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Sears Catalog Homes (sold as Sears Modern Homes) were kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. Primarily shipped via railroad boxcars, these kits included most of the materials needed to build a house. Many were assembled by the new homeowner and friends, relatives, and neighbors, in a fashion similar to the traditional barn-raisings of farming families.
Sears offered the latest technology available to house buyers in the early part of the twentieth century. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in house design that "Modern Homes" incorporated, although not all of the houses were designed with these conveniences. Central heating, for example, not only improved the livability of houses with little insulation but also improved fire safety, a worry in an era when open flames threatened houses and even entire cities, as in the Great Chicago Fire (1871).
More than 370 designs of Sears Homes in a wide range of styles and sizes were offered during the program's 32-year history. Sears began offering financing plans in 1916. However, the company experienced steadily rising payment defaults throughout the Great Depression, resulting in increasing strain for the catalog house program. The mortgage portion of the program was discontinued in 1934 after Sears was forced to liquidate $11 million in defaulted debt. Sears stopped issuing its Modern Homes catalog after 1940. A few years later, all sales records were destroyed during a corporate house cleaning. As only a small percentage of these homes have been documented, finding these houses today often requires detailed research to properly identify them.
Sears homes are found across the United States with homes as far south as Florida and as far west as California. A handful of Sears homes have also been located in Canada. Some communities across the United States feature clusters of the houses as unofficial historical sites. Elgin, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) has the largest known collection of Sears Homes, with more than 200 identified Sears Homes.
Competitors in the kit home market included Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling and Wardway Homes. Because these competitors often copied plan elements or designs from each other, there are a number of kit models from different manufacturers that look similar or identical to each other. Determining which company manufactured a particular kit home may require additional research to determine the origin of that home.
In 1886, the United States contained only 38 states. Many people lived in rural areas and typically farmed. Richard Sears had been a railroad station agent in Minnesota. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he met Alvah C. Roebuck who agreed to join him in business. In 1893, the corporation name became Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Richard Sears knew that farmers often brought their crops to town where they could be sold and shipped, and then bought supplies, often at very high prices, from local general stores. He and Roebuck offered a solution via mail-order catalogs. Thanks to volume buying, railroads, post offices, and later rural free delivery and parcel post, they offered a welcome alternative to the high-priced rural stores.
By 1894, the Sears catalog had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods and a host of other new items. By the following year, dolls, icebox refrigerators, cook-stoves and groceries had been added to the catalog. Sears, Roebuck and Co. soon developed a reputation for both quality products and customer satisfaction. Its wide range of products was very popular, especially in areas far flung from big cities and large department stores. People had learned to trust Sears for other products bought through mail-order, and thus, sight unseen. This laid important groundwork for supplying a house, normally the largest single investment a typical family would ever make.
In 1906, Frank W. Kushel, a Sears manager, was given responsibility for the catalog company's unwieldy, non-profitable building materials department. Sales were down, and there was excess inventory languishing in warehouses. He is credited with suggesting to Richard Sears that the company assemble kits of all the parts needed and sell entire houses through mail order.
In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 44 styles ranging in price from US$360–$2,890. The first mail order was filled in 1908. Sears later bought a lumber mill in Cairo, Illinois and arranged for production of kits from which homes could be assembled.
Shipped by railroad boxcar, and then usually trucked to a home site, the average Sears Modern Home kit had 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts. Plumbing and electrical fixtures and heating systems were not included in the kit, but could be purchased separately. Local building requirements sometimes dictated that those items be done professionally and varied to meet requirements of each area of the country. For example, foundation depth requirements varied by climate and terrain.
The Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, was the first to offer kit homes in 1906. Sears joined the fray in 1908. However, Sears mail-order catalogs were already in millions of homes, enabling large numbers of potential homeowners simply to open a catalog, select and visualize their new home, dream, save, and then purchase it. Sears offered financing, assembly instructions, and guarantees. Early mortgage loans were typically for 5 – 15 years at 6% – 7% interest.
The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. Precut and fitted materials, first offered in 1916, reduced construction time by up to 40% according to Sears. Sears's use of "balloon style" framing systems did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as did previous methods. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This system used precut timber of mostly standard sizes (2"x4" and 2"x8") for framing. Precut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything, including the nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added to the popularity of this framing style.
During the Modern Homes program, large quantities of asphalt shingles became available. The alternative roofing materials available included tin and wood. Tin was noisy during storms, looked unattractive, and required a skilled roofer, while wood was highly flammable. Asphalt shingles, however, were cheap to manufacture and ship, and easy and inexpensive to install. A later feature was the use of drywall instead of plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters and plasteres. Drywall offered the advantages of low price, ease of installation, and added fire protection.
As a retailer, the company was much more focused on offering what customers would purchase. The Modern Homes features of central heating, indoor plumbing, and electrical wiring were the first steps for many families to modern HVAC systems, kitchens, and bathrooms.
As sales grew, Sears expanded production, shipping and sales offices to regional sites across the US, hitting its peak in 1929, just before the Great Depression. By then, the least expensive model was under US $1,000; the highest priced was under US $4,400 ($13,687 and $60,225 in 2013 dollars respectively).
