The hour has arrived. Dad gathers Mom and Sis into the carriage. He hops in the wagon with his brothers to ride off to the railroad station. The day and hour have come to greet the first shipment of your family’s brand-new house. All the lumber will be precut and arrive with instructions for your dad and uncles to assemble and build. Mom and Dad picked out No. 140 from Sears, Roebuck and Company’s catalog. It will have two bedrooms and a cobblestone foundation, plus a front porch—but no bath. They really wanted No. 155, with a screened-in front porch, built-in buffet, and inside bath (!), but $1,100 was twice as much as Dad said he could afford. In just a few days, the whole family will sleep under the roof of your custom-made Sears Modern Home.
homes would arrive by railroad, from precut lumber, to carved
staircases, down to the nails and varnish. Families picked out their
houses according to their needs, tastes, and pocketbooks. Sears provided
all the materials and instructions, and for many years the financing,
for homeowners to build their own houses. Sears’s Modern Homes stand
today as living monuments to the fine, enduring, and solid quality of
No official tally exists of the number of
Sears mail-order houses that still survive today. It is reported that
more than 100,000 houses were sold between 1908 and 1940 through Sears’s
Modern Homes program. The keen interest evoked in current homebuyers,
architectural historians, and enthusiasts of American culture indicate
that thousands of these houses survive in varying degrees of condition
and original appearance.
It is difficult to appreciate just how
important the Modern Homes program and others like it were to homebuyers
in the first half of the twentieth century. Imagine for a moment buying
a house in 1908. Cities were getting more crowded and had always been
dirty breeding grounds for disease in an age before vaccines. The United
States was experiencing a great economic boom, and millions of
immigrants who wanted to share in this wealth and escape hardship were
pouring into America’s big cities. City housing was scarce, and the
strong economy raised labor costs, which sent new-home prices soaring.
growing middle class was leaving the city for the—literally—greener
pastures of suburbia as trolley lines and the railroad extended
lifelines for families who needed to travel to the city. Likewise,
companies were building factories on distant, empty parcels of land and
needed to house their workers. Stately, expensive Victorian-style homes
were not options for any but the upper class of homeowner. Affordable,
mail-order homes proved to be just the answer to such dilemmas.
was neither the first nor the only company to sell mail-order houses,
but they were the largest, selling as many as 324 units in one month
(May, 1926). The origin of the Modern Homes program is actually to be
found a decade before houses were sold. Sears began selling building
materials out of its catalogs in 1895, but by 1906 the department was
almost shut down until someone had a better idea. Frank W. Kushel, who
was reassigned to the unprofitable program from managing the china
department, believed the homebuilding materials could be shipped
straight from the factories, thus eliminating storage costs for Sears.
This began a successful 25-year relationship between Kushel and the
Sears Modern Homes program.
To advertise the company’s new and
improved line of building supplies, a Modern Homes specialty catalog,
the Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, appeared in 1908. For the
first time, Sears sold complete houses, including the plans and
instructions for construction of 22 different styles, announcing that
the featured homes were "complete, ready for occupancy." By 1911, Modern
Homes catalogs included illustrations of house interiors, which
provided homeowners with blueprints for furnishing the houses with Sears
appliances and fixtures.
It should be noted that suburban
families were not the only Modern Home dwellers. Sears expanded its line
to reflect the growing demand from rural customers for ready-made
buildings. In 1923, Sears introduced two new specialty catalogs, Modern
Farm Buildings and Barn. The barn catalog boasted "a big variety of
scientifically planned" farm buildings, from corncribs to tool sheds.
The simple, durable, and easy-to-construct nature of the Sears farm
buildings made them particularly attractive to farmers.
Homes must have seemed like pennies from heaven, especially to
budget-conscious first-time homeowners. For example, Sears estimated
that, for a precut house with fitted pieces, it would take only 352
carpenter hours as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house—a 40%
reduction! Also, Sears offered loans beginning in 1911, and by 1918 it
offered customers credit for almost all building materials as well as
offering advanced capital for labor costs. Typical loans ran at 5 years,
with 6% interest, but loans could be extended over as many as 15 years.
liberal loan policies eventually backfired, however, when the
Depression hit. 1929 saw the high point of sales with more than $12
million, but $5.6 million of that was in mortgage loans. Finally, in
1934, $11 million in mortgages were liquidated, and despite a brief
recovery in the housing market in 1935, the Modern Homes program was
doomed. By 1935, Sears was selling only houses, not lots or financing,
and despite the ever-brimming optimism of corporate officials, Modern
Homes sold its last house in 1940.
Between 1908 and 1940, Modern
Homes made an indelible mark on the history of American housing. A
remarkable degree of variety marks the three-plus decades of house
design by Sears. A skilled but mostly anonymous group of architects
designed 447 different houses. Each of the designs, though, could be
modified in numerous ways, including reversing floor plans, building
with brick instead of wood siding, and many other options.
had the customer in mind when it expanded its line of houses to three
different expense levels to appeal to customers of differing means.
While Honor Bilt was the highest-quality line of houses, with its
clear-grade (no knots) flooring and cypress or cedar shingles, the
Standard Built and Simplex Sectional lines were no less sturdy, yet were
simpler designs and did not feature precut and fitted pieces. Simplex
Sectional houses actually included farm buildings, outhouses, garages,
and summer cottages.
The American landscape is dotted by Sears
Modern Homes. Few of the original buyers and builders remain to tell the
excitement they felt when traveling to greet their new house at the
train station. The remaining homes, however, stand as testaments today
to that bygone era and to the pride of home built by more than 100,000
Sears customers and fostered by the Modern Homes program.