Sears Catalog Home
Sears Catalog Homes (sold as Sears Modern Homes) were ready-to-assemble kit houses sold through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. More than 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 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.
As an add-on, 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).
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 1916. However, the company experienced steadily rising payment defaults throughout the Great Depression, resulting in increasing strain for the catalog house program. More than 370 designs of Sears Homes were offered during the program's 32-year history. The mortgage portion of the program was discontinued in 1934 after Sears was forced to liquidate $11 million in defaulted debt. Sears closed their Modern Homes department in 1940. A few years later, all sales records were destroyed during a corporate house cleaning. The only way to find these houses today is literally one by one.
Today, 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 Sears Homes (and few kit homes from other companies as well). A culture of Sears Modern Home seekers has emerged in recent years, as individual buildings have been identified.
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 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 a particular kit home.
Sears mail order history 
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.
Sears 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 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 22 styles ranging in price from US$650–$2,500 ($15,388–$59,187 in 2008 dollars). Sears bought a lumber mill in Southern Illinois and arranged for production of kits from which homes could be assembled. The first mail order was filled in 1909.
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, 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 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), 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 reduced construction time by up to 40%.
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.
A later 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 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.
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 ($12,590 and $55,390 in 2008 dollars respectively).
Clusters of Sears Catalog homes can still be found in the United States. Cities with large concentrations of documented Sears Catalog Homes include:
- Ann Arbor, Michigan with 35
- Arlington, Virginia
- Aurora, Illinois with 136
- Carlinville, Illinois with 152
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- Des Plaines, Illinois
- Downers Grove, Illinois with 27
- Elgin, Illinois with over 200
- Houston, Texas' historic Norhill neighborhood is known to have many of these homes.
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" of houses after the city.
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 can also be found in significant numbers in West Virginia and North Carolina, and a few have been found as far south as Florida and as far west as California.
Sears Homes have become increasingly popular among history enthusiasts because of their sturdy structure, 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, Lewis Manufacturing, Sterling Homes, Montgomery Ward, Gordon Van Tine or Harris Brothers, or not a kit home at all.
See also 
- "Sears Archives". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Sears mail order homes". Retrieved 2011-11-30.
- Sears "The Fairy" home http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/images/1921-1926/1925_3217.jpg
- "Cemetery Office in Newport News". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- "Sears Homes in Hopewell". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- Sears Modern Homes
- Downers Grove Illinois tourism website
- Sears kit homes in Arlington County, Virginia
- "The Whole Kit and Caboodle", a Washington Post article about Sears Catalog mail-order homes in the Washington, DC area
- "Made to Order: Many American Dreams Came Out of the Sears Catalog, Including Do-It-Yourself Houses" a Los Angeles Times article
- "Yesterday's kit houses are today's sought-after properties" a South Coast Today (Connecticut) article
- "The Story on Sears Houses by rail and mail." Old House Journal online edition website
- Sears and Roebuck Mail Order Catalog Homes
- Sears Homes of Chicagoland
- Oklahoma Houses By Mail
- How to Identify Sears Homes
- "The 1918 Sears House"
- Sears Modern Homes in Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky
- City of Houston Historic Designation Report. (1999). Retrieved January 6, 2011 from http://www.proctorplaza.com/pdf/norhill_historic_designation.pdf
- Stevenson, Katherin Cole, and Jandl, H. Ward, (1995) Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company John Wiley & Sons; Hoboken, New Jersey
- Thornton, Rosemary (2002) The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sears Catalog Homes Gentle Beam Publications; Alton, Illinois
- Thornton, Rosemary (2004) Finding The Houses That Sears Built: A Guide to Their 60 Most Popular Designs Gentle Beam Publications; Alton, Illinois
- Davis, Michael W.R. and Schweitzer, Robert (1990) America’s Favorite Homes. Wayne State University Press; Detroit, Michigan
- Flori, Laurie A. (2005) "Additionally Speaking - The Saga Behind The Largest Collective of Sears Homes in the World" Brown Paper Package Publications; Carlinville, Illinois