Those Dandy Houses

The Old House Web

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Rosemary Thornton's second edition of The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes. The country's leading authority on Sears catalog homes, Rose has collected many new stories and photos which she shares in this book. The Houses That Sears Built is available throughThe Old House Web Restoration Bookstore.

By Rosemary Thornton

A few months after The Houses That Sears Built was first published (2002), I received an e-mail from Richard Herman in Ohio.

On page 116, you mentioned a testimonial from Kaczmasek, he wrote. Could that be a misspelling of the name Kaczmarek?

Whilst writing the first edition of my book, I had randomly chosen several impossible-to-pronounce names off the pages of the Sears Modern Homes catalog to make the point that a large number of immigrants were achieving the Great American Dream of homeownership, thanks to Sears Roebuck and Company. I wasnt sure where Id found the name Kaczmasek. The idea of finding it again made me break out in a cold sweat.

Mr. Herman said that Lawrence Kaczmarek of Elyria, Ohio was his wifes grandfather and that he had built The Westly in 1919. The date helped me narrow the search. I started with my 1922 Modern Homes catalog.

I hastily scanned the names in the testimonials and found it.

Built by Lawrence Kaczmasek, Ohio. He says, I saved about $1,000 on my Already Cut House.

And there was a picture of his stunning Westly, complete with a striped canvas awning over the dormer and flower pots on the porch. A real beauty. In the quiet of my small apartment, I danced a jig and made lots of happy noises. I called Richard right away and shared my news. He dropped the phone and excitedly passed the information along to his wife. (Its great to find people who share your excitement over inimitable historical tidbits found in dusty old catalogs.)

Westly plan
The Westly, from the 1922 Sears Modern Homes Catalog.

westly house
This Westly is similar to the house Kaczmarek built in 1919. The home pictured here (located in southeastern Virginia) still has its original railings on both the front porch and dormer.

In 1974, Kaczmareks Westly was slated for demolition. The city needed the property for a street extension. As the family faced the solemn chore of evacuating their life-long home, Richard Herman was asked to remove non-essential items from the basement and take them out to the back yard to be burned with all the other trash.

I realized that some of the trash included some interesting letters regarding the Sears kit home, Richard told me. I put those aside and saved them from the burn pile.

Unfortunately, the house was razed. All that remains of Lawrence Kaczmareks Westly are the documents that Richard saved and the photo in the 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Nearly 30 years later, Richard graciously shared those documents with me. It was one of the most remarkable finds of my career. For several nights, I tucked myself into bed with that binder full of old letters that had traveled back and forth between Sears and Lawrence Kaczmarek. I studied the Sears Roebuck letterhead, marveled at the old pica type with its missing jots and tittles and nearly memorized every word on every document. It was a lovely way to drift off to sleep.

Below is a summary of those letters which show, with incredible detail, the process of purchasing a Sears Modern Home. The first letter was a response to an initial inquiry from Lawrence. Sears replied with,

April 2, 1918

Due to the unsettled condition of the lumber market, as well as the market in all other lines, the price quoted in this letter is good for thirty days only. It will be to your interest to get your order in as soon as you conveniently can.

We have selected (electrical) fixtures suitable for this Modern Home. By looking through our Fixture Catalog, you may find fixtures which will meet with your taste better than the ones we selected and can change the list accordingly.

We also list gas and combination fixtures in this catalog, so in case you intend to use gas, the proper fixtures can be selected. The enclosed separate estimate on the plumbing for this house will show you what we will furnish for this item.

You certainly have selected a very attractive, well laid out home. The rooms in it are all large with plenty of windows to insure good light and the best of ventilation. The large pantry and plenty of closet room which this house has are features always appreciated by the housewife. The large front porch adds much to the appearance of this house, also to its comfort. It is indeed a home any man can well feel proud to own.

Remember, everything we furnish is guaranteed and you have the comfortable assurance in dealing with us of knowing that everything will be right.

We have a special reduced price on this house just now, and if you send your order to us before March 15, you may deduct $93 from the price quote in this letter ($2282.64).

