It may be hard to believe now, but Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Sears) helped build American neighborhoods as we know them today. Sears kit homes were an easy way for members of the middle class to realize their dreams of homeownership. Once purchased by catalog, the building materials were shipped in railroad cars and fully erected in as little as 90 days.
The History of Sears Kit Homes
To understand the profound impact Sears once had on consumers, it’s useful to compare this former catalog and department store giant to Amazon. From 1908 to 1942, the Chicago-based operation sold around 75,000 homes to anyone who had the cash and access to a catalog to choose one. Around 400 different styles were available, from Craftsmans to Cape Cods, to accommodate nearly any budget and family size.
Once ordered, the homes were shipped via train car and delivered as far as Alaska. These far-reaching effects were owed to the catalog’s great acclaim. Around one-fifth of the country in the early 20th century subscribed to this 1,400-page consumerism Bible, filled with more than 100,000 items each delivered directly to a customer’s front door with a quality guarantee.
The Modern Homes Program
When in 1908 Sears began its Modern Homes program, the company was in a brilliant position to reach interested people. And the same four-pound catalog that made home purchases possible also contained all necessary furnishments, from living room furniture to bathroom towels.
Why did a company renowned for its catalog success choose to sell homes? To unload its surplus of building materials sitting in warehouses. A former manager of the Sears china department turned a loss into a sales leader when he suggested bundling this stagnant inventory into a home kit. The Aladdin Company was just one competitor already testing the waters with such an idea, and Sears quickly followed the same path.
Selling the Concept of Dream Homes
Sears capitalized on increasing members of the middle class and WWI veterans who sought to build and live in their own homes. Each house style enjoyed a unique name, such as Starlight or Crescent, which only increased the appeal. Buyers could request design changes as they wanted, and some even provided entire blueprints to Sears. Staff then packaged the necessary materials and shipped the loaded cartons to a buyer’s address.
Once the kits arrived, buyers needed land and workers who could assemble the kits as instructed. The public immediately embraced this concept, and Sears homes sprung up across the country. At one time, Pleasantville, New York, had so many of these mail-order homes that a particular hill was named in their honor: Sears & Roebuck. Today, some Sears kit homes are included on the National Historic Register.
Accessible Housing for All
Sears kits were hugely popular for another reason: the catalog assured buyers that anyone with rudimentary skills could have their home built in 90 days. To substantiate this claim, the kits contained elements like balloon framing to simplify the building process. Sears also standardized the use of asphalt shingles and drywall to drive down construction costs for buyers.
The company’s simplistic home designs changed life forever. Most Americans in the early 20th century lived in multigenerational houses with different rooms allocated for different family members. But the Sears kit popularized newlywed homes and jumpstarted single-family living. It also made modern conveniences like electricity and central heating more widely available to Americans of all social classes.
Sears even shipped materials enough to build a schoolhouse! They had enough supplies and reach that their Honor Built products could span a large gamut of projects from small to large to satisfy alpost any need of the public.
The End of an Era
In 1939, they reportedly sold around $7 million in Sears kit homes. A year later, the Modern Homes department had grown to 120 salespeople working out of 16 district sales offices. But preparations for World War II ended the enterprise in 1942, by which time the demand for lumber had exploded. Output simply could not keep pace.
The Supplies Priorities and Allocations Board intervened in 1941 with an order that curtailed nonessential construction. This meant homes could only be erected for employees in defense industries like:
- Bomber plants
- Aircraft plants
- Tank plants
Consequences of War
Records show that Sears planned a new housing development in a New York suburb in 1941 – the same year the order was issued. But the company was forced to refund customer deposits because it could not source the lumber needed. The war’s growing demands quickly halted most residential construction throughout the U.S., and the Modern Homes segment of Sears closed.
Today, Sears homes remain as popular as ever, especially among history buffs and home investors. Some sell on the marketplace for over $1 million. If your home was built between 1908 and 1942, compare its floor plan and exterior dimensions against a Sears home field guide, such as “Finding The Houses That Sears Built” (2004, Gentle Beam Publications). You might be surprised to find that you, too, live in a mail-order home.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.