Quality in Quantity: The Sears Mail-Order Home
Posted on November 16, 2018
I live in a house in San Antonio, Texas, that was built in 1928 by two brothers who were mechanics. They had little to no knowledge of construction, but they did know how to put things together. They ordered a home from the Sears catalog, The Crafton Floor Plan 3318C, with two bedrooms, one bath, and a porch facing south.
At this time in, Highland Park, the neighborhood where my home is located, was considered the suburbs. This pastureland for dairy farmers became a new development in 1909 thanks to L.P. Peck, Benno Kayton, W.C. Rigsby, Ben Hammond, and A.M. Avant. These five developers built a streetcar line which transported material to this once-rural pastureland, and then connected the residents to the city center. Land in Highland Park sold quickly.
Soon enough, every lot was full with homes ranging from Craftsman and Tudor to Spanish Revival and even Colonial in style. They were all built by local builders and owners.
In 1908, Sears began selling mail-order homes. Due to an excess of products and low sales, Frank W. Kushel, manager of Sears china department, was asked to close the division. Instead, Kushel proposed the idea of the packaged home — a shipment that contained exactly what the homeowner needed to build their “Dream Home.” Sears, Roebuck, and Co. was not the only company selling catalog homes at the time. During the 1910s and 1920s, kit homes were at their most popular. The railroad made it possible for companies like Aladdin ReadiCuts or Montgomery Ward to transport boxcars of materials to a homeowner’s desired city, Sears dominated the market.
By 1908, one fifth of Americans were subscribers, and more than 100,000 homes were sold between 1908 and 1940. The American dream home had become accessible to all.
Ordering was relatively simple: The future homeowner could choose from a selection of homes with the option to customize certain parts. Sears’ first catalog of kit homes offered over 40 models, and as time progressed it would grow to include 447 unique designs. Homes were categorized by model number and ranged in price from $548 to $2,900. Each design changed over the years. In the 1920s, names related to each house’s specific style were added.
For example, The Magnolia, a Colonial style house with Georgian influences, was simple in design with graceful lines and attractive ornamental features. The front door opened to a vestibule with French doors leading to the grand stairway and bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor. The downstairs was for entertaining —the service area was in the back of house while guests could lounge in the living room or adjacent sun parlor.
Sears offered options of grand to modest types of homes depending on the needs of the homeowner. Another popular design was the Osborn. Introduced in 1930, it was priced at $2,792 (equivalent to $42,204 in today’s market). The Osborn was a stucco, shingle-sided bungalow in the Spanish Mission style. It was designed to appeal to nature lovers with porches on the back, side, and front of the house. A one-story home, it had two bedrooms, generous common rooms, and the option to add an extra room in the future.
Sears gave their customers the ability to choose their dream—anything could be customized and personal.
The Sears home was easy for a young family or newlyweds to afford. No matter your social standing or background, homeownership was only a mail order and a few weeks of assembly away. The dream home away from the city was now attainable, and it became even easier to own a home when they added the option to finance the house with a low interest rate.
Sears also raised the level of design and quality, and created a competitive market for kit homes. Other companies like Sterling Kit Homes and Pacific Ready Cut Homes had to meet the same high standards to stay in competition.
Most homes built between 1908 and 1940 are likely kit homes from one of these companies. Sears shut down their Modern Homes department in 1940 after the Great Depression and the years of financial recovery and challenges that followed. It was not until after World War II ended that the country experienced another housing boom and the rise of the suburbs.
After 125 years of supplying Americans with not only home supplies but entire homes, Sears will close their doors permanently in the coming year. If your house was built before 1940, it could be one of the 100,000 Sears kit homes built in the early 1900s. The company has not only provided jobs and supplies for our families, but it has left a mark on the American landscape.
Today, Amazon and the other online companies dominate the retail market, and even those in the most remote areas are able to receive almost anything in 1-2 business days. Day-to-day life in America is more convenient than it has ever been, but we encounter products and buildings that are well-crafted and well-designed less and less. Sears’ experiment in selling easy-to-build and reasonably priced homes proved that mass-produced and affordable products could be beautiful, lasting, and well-made.