I dont think Lawrence got his order in by March 15, 1918. Another letter from Sears - dated March 18, 1919 - states,

We acknowledge with thanks receipt of your order for material for our Modern Home The Westly, No. 2026, also bank letter from your banking company, advising us that you have deposited with them $2500 to our credit to pay for the material for this house. We note from your letter just what changes you desire made in the house.

The next letter is dated March 21, 1919 and reports that the house will soon be on its way.

We expect to ship your (railroad) car of lumber on or about March 29, and will advise you of actual date of shipment as soon as it goes forward. Other material for this house will be shipped in the order you will need it as possibly you have not room to store such material as is not immediately required.

If you do wish us to ship all material at once or if you wish us to delay the millwork until you instruct us to ship, please telegraph us and we shall be glad to arrange accordingly. The writer is going to give your order personal attention and if you have occasion to write us about it, be sure to use the enclosed stamped envelope. Do not hesitate to call on us or write us for any information we can give you during the time you are putting up your building.

Please be sure to caution your carpenter should there be any part in our plans that he cannot understand that he should write us for any information that he may desire before attempting to cut or fit the material.

Sometime in late March, Lawrence apparently telegraphed Sears and asked how much it would cost to change from Fire Chief Roofing to Slate Surfaced Shingles.

Sears responded with,

Changing from Fire Chief Roofing to Slate Surfaced Shingles will increase your order sixty dollars and fifty nine cents. Wire answer if OK to change.

Lawrence opted for the Slate Surfaced Shingles.

According to the 1921 Sears Building Materials catalog, Slate Surfaced Shingles were not slate shingles, but merely a good grade of asphalt shingles impregnated with crushed slate. The ad boasted, Never needs painting! Shingles were available in red and green and buyers were promised the roofing material was practically fireproof!

The Fire Chief Roofing was asphalt roofing that came in 36-foot rolls. The Fire Chief Roofing was a little cheaper than the Slate Surfaced Shingles.

The base-level Westly came with cedar roofing shingles. However, wooden shingles were falling from favor in the late 1910s. The 1921 building materials catalog explained why. Sparks from a passing train or a chimney can destroy a wood-shingled building at any moment. With Slate Surfaced Roofing you are protected from this danger. (Authors note: Eek.)

The letter, dated March 29, 1919, continued,

The mill has been given instructions to ship the lumber at once and follow it by a special wire tracer so as to avoid any unnecessary delay while in transit. When the lumber is received, kindly check it carefully with the list sent with our previous letter so that you will know positively that you have received all the material. If you find any shortage, report it to us within five days. This is very important.

In addition to the lumber, we will ship the hardware, paint, building paper, so that it will reach you at about the same time. The balance of the material with the exception of the millwork will follow in the order needed. We are shipping the paint in the colors as per your selection.

March 31, 1919 is the date of the next letter from Sears.

We are enclosing a blueprint of the working drawing for your Hercules Heating Plant. A copy of our instruction book has been mailed. If it should be necessary at any time during cold weather to leave the heating plant without fire in the boiler, be sure to drain the entire system, as explained in the instruction book.

When the heating plant arrives at your freight depot, please examine it carefully to see that it is in good condition. If there is anything you do not thoroughly understand or if there is any further information you desire, write us and your letter will have careful attention. (Roses translation: Please read the Hercules Heating instructions thoroughly so that you do not blow up yourself and your family and your Westly.)

On the ninth of April, Sears wrote to Lawrence with the good news that the house had been shipped.

The (railroad box)car of lumber for your Modern Home #2026 (The Westly) went forward from our yards on April 4th. On the blue print plans you have a list of the exact kind and number of pieces that were loaded into this car. This material was checked and rechecked when the car was loaded to make sure there would be no error of any kind.


As the car was sealed, you should receive everything in perfect order, but in your own interest we suggest that you carefully check over the lumber immediately upon arrival and if you should find any shortage or damage, write us promptly and give full description of the trouble and you shall have immediate attention.

For your own protection, it is absolutely necessary that you do this at once as any shortage or damage must have occurred on the way and the time for filing claim with the Railroad Company is limited.

Should any other shipment for this house arrive in bad order or with part missing, let us also know at once and send us your delivery receipt with agents notation of the damage or shortage so that we can at once fix the matter up without trouble, delay or expense to you.