The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940. Although it is sometimes claimed that no Sears catalog or kit homes were built after 1940, in fact, Sears continued to offer pre-cut kit homes through 1941 and 1942. Many of these homes were based on models from the 1940 and earlier Sears catalogs but not all were, leading to debate over whether these homes qualify as "Sears Catalog Homes". Because these homes were constructed using pre-cut lumber and plans provided by Sears, these homes too can be considered Sears Catalog homes. Many of these homes were built in Sears planned "Home Club Plan" developments in New Jersey, New York and Ohio. Homes were also built for industrial firms like Bethlehem Steel which purchased and constructed 61 Sears homes in Hellertown, Pennsylvania.
Over the 32 years that Sears offered homes by catalog, Sears offered 370 different models. In the early years, the models were identified with numbers. After several years, Sears also begin assigning names to the various models, a convention that carried through to the end of the program. Some models were offered in variations that included expanded floor plans. Sears houses could also be ordered with reversed floor plans.
Certain models were more popular than others and these models were offered over multiple years. Other models were only offered for one year and some models that were offered have yet to be identified as ever having been actually built. Some models were offered in both wood siding and brick veneer versions with different names attributed to the same home plan. The models listed below are some of the most popular models.
The absence of archived records for houses sold through the Sears Modern Homes division requires identification of existing Sears homes to be done on a house by house basis with the exception of known build sites like Carlinville, Illinois. Kit house expert Rose Thornton has identified the following steps for identifying and authenticating a Sears Catalog house.
1. Sears Catalog homes were only offered between 1908 and 1940. Any homes built before 1908 or that were built after 1940 can not be a Sears Catalog home. However, there is some debate about whether some homes built in 1941 and 1942 qualify as Sears Catalog homes. Some of these homes were based on models offered in the Sears Modern Homes catalog. Others were not but were still pre-cut kit homes from Sears.
2. Stamped lumber: Most easily found in unfinished spaces like a basement or attic, framing members were stamped with a letter and a number. However, these stamps were not used on lumber shipped before 1916 when Sears first started offering pre-cut lumber.
3. Sears column arrangements: A number of Sears models had a common column arrangement on the front porch. While this arrangement was not unique to Sears, it's a possible indicator of a Sears house.
4. Five piece eave brackets: Several Sears models that had eaves brackets used a 5 piece design that was unique to Sears houses.
5. Original paperwork for the house including blueprints and letters of correspondence.
6. Public records: From 1911 to 1933, Sears offered home mortgages and Sears company officials or the Sears corporation may be named on the mortgage. Cities that have records of building permits may list Sears as the original architect.
7. Shipping labels: Often found on the back of millwork like baseboard molding or door and window trim, shipping labels associated with Sears may indicate that the home is a Sears Catalog house. Most of the millwork was fulfilled by the Sears-owned "Norwood Sash and Door Company" of Cincinnati, Ohio. However, millwork could be purchased separately from Sears so millwork with shipping labels is not a definitive indicator of a Sears Catalog house.
8. Compare house designs to original catalog images. Some models of Sears homes were very similar in design to models offered by other kit home manufacturers or through plan books. Designs may have been modified but generally should match in design and dimensions.
9. Sears Catalog homes built in the 1930s may have a small circled “SR” cast into the bathtub in the lower corner (furthest from the tub spout and near the floor) and on the underside of the kitchen or bathroom sink.
10. Goodwall sheet plaster was an early drywall product offered by Sears and may be an indication of a Sears Catalog house.
Although there's no way to know how many Sears houses are still extant, documented Sears houses have been found across the United States and in a few locations in Canada. Cities with large numbers of documented Sears Catalog Homes include:
The Carlinville, Illinois concentration is notable because the houses were bought in bulk by the Standard Oil Company in 1918, to house its mineworkers, at a cost of approximately US $1 million. The houses, comprising eight different styles, were all placed in a 12-block area known as Standard Addition. Building took nine months, and was completed in 1919. The bulk order was supposedly the largest order ever made for Sears Homes, and led to Sears, Roebuck naming their "Carlin" model after the city. The "Carlin" was a modified version of the "Windsor" and it only appeared in one catalog. The "Carlin" may never have actually been produced as to date, there haven't been any homes identified as a "Carlin" that actually match the "Carlin" floorplan or exterior. To date, any home identified as a "Carlin" has actually been a match for the "Windsor" model.
Not all Sears homes became private residences. At Greenlawn Cemetery, near the Hampton Roads waterfront in the Newport News, Virginia, area, the cemetery office building is a 1936 Sears Catalog Home.
Sears Homes have become increasingly popular among history enthusiasts because of their sturdy structure and unusual building and architectural design concepts. However, many houses described as Sears Homes are not true Sears Homes, being either the product of another kit home manufacturer, such as Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis Manufacturing, Montgomery Ward and Sterling Homes or not a kit home at all.
Several Sears catalog houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among them include:
Sears catalog houses can also be found in historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places
There are examples of modern homes built based on the design of Sears Catalog homes. In some cases, homeowners used plans from original Sears Catalog homes to recreate a modern version of a Sears home. In other cases, the home followed the general design of a Sears house without being an exact duplicate. These homes, while following the design of a Sears homes, are not considered a Sears Catalog house as they were not built with building material supplied by Sears.