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 & Editor-in-Chief
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.
14 thoughts on “The History of Sears Kit Homes”
Hi Scott, I have an old house built aprox.1914 in Llano,Tx. I have a neighbor doing research on it for a Texas Historical Marker. I think it might be a catalog kit house. I have heard that kit houses if in original condition may qualify for the national register.Are there any ‘experts’ that could identify what co. & what model?
Hi John. I would try checking with your local historic preservation society.
I grew up in a Sears Craftsman house in Danville, Ky. My father built it for my mother when they married, around 1917. I loved that house. I have a good photo of it today, though I don’t live there.
Is there any way to see what type of door was in the dining room into the sunroom and from the dining room into the living room of the Osborne No 39 in the catalogue? We have owned one larger than the catalogue model in Waukesha, Wi. Obviously it was customized to enlarge it. Probably the doors and the fireplace bookshelf doors were removed in the 40’s or 50’s. If possible please assist. Thanks
What is the website address that shows all the craftmen home? I own the 1922 crescent model. there was a sears roebuck website that reproduce all the homes from being to the end in the 1940s. If you know it please text me 203 912 8126
WAS VERY INTERESTED IN THE SAME THING. DID YOU EVER FIND OUT?
I bought a Sears craftsman kit in Wellsville, ny. The “Marion” it was built I 1935. Is there anywhere that I could get a builder’s manual for this house?
My grandfather built Sears homes in State College, PA in the ’30’s. I have a leather bound book of photos that document his work, that includes his notes regarding who the homes were built for. My uncle, his son, will be 98 soon, and I have no doubt that he would be willing to speak about his knowledge of his father’s work. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hello Marguerite, came across your post on Craftsman homes you’re father built. I just purchased what I believe is (as close as I can tell) an “Argyle” floor plan but it’s been “HGTV’d (modernized). So can’t be 100 percent sure. Wanting to restore back to original but have nothing to go off of. Was there other models close to or maybe another company that had one close to the Sears? Any help would be great.
Thanks in advance
Where were the sears home kits fabricated and shipped from around 1920?
Have any books been published that show in detail the houses that Sears Roebuck sold in its catalogues over the years?
Hi Scott. So nice to see information on the Sears Craftsman home catalogue. Before moving back to Florida, we owned a 1924 Craftsman Bungalow in San Jose. Our neighborhood basically all had the same floor plan, but the differentiator was the exterior looks. We loved the way everything made sense. We now have a 1915 home and love every inch.
Wonderful post, Scott! We live in an authentic Sears Craftsman kit home. Our house’s kit was delivered by railroad, and built by the family who lived in it. We purchased it from the granddaughter who inherited it. Ours looks very much like the Elsmore in your post, but is brick, and with a wraparound porch. Our kit home has all the Craftsman features we love – a spacious porch, working fireplace, built-ins (bookshelves, cupboards,) high ceilings, crown molding, arched doorways, natural materials (hardwood floors, ceramic tile, brick,) and numerous wooden rope-hung windows in every room to flood the house with sunlight. Once you’ve lived in a Sears kit home, contemporary homes look (and feel) like shoe boxes.
Thank you for a great article!
I would love to find a company today that did something similar. Anybody out there know of one?