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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Mail-Order Houses by Sears, Roebuck

By Tom Morrow

If you grew up during the thirties and forties, chances are you lived in a mail-order house sold and delivered via rail from Sears, Roebuck & Co., in Chicago.

From 1908 to1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold between 70,000 to 75,000 homes through their “Modern Homes” building program. Sears designed some 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multi-story “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.

The Chicago-based mail-order company was a very able follower of popular home designs. 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.

Sears was not an innovator in home design or construction techniques, however, Modern Home designs did offer distinct advantages over other construction methods. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. Not only did precut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40 percent, but Sears’s use of “balloon style” framing, drywall, and asphalt shingles greatly eased construction for homebuyers.

“Balloon style” framing. These framing systems did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as previous methods did. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This system uses precut timber of mostly standard 2x4s and 2x8s for framing. Pre-cut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything, including the nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added greatly to the popularity of this framing style.

Before drywall, plaster and lathe wall-building techniques were used, which again required skilled carpenters. Sears homes took advantage of the new homebuilding material of drywall by shipping large quantities of this inexpensively manufactured product with the rest of the housing materials. Drywall offered advantages of low price, ease of installation, and was added fire-safety protection. It also was a good fit for the square design of Sears homes.

Sears helped popularize the latest technology available to modern homebuyers in the early part of the 20th century. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in home design that Modern Homes incorporated, although not all of the homes were designed with these conveniences.

Indoor plumbing and homes wired for electricity were the first steps to modern kitchens and bathrooms. Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of its homebuyers and gave them the option to design their homes For those of us growing up in the thirties and forties there’s a very good chance we lived in a Sears mail-order home.

In 1920, a small Sears two or three-bedroom home could be purchased from $191 to $598. In 1935, the average price was $1,247. By 1940, the most expensive home was less than $4,000.

Once your new home kit arrived via rail freight, you could either start putting it together yourself or, which was often the case, hire a carpenter to do it for you.

Pick any town U.S.A. Look around and you’ll still see dozens of Sears homes in the older sections of a community still in use. Example: The small-famed “Top Gun” house in Oceanside was a Sears mail-order kit home.

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E-mail Tom Morrow at: quotetaker@msn.com

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