Sears Modern Homes

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Cover of 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog

Sears Modern Homes were catalog and kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Co., an American retailer.

From 1908 to 1940, more than 70,000 of these houses were sold in North America, by the company's count.[1] Sears Modern Homes were purchased primarily by customers in East Coast and Midwest states, but have been located as far south as Florida, as far west as California, and as far north as Alaska and Canada.[2] No comprehensive list of their locations exists.[3]

More than 370 designs in a wide range of architectural styles and sizes were offered over the line's 34-year history.

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.[4] 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 or employees. National and regional competitors in the catalog and kit home market included Aladdin, Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling and Montgomery Ward (Wardway) Homes.

Sears discontinued its Modern Homes catalog after 1940. Sales through local sales offices continued into 1942. Years later, the sales records related to home sales 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.

History[edit]

Sears Magnolia in Benson, North Carolina
Catalog image and floorplan of Sears Magnolia model

1908-1940[edit]

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. Kushel is credited with suggesting to Richard Sears that the company assemble kits of all the parts needed and sell entire houses through mail order. That year, the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, offered the first kit homes through mail order.

In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 44 house styles ranging in price from US $360–$2,890. The first mail order for a Sears house was filled that year. As its mail-order catalogs were already sent to millions of homes, Sears had a distinct advantage over other kit-home competitors.

As sales grew, Sears expanded its production, shipping, and sales offices to locations across the U.S. To provide the materials needed for the Modern Homes division, Sears operated a lumber mill in Cairo, Illinois. Later, Sears constructed a second mill in Port Newark, New Jersey and purchased the Norwood Sash and Door Company in Norwood, Ohio. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes reduced manufacturing costs, which allowed Sears to pass along the savings in lower prices for customers.

Precut framing timbers, an innovation pioneered by Aladdin, were first offered by Sears in 1916. Precut lumber was cut to the appropriate lengths and angles based on where the framing timber would be used in the house. Before 1916, the home builder had to cut their Sears-supplied lumber to appropriate lengths. These pre-1916 houses are generally considered "catalog houses", not "kit houses". 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 could be built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This system used precut timber of mostly standard sizes (2"x4" and 2"x8") for framing. Balloon framing systems rely only on nails to make connections between joints, whereas previous methods used heavier members and pegs.[5] The method was originally named in the sense that the structure was light and could be lifted away like a balloon.[5] Early balloon structures were very basic, to enable home buyers to assemble them independently and also because designers had yet to see the implications the method held.[5]

Shipped by railroad boxcar, and then usually trucked to a home site, the average Sears Modern Home kit had about 25 tons of materials, with more than 30,000 parts.[6] Plumbing, electrical fixtures, and heating systems were options that could be ordered at additional cost; they were many families' first steps 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. Sears also offered a plasterboard product similar to modern drywall as an alternative to the plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters and plasterers. This product offered the advantages of low price, ease of installation, and added fire protection. Local building requirements sometimes dictated that certain elements of the house construction be done professionally and varied depending on where the house was constructed.

Economic aspects[edit]

Sears began offering financing plans around 1912.[7] Early mortgage loans were typically for 5 to 15 years at 6% to 7% interest. Sales peaked in 1929, just before the Great Depression. While financing through Sears helped many homeowners purchase homes, many of those purchasers defaulted during the ensuing Great Depression. The company was forced to liquidate $11 million in defaulted debt. The mortgage program was also a PR disaster, as many of the families Sears foreclosed upon refused to do further business with the company.[8] By 1934, Sears had stopped offering mortgages. It even halted sales of houses themselves for a short time before restarting sales. Sales slowly recovered as the United States emerged from the Great Depression.

After 1940[edit]

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 into early 1942. Advertisements for Sears Modern Homes appeared through May 1942. Many of these post 1940 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 Modern Homes". Because these homes were constructed using pre-cut lumber and plans provided by Sears, these homes can be considered to be "Sears Modern Homes". Many of these homes were built in Sears planned "Home Club Plan" developments in New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.[9][10][11]

Models[edit]

Sears offered 370 models over the 32 years it sold houses by catalog. In the early years, the models were identified with numbers. After several years, Sears also began assigning names to the various models. 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 offered some duplex house designs and even a few larger multiple-family buildings.

