Editor's note: Rosemary Thornton is one of the country's leadingexperts 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
Being a fanatical collector of Sears Homes ephemera, I was bidding on a Sears Modern Homes catalog on e-Bay a few weeks ago. I intended to set my alarm clock for the wee hours of the morning, so I would be ready to bid in the final moments of the auction. Alas, my alarm never went off and I missed the auction's end.
The next morning I found that the dog-eared catalog had sold for more than$125.00. The bidding history showed that others, like me, were willing to stay up to the wee hours, bidding on an old catalog that was once offered for free to potential customers.
Interest in Sears homes is growing. On September 13, 2001, The Washington Times reported that a Sears home in Chevy Chase sold for $816,000. In my part of the country, Southwestern Illinois, these homes are plentiful and sell for a mere $50,000 to $85,000. But that may change as folks become more aware of these architectural treasures.
"Let us be your architect"
In 1895, Sears, Roebuck and Company began selling building materials in addition to the tens of thousands of items already offered in their mail-order catalog. By 1908, customers were invited to write in and ask for a copy the"Book of Modern Homes," which featured house plans and building materials. The same year the general merchandise catalog carried an ad on page594 reading: "$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you."
That first Modern Homes catalog issued in 1908 was 68-pages long and offered 44 house designs, ranging in price from $695 - $4,115. (Throughout the1980s and 90s, countless magazine and newspaper articles have perpetuated errors about this first catalog, stating that it had 44 pages and 22 designs, with prices ranging from $650 - $2500. -- RT)
From the first 1908 catalog: This schoolhouse, the only Sears ever offered. Also in the catalog, ads promising a set a plans for $1, and a $1 when plans were ordered.
(Click on any photo for a larger view.)
In addition to the 44 houses, Sears offered plans and building materials for a "modern" schoolhouse, which the company claimed could be built for $11,500. This was the only Sears Modern Homes catalog to offer a schoolhouse, or any commercial structure, for that matter.
The timing for these catalog homes was ideal. In 1900 only 8,000 cars were on America's roads. Just a decade later, 460,000 automobiles were registered and licensed. People were heading to the suburbs in their "Model Ts," and Sears had just the house for them.
The first catalog offerings in 1908 ranged from a tiny four room cottage, No. 142, to an 11-room house, No. 128. The next year, an 11-room Queen Anne Victorian, described by the company as a "mansion of Colonial style" was offered. By 1909 homeowners favored much simpler bungalows and Arts and Crafts style homes over such elaborate Victorians. The timing of this offering from Sears was slightly out of step with modern preferences.
(Click on any of the above pictures for a larger view, complete with floor plans.)
After selecting a house design from the Sears Modern Homes catalog, customers were asked to send in $1. By return mail, they received a bill of materials list and full blueprints. When the buyer placed the actual order for the home-building materials, the $1 was credited toward their purchase.
A few weeks after the order was placed, two boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house would arrive at the nearest train depot. A 75-page, leather-bound instruction book told homeowners how to assemble those 30,000 pieces. The book offered this somber (and probably wise) warning: "Do not take anyone's advice as to how this building should be assembled."
The kit included 750 pounds of nails, 22 gallons of paint and varnish and 20,000 shingles for the roof and siding. Sears estimated in 1908 that a carpenter would charge $450.00 to assemble Modern Home #111, The Chelsea.
According to the company's calculations, a painter would want $34.50 to paint the two-story foursquare. The plasterer's bill would be around $200, they figured, which included nailing up 840 square yards of wooden lath and applying three coats of plaster. Masonry and plaster was not included in the kit, but the Bill of Materials list advised that 1,100 cement blocks would be needed for the basement walls and foundation.
Other parts of this story: Part2: Post-WWI building boom ~~ Part3: How to find and identify Sears catalog homes ~~ A note on the number of designs ~~ List of references for these stories
Text and photos are copyright2002 by Rosemary Thornton and may not be reproduced or distributed without herexpress written consent.
- There are currently no articles posted to this section.