Can you imagine buying a mail-order home? “Impossible!” you shout. “Who would do something like that?” your friends ask, incredulous. Oh, but it’s true! Around the turn of the century, people looking for a new, “modern” home could just open up their good old Sears Modern Homes catalog, choose their dream home plan, and a short wait later, they would have a ready-to-assemble kit home delivered to their soon-to-be doorstep.
While Sears was not the only company to provide mail-order homes, they were one of the largest and most successful. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold more than 70,000 mail-order homes throughout North America, offering about 450 different models of homes in a variety of price ranges and styles. Whether you were looking for a tiny summer cottage, a simple family-style bungalow or an elegant and stately manor, you could find it in the Sears catalog.
In order to streamline the process and keep costs down, Sears bought a lumber mill to mass produce the building materials. Not only did this help reduce manufacturing costs, but it helped lower construction time by 40% and kept the purchase price low for homeowners. And, if that wasn’t enough, Sears also offered home mortgages via catalog along with guarantees. They were really your one-stop-shop for home buying.
Your mail-order home kit would be shipped by railroad across the country, and if you happened to live far from a rail line, the kit would be shipped and delivered to you by truck. A homeowner usually received the home-kit in about 90 days from the date of order. The average mail-order home had about 30,000 parts, including the hardware like nails and screws. You also had to purchase “modern conveniences” like plumbing and electrical fixtures separately. While most of the home was ready to be built and assembled by the homeowner, some cities had building laws that required some features to be installed by a professional – things like heating, digging the foundation, etc.
Each piece of the home was shipped precut and stamped with a number that corresponded to its place on a blueprint. The framing was done “balloon style,” which was much easier for the homeowner to install as it was simply just a series of long, vertical 2” x 4”s that ran from the foundation to the ceiling. Initially plaster was used for the walls, but that required installation by a skilled tradesman. To give further control of the building process to the homeowner, Sears began to ship drywall along with the building materials because it was inexpensive and very easy for the homeowner to install.
But one of the strongest impacts that Sears had on the building industry was how it helped to popularize modern technology to home buyers across the country. The features of central heating, indoor plumbing and electrical wiring were a huge first step for many homeowners of the time. Add the fact that Sears’ regular mail-order catalogues were already in millions of homes across the country, homeowners of the day had the option to design and fill their homes with all of the modern conveniences they could find.
Home sales continued on strong until just before the Great Depression in 1929. Unfortunately, thanks to changes in housing codes and homeowners looking for more complex and unique home plans, Sears Modern Home sales were cancelled shortly thereafter.
Even though these mail-order homes were from a kit, they are surprisingly sturdy and well made. Many Sears homes still stand, though most have gone through some renovations and modifications over the years. If you suspect that you have a Sears mail-order home, establishing its identity can be a bit tricky. In fact, many homes that are identified as a “Sears Home” are actually other kit homes manufactured by places like Aladdin, Montgomery Ward or Harris Brothers.
The first, and most obvious, way to identify if you have a Sears Modern Home is to check the year in which it was built. If it was not constructed between 1908 and 1940, it cannot be a Sears home. Then take a look through the designs offered by Sears through their Modern Homes catalog. If you see something that matches your home’s style, then you’re on the right track.
Remember when I mentioned that every piece of lumber was marked to match its spot on the home plans? Well, those numbers are still there! Head on down to your basement or climb up into your attic and take a look-see. They can be hard to find, but from what I’ve uncovered, they’re about an inch tall and located anywhere from an inch to 6 inches from the end of the piece of lumber.
If you still are unsure, you can visit one of the most comprehensive sites about Sears Modern Homes, www.searshomes.com
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