The most popular models appeared in the catalog for multiple years. Other models only appeared for one year. No built examples have been found of some of the least popular models. Some models were offered in both wood siding and brick veneer versions with different names attributed to the same or almost identical home plan. Some of the most popular models were:[12]

The largest and one of the most expensive Sears models was the Magnolia.[13] Only seven Magnolias are known to be still standing. One Magnolia built in Lincoln, Nebraska, was demolished in 1985.[14]

In addition to houses, the 1908 Sears catalog offered a kit schoolhouse with the model name "Schoolhouse No. 5008". The two-story schoolhouse was priced at $11,500 and its design included six classrooms, a library, an auditorium, and a superintendent's office.[15] 1908 was the only year the schoolhouse appeared in the catalog. It is unknown whether any were purchased or built.[16]

There was no single architect for the Sears designs. Many of the famous designs were commandeered from other sources and/or purchased from architects but given just enough change to be advertised as their own.[17] Later on in the Modern Homes timeline, Sears had in-office designers but titled them as "experts" rather than actual architects.[17]

Identifying Sears Modern Homes[edit]

Stamped lumber in a Sears house
Up-close view of the column detail on a Sears Vallonia
Catalog image of the column detail on the Vallonia model
Shipping Label from a Sears house

Identifying Sears Homes has become a pastime 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.[18] Sears houses can be identified or authenticated using the following methods.

  1. Sears Modern Homes were sold between 1908 and 1942. There is some debate about whether some homes from Sears that were built in 1941 and 1942 qualify as Sears Modern 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 built from plans and materials from Sears.
  2. Original paperwork for the house including blueprints and letters of correspondence from Sears.
  3. Public records: From 1911 to 1933, Sears offered home mortgages and Sears company officials or the Sears, Roebuck corporation may be named on the mortgage or deed associated with the property where the home was constructed.[19] Sears company officials most commonly listed on mortgages and deeds include:
  • Edwards D. Ford (starting in 1929)
  • Walker O. Lewis (primarily before early 1930)
  • John M. Ogden
  • E. Harrison Powell (starting in 1930)
  • William C. Reed (primarily from 1922 - 1929)
  • F. C. Schaub (starting in 1932)
  • Nicholas Wieland (sometimes spelled Weiland)

Cities that have records of building permits may list Sears, Roebuck as the original architect. Also, homes in southern Ohio may have financing documents through the "Norwood Sash and Door Company" of Norwood, Ohio. Some Home Club homes have deeds from the "Port Newark Lumber and Material Company".

  1. 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 Modern house. Most of the millwork was fulfilled by the Sears-owned "Norwood Sash and Door Company" of Cincinnati, Ohio. However, building materials like millwork could be purchased separately from Sears so millwork with shipping labels is not, by itself, a definitive indicator of a Sears Modern house.
  2. Stamped lumber: Most easily found in unfinished spaces like a basement or attic, framing members were stamped with a letter and a number. These stamps are normally located on or near the ends of pieces of framing timber. However, these stamps were not used on lumber shipped before 1916, when Sears first started offering pre-cut lumber.
  3. 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.
  4. Sears Modern 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.
  5. Goodwall sheet plaster was an early drywall-like product offered by Sears and may be an indication of a Sears Modern Home.

Existing Sears Homes[edit]

Because the Modern Homes division sales records were destroyed, there is no way to definitively verify the number of Sears houses that still exist. Documented Sears houses have been found across the United States and in a few locations in Canada. Cities with large numbers of documented Sears Modern Homes include:

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 about US $1 million. The houses, comprising eight models, were all built in a 12-block area known as the Standard Addition. Construction of the houses 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.

Not all Sears houses 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 Modern Home.[33]

Like the Standard Addition in Carlinville, neighborhoods of Sears houses still hold a sense of identity and community. Due to reviews by homeowners then and now, it would appear that Sears Modern Homes are just as appreciated now as they were then. According to a review written by Mary Ann O'Boyle of Takoma Park, Maryland, her Sears home feels "unabashedly American, the kind of house you see in movies about the good old days" and "allows me to connect with the past".[34] Another homeowner, Erskine Hogue Stanberry, states that his Saratoga model was the "first house in Chelsea to have electric lights" and that they "are using the original plumbing and wiring".[34]

National Register of Historic Places[edit]

Several Sears Modern Homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among those are:

Sears Modern Homes can also be found in historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places:

Rock House inhabited by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mansfield, Missouri

According to Carolyn Fraser's Pulitzer-winning book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the house that Rose Wilder Lane built for her parents, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri was from a Sears kit. The kit was greatly modified by Lane's ambitious designs. Her parents did not care much for the house and eventually moved back into their original farmhouse.[36]

