to­graph and match up with its cat­a­log illus­tra­tions and floor plans.

In its first year of pro­duc­tion, 1908, Sears sold only one mod­el, num­ber 125, an Eight-Room Bun­ga­low Style House for $945, adver­tised as “the finest cot­tage ever con­struct­ed at a price less than $1500.” In 1918, the com­pa­ny moved from a num­ber­ing sys­tem to named mod­els, most of which sound like the names of cozy small towns and bed­room com­mu­ni­ties: Ade­line, Bel­mont, Maple­wood, Aval­on, Kil­bourne, Del Ray, Stone Ridge…. (See a full list of these mod­els at The Arts & Crafts Soci­ety web­site.)

In the years Sears sold hous­es, between 54 and 44 per­cent of Amer­i­cans lived in rur­al areas, and these con­sti­tut­ed Sears’ most loy­al cus­tomers, giv­en that the cat­a­log allowed them to pur­chase things they could buy nowhere else, includ­ing ten room colo­nial man­sions like The Mag­no­lia, avail­able from 1913 to 1922 for $6,488, or rough­ly $88,000—a steal if you can put in the work. This was the largest and most expen­sive mod­el the com­pa­ny offered, “a three-sto­ry, eight room neo-Geor­gian with a two-sto­ry columned por­ti­co, porte-cochere, and sleep­ing porch­es.” (Mint juleps and ser­vants’ quar­ters not includ­ed.)

Sears even­tu­al­ly offered three build qual­i­ties, Hon­or Bilt, Stan­dard Built, and Sim­plex Sec­tion­al. At the low­est end of the price and build spec­trum, the com­pa­ny notes, “Sim­plex hous­es were fre­quent­ly only a cou­ple of rooms and were ide­al for sum­mer cot­tages.” Many of its low-end and ear­ly mod­els did not include bath­rooms, and the com­pa­ny sold out­hous­es sep­a­rate­ly. But due to inno­v­a­tive con­struc­tion meth­ods, even the least expen­sive hous­es held up well.

Because the com­pa­ny lost most of the records after its kit house busi­ness fold­ed, it can be dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy a Sears house. And because even the “youngest of Sears homes,” Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics points out, is now going on eight decades old, they all require a sig­nif­i­cant amount of care.” The blog Kit House Hunters has found over 10,000 Sears Hous­es still stand­ing across the coun­try, most of them in the North­east and Mid­west, where they sold best. (One com­mu­ni­ty in Elgin, IL has over 200 ver­i­fied Sears homes.)

In the video at the top, you can see a few of those well-built Sears hous­es still lived in today. The short How to Archi­tect short video above points out that “Sears had a mas­sive impact on the busi­ness of home-build­ing, and… the busi­ness of pre-fab­ri­ca­tion, is alive and well today.” For a look at the vari­ety and intri­ca­cy of the Sears Mod­ern Home designs, see this Flickr gallery with over 80 images of cat­a­log pages, illus­trat­ed homes, and floor plans. And if you think you might be liv­ing in one of these hous­es, many of which have been grant­ed his­toric sta­tus, find out with this handy 9‑step guide for iden­ti­fy­ing a Sears Kit Home.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Sears Cat­a­log Dis­rupt­ed the Jim Crow South and Helped Give Birth to the Delta Blues & Rock and Roll

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

A Quick Ani­mat­ed Tour of Icon­ic Mod­ernist Hous­es


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