Sears Catalog Homes (sold under the Sears Modern Homes name) were catalog and 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. More than 370 different home designs in a wide range of architectural styles and sizes were offered over the program's 32-year history. Sears homes can be found across the continental United States with homes as far south as Florida as far north as Alaska and as far west as California. A handful of Sears homes have been identified in Canada Elgin, Illinois (a city approximately 35 miles WNW of Chicago) has the largest known collection of Sears homes in one community with more than 200 identified houses from Sears.
Sears Modern Homes 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. Primarily shipped via railroad boxcars, these kits included most of the materials needed to build a house. Once delivered, many of these houses were assembled by the new homeowner, relatives, friends and neighbors, in a fashion similar to the traditional barn-raisings of farming families. Other homeowners relied on local carpenters or contractors to assemble the houses. In some cases, Sears provided construction services to assemble the homes. Some builders and companies purchased homes directly from Sears to build as model homes, speculative homes or homes for customers.
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 were documented when built, finding these houses today often requires detailed research to properly identify them. Because the various kit home companies often copied plan elements or designs from each other, there are a number of catalog and kit models from different manufacturers that look similar or identical to models offered by Sears. Determining which company manufactured a particular catalog and kit home may require additional research to determine the origin of that home. National and regional competitors in the catalog and kit home market included Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling and Wardway Homes.
Sears Modern Homes 1908-1940
In 1906, Frank W. Kushel, a Sears manager, was given responsibility for the catalog company's unwieldy, unprofitable 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 the same year, the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, offered the first mail order kit homes. 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 for a house was filled in 1908. As Sears mail-order catalogs were in millions of homes, large numbers of potential homeowners were able to open a catalog, see different house designs, visualize their new home and then purchase it directly from Sears.
As sales grew, Sears expanded its production, shipping and sales offices to regional sites across the US. To provide the materials needed for the Modern Homes division, Sears first purchased a lumber mill in Cairo, Illinois. Later, Sears acquired a second mill in Port Newark, New Jersey and the Norwood Sash and Door Company in Norwood, Ohio. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers.
Precut and fitted lumber, an innovation pioneered by Aladdin, was first offered by Sears in 1916. Prior to 1916, the prospective home builder had to cut their Sears-supplied lumber to appropriate lengths. These pre-1916 houses are not generally considered to be "kit houses" but do fall under the definition of a "catalog house". Construction of a house with pre-cut lumber 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.
Shipped by railroad boxcar, and then usually trucked to a home site, the average Sears Modern Home kit had approximately 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts. Plumbing, electrical fixtures and heating systems were not included in the base price of the kit house but could be included, at an additional cost, with the house order. 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. During the Modern Homes program, large quantities of asphalt shingles became available. Asphalt shingles were cheap to manufacture and ship, and easy and inexpensive to install. A later feature was the use of drywall instead of the plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters and plasterers. Drywall offered the advantages of low price, ease of installation, and added fire protection. Local building requirements sometimes dictated that certain elemen ts of the house construction be done professionally and varied to meet requirements of each area of the country. For example, foundation depth requirements varied by climate and terrain.
Sears began offering financing plans in 1912. Early mortgage loans were typically for 5 - 15 years at 6% - 7% interest. Sales peaked 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). While financing through Sears helped many homeowners purchase homes, the Great Depression led to rising payment defaults, resulting in increasing strain on the catalog house program. Sears stopped offering mortgages in 1934 after the company was forced to liquidate $11 million in defaulted debt. Sears stopped selling homes for a short time in 1934. Sales slowly recovered as the United States emerged from the Great Depression but the decision was made in 1940 to wind down the Sears Modern Homes division.
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Sears Modern Homes after 1940
The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940. Although it is sometimes claimed that no Sears kit homes were built after 1940, 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 with variations, the most common of those being expanded floor plans and additional finished living spaces. Sears houses could also be ordered with reversed floor plans. While the vast majority of models were for single-family house designs, Sears did offer a smaller number of duplex family house designs and even a few larger multiple-family buildings.
Certain models were more popular than others and the most popular 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 or almost identical home plan. The models listed below are some of the mose popular models.
The largest and most expensive Sears model was the Magnolia. Only seven Magnolias are known to be still standing. One Magnolia built in Lincoln, Nebraska was demolished.
Identifying Sears Modern Homes
Sears Homes have become increasingly popular among history enthusiasts because of their sturdy structure, the do-it-yourself nature of construction and the popular architectural design concepts. However, many houses described as Sears Homes are not true Sears Homes, being either the product of another kit home manufacturer or not a kit home at all.
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 through the mail order catalog. Any homes built before 1908, or significantly after 1940, cannot be a Sears Catalog home. However, there is some debate about whether some homes from Sears that were 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 is a possible indicator of a Sears house.
4. Five piece eave brackets: Several Sears models with eaves brackets used a 5 piece design that was primarily found on Sears houses.
5. Original paperwork for the house including blueprints and letters of correspondence from Sears.
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 or deed associated with the property where the home was constructed. Sears company officials often listed on mortgages and deeds include:
- Edwards D. Ford
- Walker O. Lewis (until early 1930)
- John M. Ogden
- E. Harrison Powell
- William C. Reed
- Nicholas Wieland (sometimes spelled Weiland)
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, by itself, 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 layout 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.
Existing Sears Homes
Due to the destruction of the Modern Homes division sales records, there is no way to definitively verify the number of Sears houses 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:
- Aurora, Illinois with 136
- Carlinville, Illinois with 150 in the Standard Addition neighborhood as well as several other Sears homes elsewhere in the city.
- Cincinnati, Ohio and surrounding communities with over 450
- Elgin, Illinois with over 200.
- Washington, D.C. with over 200.
The Carlinville, Illinois concentration consists of houses bought in bulk by the Standard Oil Company in 1918 to house its mineworkers at a total cost of approximately US $1 million. The houses, comprising eight different models, were all built in a 12-block area known as the Standard Addition. Building of the homes took nine months which were completed in 1919. The bulk order is the largest known order for Sears Modern Homes and led to Sears, Roebuck naming their "Carlin" model after the city. (The "Carlin" was a modified version of the "Windsor" model and it only appeared in the 1918 catalog; there are no verified examples of it.)
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.
National Register of Historic Places
Several Sears catalog houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among those are:
- Alhambra - At Triangle Ranch near Philips, South Dakota
- Saratoga - The Hogue House in Chelsea, Oklahoma
Sears catalog houses can also be found in historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places:
- Eastwood Historic District - 10 Sears catalog houses of various models in Cincinnati, Ohio
Modern interpretations of Sears Catalog Houses
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.
One well-known replica of a Sears catalog house is at the "Farm at Prophetstown" museum in Battle Ground, Indiana, which features a replica of a Hillrose model. The house forms part of the farmstead at the museum.
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