Modern interpretations of Sears Modern Homes[edit]

Modern reproduction of a Sears Hillrose at the Farm at Prophetstown in Battle Ground, Indiana

There are examples of modern homes built based on the design of Sears Modern Home. In some cases, homeowners used plans from original Sears 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.[37][38]

One well-known replica of a Sears 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.[39]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Sears Archives". Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  2. ^ "Did Sears, Roebuck Sell Homes in Canada?". Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  3. ^ "The House that Came in the Mail". 99% Invisible. Retrieved 2021-12-23.
  4. ^ "Sears mail order homes". Retrieved 2011-11-30.
  5. ^ a b c Kibbel, William III. "Balloon Framing". Old House Web. Retrieved 16 November 2019.
  6. ^ "Bill of Materials for Sears Modern Home". Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  7. ^ "Two Italian Families and their Neighboring Sears Houses". Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  8. ^ "The House that Came in the Mail". 99% Invisible. Retrieved 2022-04-17.
  9. ^ "New Homes in Cranford for $4,000!" (PDF). Cranford Chronicle. 1992-07-09. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  10. ^ "New Homes in Cranford for $4,000!Biggest development evolved in Sunny Acres" (PDF). Cranford Chronicle. 1983-04-07. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  11. ^ "Yes, Virginia, Sears Homes Were Built After 1940". Sears Homes of Chicagoland. 2012-11-25. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  12. ^ "The Top Four Most Popular Sears Homes--Have You Seen These?". Sears Homes of Chicagoland. 2012-07-21. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
  13. ^ Thornton, Rosemary (2012-11-27). "How to Properly Identify a Sears Magnolia". Sears Modern Homes. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  14. ^ Thornton, Rosemary (2013-08-29). "Eight Pretty Maggies in a Row". Sears Modern Homes. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  15. ^ "Have You Seen This Kit Schoolhouse? | Sears Modern Homes". Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  16. ^ "The House that Came in the Mail". 99% Invisible. Retrieved 2020-06-30.
  17. ^ a b Null, Janet A. (2017). The Adirondack Architecture Guide, Southern-Central Region. SUNY Press. ISBN 9781438466682.
  18. ^ "Sears Homes in Hopewell". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
  19. ^ "Kithouse.org historical notes". Rebecca L. Hunter: Historical Architectural Resource. Retrieved 2018-11-11.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  20. ^ "The Sears Home Leaderboard". Retrieved 2018-08-20.
  21. ^ "Tour of Sears kit homes in Aurora" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 November 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  22. ^ "Sears Houses in Arlington Virginia: A Comprehensive List". SearsHouseSeeker.com. March 24, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  23. ^ Holliday, Art (28 April 2017). "How Sears built an entire local neighborhood". KSDK Channel 5. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  24. ^ "Sears homes in Cincinnati, Ohio". Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  25. ^ "Sears Catalogue Homes". drive.google.com. Retrieved 2017-02-27.
  26. ^ "Sears Houses in Elgin Illinois arranged according to model name". Illinois Digital Archives. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  27. ^ "Sears Houses In The Pittsburgh Area". Sears House Seeker. July 15, 2021. Retrieved July 19, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  28. ^ a b "Philadelphia Inquirer: Sears Homes in the Philly Suburbs and Sears House Hunters". Sears House Seeker. June 6, 2021. Retrieved July 19, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  29. ^ a b "Where are the rest of the Sears houses in the U.S.?". Sears House Seeker. June 6, 2021. Retrieved July 19, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  30. ^ "The Sears Home Leaderboard". Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  31. ^ "Sears Houses of Massapequa Park, New York". Kit House Hunters. 25 October 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  32. ^ P-D, Joe Holleman •. "Sears home". Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  33. ^ "Cemetery Office in Newport News". Retrieved 2012-12-31.
  34. ^ a b Stevenson, Jandl, Katherine Cole, H. Ward (1996). Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 9, 10. ISBN 9780471143949.
  35. ^ "Hogue House in Chelsea, Oklahoma". Retrieved 2013-06-08.
  36. ^ Fraser, Carolyn. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Henry Holt and Co., 1917.
  37. ^ Solonickne, Lara. "A New Sears Avalon in Wisconsin". www.sears-homes.com. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  38. ^ Solonickne, Lara. "A Sears Kilbourne--Built in 2004". www.sears-homes.com. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  39. ^ "Farmstead – Farm at Prophetstown". prophetstown.org. Archived from the original on 18 February 2015. Retrieved 24 September 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

"Modern Homes" Catalogs