Published Collections: “Home Sweet Home” by Mail Order

Friday, April 11, 2014

This winter Hagley welcomed a researcher who was interested in identifying historical information about an old house. He started to request trade catalogs from Hagley’s collection, including this Sears catalog from 1926.

Sears began selling building materials out of its catalogs in 1895, but by 1906 the department was almost shut down, because of poor sales. Employee Frank W. Kushel suggested to Richard Sears that the company assemble kits of all the parts needed and sell entire houses through mail order.

In 1908, Sears offered their first specialty catalog issued for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 22 styles ranging in price from $650–2,500.

Kit houses, also known as mill-cut houses, pre-cut houses, ready-cut houses, mail order homes, or catalog homes, were popular in the United States and Canada in the first half of the 20th century.

Kit houses were promoted through catalogs found at lumber yards and hardware stores, through mail-order catalogs published by large retailers like Sears and Montgomery Ward, and through advertisements in popular magazines and newspapers.

After potential buyers received the company catalog, a house design was selected. In some cities, prospective customers could arrange to inspect kit houses in their vicinity or visit a company's factory to tour model homes.

Buyers were then sent a Bill of Materials list and full blueprints. A few weeks after the order was placed, one or two boxcars, containing up to 30,000 pieces of lumber were shipped to the nearest train depot.

Every piece of lumber was numbered and pre-cut to fit into its place in the house, eliminating the need for measuring and cutting (especially important in the days before power tools!) In the 1908 Sears catalog, there was an estimate of what a carpenter would charge for assembling a certain model, though they claimed that a man with an elementary understanding of construction techniques would be able to assemble a house.

By 1911, Modern Homes catalogs included illustrations of house interiors, which provided homeowners with blueprints for furnishing the houses with Sears appliances and fixtures. The Sears Archive fills in more details about their products:

From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold about 70,000 - 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.) Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets.

Sears was not an innovative home designer. Sears was instead a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Modern Home customers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, and Sears helped realize these dreams through quality custom design and favorable financing.

The process of designing your Sears house began as soon as the Modern Homes catalog arrived at your doorstep. Over time, Modern Homes catalogs came to advertise three lines of homes, aimed for customers’ differing financial means: Honor Bilt, Standard Built, and Simplex Sectional.

Honor Bilt homes were the most expensive and finest quality sold by Sears. Joists, studs, and rafters were to be spaced 14 3/8 inches apart. Attractive cypress siding and cedar shingles adorned most Honor Bilt exteriors. And, depending on the room, interiors featured clear-grade (i.e., knot-free) flooring and inside trim made from yellow pine, oak, or maple wood. Sears’s catalogs also reported that Standard Built homes were best for warmer climates, meaning they did not retain heat very well. The Simplex Sectional line, as the name implies, contained simple designs. Simplex houses were frequently only a couple of rooms and were ideal for summer cottages.

In 1940, Sears issued its last Book of Modern Homes, after selling more than 100,000 units, not including cabins, cottages, garages, outhouses, and farm buildings. A few years later, the sales records were destroyed during a corporate “house cleaning.” The absence of archived records for houses sold through the Sears Modern Homes makes identifying them often a difficult task.

At Hagley, our patron began requesting the Sears Modern Homes catalogs, but also catalogs from other companies. Sears may be the most well known of these companies, but competitors in the kit home market included Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling and Wardway Homes (from Montgomery Ward). Hagley owns catalogs from all of these companies!

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 a lot of research! We hope that our collection might be able to help to researchers searching for information about kit homes.

Linda Gross is a Reference Librarian in Hagley's Published Collections Department.