Sears Catalog Home
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Sears Catalog Homes (sold as Sears Modern Homes) were ready-to-assemble houses sold through mail order by Sears Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Over 70,000 of these were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. Shipped via railroad boxcars, these kits included all the materials needed to build an exceptionally sturdy and well designed 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 helped popularize 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).
As demand decreased, Sears expanded the product line to feature houses that varied in expense to meet the budgets of various buyers. Sears began offering financing plans in the 1920s. However, the company experienced steadily rising payment defaults throughout the Great Depression, resulting in increasing strain for the catalog house program. Over the program's 32-year history, 447 different house models were offered. The mortgage portion of the program was discontinued in 1934; the entire program ceased altogether in 1940.
Today, some communities across the United States feature clusters of the houses as unofficial historical sites, although the vast majority are still used as private residences. Popular with restorers of older homes, Sears houses are sought for having craftsmanship better than that of the average non-Sears house built at the same time. A culture of Sears Modern Home seekers has emerged in recent years, as individual buildings have been identified.
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 joined him in the business. In 1893, the corporate 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, possibly the largest single investment a typical family would ever make.
Modern Homes 1908-1940
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 too much inventory sitting in expensive 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.
Beginning in 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 22 styles ranging in price from US$650–$2,500 ($12,200–$47,100 in 2003 dollars). Sears bought a lumber mill and arranged for production of kits from which homes could be assembled to be made in Southern Illinois. The first mail-order was filled in 1909.
Shipped by railroad boxcar, and then usually trucked locally to a home site, the average Sears Modern Home kit had 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts, and came with such utilities as electric and gaslight fixtures in early models. 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 individual requirements of each area of the country. For example, the depth of foundations required varied by climate and terrain.
Aladdin Homes (of Bay City) was the first to offer kit homes (in 1906), and 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 shrank construction time by up to 40%. Other features also eased construction for home buyers.
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 greatly to the popularity of this framing style.
Another feature was the use of drywall instead of plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters. Drywall offered the advantages of low price, ease of installation, and added fire-safety protection. It was also a good fit for the square design of Sears homes.
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.
Sears laid little claim to inventing the innovations featured in the Modern Homes. Rather, as a retailer, the company was much more focused on offering what the customers would want and purchase. The Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of its home buyers and gave them the option to design their homes with modern convenience in mind. 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 all across the United States, hitting its all-time peak in 1929, just before the Great Depression. By then, the least expensive model was still under US$1,000; the highest priced was under US$4,400 ($10,300 and $45,300 in 2003 dollars respectively).
Sears Modern Home sales stalled during the Depression years; however, sales of their most modest homes were still strong. Nonetheless, changes in housing codes, as well as the ever-increasingly complexities of modern construction and HVAC systems, made buying a kit home less and less desirable.
Sears Catalog Homes proved to be both affordable and of substantial construction. One of Sears's, and indeed the nation's, biggest selling models was the common bungalow. This compact, affordable house began as a vacation-style home in the 1880s but grew into a major housing type in cities and suburbs in the years before World War I. Sears homes have become increasingly popular among history enthusiasts because of their sturdy structure, unusual building and architectural design concepts.
While their locations today are not known due to variations in designs both during initial construction and subsequent renovations or modifications, most of those sold by Sears, Roebuck have probably survived. Clusters can be found all across the United States and are proudly featured by communities such as Arlington, Virginia, and the surrounding area with 100, Hopewell, Virginia, with 42 in the Crescent Hills neighbourhood, and Downers Grove, Illinois, with 27. Aurora, Illinois has 136 documented Sears catalog homes giving it one of the largest concentrations in the country.
Sears Homes in more significant numbers can also be found in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and a few have been found as far south as Florida and as far west as California.
Not all buyers were individuals or small volume developers. In 1918, Standard Oil Company purchased a large group of the Sears houses for its mineworkers in Carlinville, Illinois, at a cost of approximately US$1 million. Today 152 of the original 156 homes still exist, and this is one of the largest known contiguous collections of Sears Catalog Homes in the United States. There are nine styles of houses in a nine block area which represents Standard Addition in Carlinville, IL. Styles are an Unknown Model, Langston Model, Madelia Model, Warrenton Model, Whitehall Model, Roseberry Model, Lebanon Model, Gladstone Model and the Carlin Model which was named after Carlinville, by Sears, Roebuck & Co. for supposedly having the largest order on record for the houses. There are more Sears homes dotted throughout Carlinville. It took nine months to complete the building of Standard Addition which was completed in 1919.
There are at least two Sears Homes in the old mill town of Newton Falls, New York.
And, not all of them 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.