A wee problem arose, which was addressed in a letter dated June 9, 1919.

As you received some of the parts of your furnace in a damaged condition, we are glad you returned them. We are replacing them for perfect parts, which will go forward to you, by freight, as soon as possible. We regret the inconvenience you have been caused by the delay in getting this matter straightened out for you..

Only one letter from Lawrence appeared and it is dated June 19, 1919. In it, Lawrence writes,

I am sending you an order for a Gem Bathroom Outfit which I will use for my new Westly home, #2026 which I am now building. Please send me rough-in measurements for the bath fixtures. Also send me door and window screens for the Westly home, 2026 and later on, will send an order for furniture. Please rush the rough-in measurements as we are awaiting them.

Sears replied on June 24, 1919 with the measurements for the Gem Bathroom Outfit.

At this point, Lawrence was apparently getting low on funds. He inquired about purchasing a Hercules pipeless furnace for the Westly. Originally, hed been interested in the Hercules Hot Water Heating Plant, which was a pricey little affair - $398.15, but well worth it. The pipeless furnace was $116.36.

Pipeless Furnace was a 1910s euphemism for a coal-burning, fire-breathing, soot-belching, behemoth space-heater that lurked in the basement, directly underneath the living room floor. It didnt have pipes (ductwork) because the hot air blew straight up out of the furnace and into the living room area. From there, it was hoped the 250-degree air would waft through the rest of the house. The result was unevenly heated homes. People in the living room were baking in the heat while the people upstairs struggled valiantly to break the ice in the toilet bowl.

Even Sears had to admit these furnaces had serious limitations. They departed from their characteristic puffery with this caveat on the Pipeless Furnace. Keeps entire house comfortably warm if the doors between adjoining rooms are left open and registers are installed in the ceiling [below] so as to allow a reasonable amount of air circulation between the rooms.

heating ad
This advertisement (from the 1930 Modern Plumbing and Heating catalog) shows a family enjoying warmth and comfort while the winter winds howl outside. Furnaces were not part of the kit home package because heating needs varied so much from region to region.

Coal furnaces were nasty business. Ask anyone more than 65-years-old what they remember about tending the fire in the coal furnace. Most of them will shudder, shake their head, wince and reply, Those things were awful.

Pipeless Furnaces were the lowest rung on the coal furnace ladder. But they were better than nothing and Sears offered them on the installment plan.

Sears wrote to Lawrence on July 7, 1919,

We would be glad to sell you this furnace on the time installment plan basisIn order that we might sell our goods on these [sic] basis we are compelled to add six percent to the price the material is listed at in our catalog.

On July 30, 1919, Sears wrote with news of another delay.

When we received your order for millwork, we notified you that we would ship it within 21 days, this being the usual time required. We have just received a letter from our factory stating that there has been a delay and they will ship your order August 20th or sooner. Delays of this sort are unusual with us, but for the past few weeks we have been receiving such a great number of orders that our factory has found it impossible to give their usual prompt service.

The next letter is dated April 15, 1920, nine months have passed since Lawrence received news that there was a delay. The house is apparently finished now.

Letter from Sears to Mr. Kaczmarek dated 1920. (note the spelling of the name is correct in the letter, but the name was misspelled as Kaczmasek in the testimonial section of the 1922 Sears Modern Homes Catalog.

Your kind reply to our letter about the house is much appreciated.

Can you get us a picture of it? A small snap shot or postcard view would do and we will be glad to pay whatever this costs you. If you do not already have a picture of the house, will you have some taken for us when the place looks its best and there are no signs of building around the house or yard?

We would be willing for you to wait for the most favorable weather to enable you to get the prettiest and most homelike picture possible. Any time within the next few months will do, but please do not forget it.

When sending them, please address them to the Modern Home Department.

The last letter from Sears is dated August 30, 1920.

We certainly appreciate very much your favor in sending us two pictures of your house. We are enclosing with this letter our check for $1.50 to cover the amount you paid for the pictures.

>> More excerpts from "The Houses that Sears Built"

Text and photos are copyright 2004 by Rosemary Thornton and Gentle Beam Publications, PO Box 1392, Alton, IL 62002. They may not be reproduced or distributed without her express written consent.

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