If you know me at all, you know that I am a fan of bungalows. They are charming with their Craftsman-style details – regardless of how simple or complex the design — and they’re just the right size for my needs. My neighborhood consists mostly of these small- to medium-sized bungalows lining the streets, and I know fully well that they were built around the same time to serve the same purpose within this community that was blossoming during the 1920s and meeting the needs of that growing population. It’s amazing to me how they did this all in such a short amount of time. Luckily, many of these homeowners (and some investors at the time) had a little help from their friends, Sears and Roebuck.
Sears is arguably the best known of the companies that sold “kit homes” to consumers eager to own their own home. Previously, throughout the nineteenth century, house plans were circulated through publications that outlined the blueprints for construction, enabling people to build without the consultation of an architect. During the 1890s Sears began selling precut lumber and other building materials, but it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that the two ideas were combined – house blueprints and the materials to build with. Though Sears was not the first company to market this idea, it was the most trusted and recognizable by consumers, and by 1908 began to sell pre-cut kits based on popular house plans.
This was a revolutionary idea. Custom-built homes were not limited to those who could afford to hire an architect to design the plans and supervise the building process. A wide array of plans were made available to Americans of even the most modest means, using plans based on popular designs with universal appeal – bungalows, American Foursquares, Colonial Revivals, Tudor cottages, etc. These mail-order homes made it possible for anyone with even the most elementary handyman skills to build their own modern home, with their own hands, taking pride in their work every step of the way. Sears went even so far as introducing a mortgage lending program around 1918 to make this dream of homeownership come true to even more Americans.
Not only were they given the opportunity to build their homes from the ground up, they were able to pick a plan and (to a certain extent) customize it to fit their needs. Want the living room on the east side of the house rather than the west? Done. Want different siding than what was shown in the catalog? Done. Once the order was submitted a chain of events was set into motion which involved the shipping of two railcars full of materials: pre-cut lumber, nails, screws, roofing materials, everything but the kitchen sink, about 30,000 pieces in all. (Actually, plumbing and heating were usually considered “extras” and not always included in the kit.) Naturally included in the kit was an instruction manual, a 75-page leather-bound book to guide the homeowner through every step of the way.
If the idea of taking pride in your work wasn’t enough to sell you oh the idea, the economy of this option may have made you a believer. Sears estimated that their customers would save about 30% on the cost of a new home if they were to build through one of their kits versus hiring an architect or contractor. Time was another consideration: small kit homes with pre-cut lumber could be constructed with about 352 carpenter hours on average, versus 583 hours without pre-cut lumber.
Sears, of course, capitalized on extra add-ones, too. Catalogs showed interiors staged with furniture, fixtures, and décor to make the home even more comfortable, available (you guessed it!) from the Sears Catalog.
It has been estimated that Sears sold about 75,000 kit homes between 1908 and 1940. They’re more likely to be found in the Northeast and here in the Midwest, mostly due to the number of railways through these regions, and the proximity of those communities to the rail lines certainly made delivery of materials much easier.
Flipping through the catalogs, I see several designs that could easily be houses down my street. And chances are, you’ve seen one too. Knowing what I do now about mail order homes, I have a better understanding about my community and the mindset of the families that shaped and built it.
For more info on Sears homes, here’s some resources to check out:
Stevenson, Katherine Cole and Jandl, H. Ward. Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1986.
Thornton, Rosemary. The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes. Alton, IL: Gentle Beam Publications, 2002
There are also a variety of old house plans from Sears and other kit home retailers at Antique Home Style.
Past to Present Research, LLC