Editor's note: Rosemary Thornton is one of the country's leading experts on Sears catalog homes. Here are excerpts of her new book, "The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalogue Homes," published in 2002 by Gentle Beam Publications, P. O. Box 1392, Alton, IL 62002.
By Rosemary Thornton
Skilled labor and lumber needed to build homes were in short supply in post-World War I years. But Sears, Roebuck and Company was ready and waiting with kits, available by catalog and containing everything needed to build a house.
The housing shortage in 1918 was so severe that analysts estimated that 1 to 2 million homes were needed immediately. Soldiers returning from WWI, as well as a steady stream of immigrants through Ellis Island, fueled the demand for modestly priced houses. Sears had been courting business from this wave of foreigners for more than a decade. Its 1905 general merchandise catalog offered: "Write your order in any language. We have translators to read and write in all languages."
The company's Modern Homes were hot sellers in the 1920s. Pre-cut lumber in the house kits made skilled carpentry unnecessary and solved the problem of lumber shortages. The Sears Modern Homes catalogs of the early 1920s were the largest the company published. They offered 90 different house designs, as well as plans for garages, outhouses and chicken coops.
The Sears catalog homes truly were "Modern Homes," with centralized heating systems, electric lights and indoor plumbing. The salutary effects of living in a modern home were extolled throughout the pages of the 1920s catalogs.
The company began offering mortgage loans in 1911. Easy payment plans and lax loan qualifications made home-buying attainable by the masses. A 1924 Sears mortgage application, like the one at right, asked a few simple questions about the house and building lot, but only asked one financial question: "What is your vocation?"
The Modern Homes department was never a big money maker for Sears however, and by 1932, its financial health was sliding downhill. Profit margins had grown thinner through the years and the situation worsened as the country struggled through the Great Depression. The 1932 Sears,Roebuck and Company annual report disclosed that the Modern Homes department was operating at a loss, with sales dropping 40% in one year. For the next few years, there would be glimmers of hope for recovery, but the losses of 1932 marked the beginning of the end for the catalog home sales.
Historical accounts of the rise and fall of the Sears catalog homes are often contradictory. In January 1932, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sears would build its 100,000th house during the year. One hundred thousand homes made for good press, but Sears' own numbers make me suspect that total had been "puffed" a bit. A small paragraph on page four of the 1930 Honor-Bilt Modern Homes catalogue stated that Sears had now sold more than 48,000 homes. (In the 1929 catalogue, that number was 44,200.)
A small column in the January 22, 1931 Chicago Tribune stated that in 1930, there had been a 53% drop in home construction (housing starts) nationwide. Catalogues and Counters: A History of Sears Roebuck and Company (Boris Emmet & John Jeuck) states that sales of Sears Homes also dropped, from their peak of $12 million in 1929 - to $8 million in 1931, $6 millionin 1932 and $3.6 million in 1933.
The Wall Street Journal article that reported this 100,000 number cited Sears as their source. With this precipitous drop in sales, however it seems very unlikely that Sears could have sold 52,000 homes between 1930-1932.
Two years later, in 1934, the company's annual report to stockholders stated that the Modern Homes department had been closed. That year, Sears liquidated more than $11 million of their home mortgages. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $4,000, and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount, this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) Sears best customers from their own homes became a public relations nightmare.
In 1935, the Modern Homes department was reopened, but the days of Sears home loans were over. Sears no longer actively pushed their Modern Homes, but continued to quietly sell houses when customers sent in their order forms.
In 1935, Sears entered into a partnership with General Houses Incorporated, based in Chicago. General Houses specialized in steel, prefabricated houses. By 1936, that partnership ended in part because the hastily-erected, faddish, low-priced houses did not prove suitable for cold climates -- and were perhaps a little too economical. One national magazine quipped, "the air temperature inside and outside of a 'General House' is pretty much the same."
Between 1932 and 1940, Sears sold fewer than 10,000 homes. The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940.
The four-color letterpress printing found amidst the pages of the 1920s catalogs were conspicuously absent from the drab 1940 Modern Homes Catalog.Pictures and descriptions in this 1940 catalog were bland and boring. The bold promises had disappeared. Prices were no longer listed or even mentioned. An enclosed letter stated that, due to differences in regional economies, buyers should write and ask for a quote on the cost to erect a Modern Home in their locale.
By contrast, the first ten pages of 1920's Modern Homes catalogs were filled with pictures and promises, enthusiastically extolling the virtues of a Sears home. The 1940 catalog had only two pages of subdued assurances, informing buyers that Sears homes were a sound value and met the Federal Housing Authority guidelines. The catalog had 53 pages and offered 38 houses, many of which looked remarkably similar.
In September 1939, Business Week magazine opined, "...Sears pulled down the shades and quietly tiptoed from the room."
An era had come to an end.
Between 1908-1940, Sears sold 110,000 homes in about 370 different styles. (See note on styles.) Their sales records, promotional information, catalogs and other ephemera associated with the modern homes department was unceremoniously destroyed.
Future generations would rediscover these Sears homes our grandparents bought and built. And we'd fall in love with them all over again.
Other parts of this story: Part1: Building by the book ~~ Part3: How to find and identify Sears catalog homes ~~ A note on the number of designs ~~ List of references for these stories
To more OHW stories on Sears homes, including the Carlinville, Illinois "Standard Addition."
Text and photos are copyright2002 by Rosemary Thornton and may not be reproduced or distributed without herexpress written consent.
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