Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sears and Roebuck "Modern Homes"

Cover of the 1911 Catalog

The One That Started It All—Sears & Roebuck 
…Well, not really.  But Sears & Roebuck is certainly the most recognizable name when it comes to a history of prefabricated housing.  The famed Sears & Roebuck began selling homes in 1908.  Their brand was called “Modern Homes from Sears and Roebuck”.  Anyone could request a catalog by sending $1 and a written request.  Eventually, the Modern Homes line became three distinct lines (for three distinct budgets).  Honor Bilt [sic] was the most expensive line and contained the best materials and finishes.  Standard Built were the next up.  Simplex Sectional was the basic line, with only a few rooms and no plumbing being typical of these designs.  You could even buy a garage or barn from Sears.  Between 1908 and 1940 (when Sears ended the line), 447 different designs were offered.

Modern Home No. 145 from 1913
What You Got  
When you bought a “Modern Home”, you got a few sets of plans (drawn by a “licensed architect”!) and a separate leather-bound set of instructions (with your name embossed in gold) and a bill of materials.  This bill included a suggestion about concrete block and other non-supplied materials that would be needed.  Oh yes, and a HOUSE.  A complete pile of materials to build a HOUSE.  You went to your local railroad freight station to meet it, and it was trucked to your lot.   The lumber was stamped with a letter and a number, and your carpenter (or you and your friends, if you were handy) matched it up and nailed it together—with nails that arrived in the kit!  Windows, shingles, varnish, paint—everything for a “modern” house.  The trim and millwork were also provided.  And you thought Ikea had a monopoly on the build-it-yourself phenomenon.

A Complete Bathroom Outfit for $37.95!
What You Didn’t Get  
The homes were great, but they weren’t quite ready out-of-the-box.  A noticeable omission—plumbing and fixtures.  Wiring, too.  But here’s the good news—Sears sold all of that, too!  Advertisements for these accessories (like…furnaces and toilets) were located at the back of the catalog.  And the foundation, well, that was up to you…and your local code enforcement agency.  Of course you had to provide the land, but building lots were plentiful in the early part of the 20th century.  The kitchens were not outfitted, but keep in mind most Americans did not have “built-in” kitchens until after the 1940s.  Prior to that, often the only built-in fixture in the kitchen was the sink (which was usually provided)—the cabinets were moveable pieces of furniture.

"The Alhambra" from 1919
Even though the homes were priced reasonably (below $2000 in 1912, for example), the average family still was stretched buying one of these homes.  Beginning in 1911, Sears began offering financing plans (and sometimes even building materials and labor credit).  The loans were extremely “liberal” by the standards of the day—6% interest for a 5-year loan that could be extended over as many as 15 years.  1929 saw the end of the loan program (surprised?).  A look at the loan form reveals only one question about income:  "What is your occupation?"  I guess this was the forerunner of the much-ballyhooed unverified mortgages.  

Innovative Construction Techniques
Perhaps you’ve heard of drywall.  It shipped with the “Modern Homes”.  Asphalt shingles?  Modern Homes, too.  Balloon Framing?  You guessed it.  Now standard, these materials/techniques were used to save time and money.  The instructions included the caution:  "Do not take anyone's advice on how to build this house"--an indication that the construction materials and techniques were somewhat unusual.

The Sears Legacy 
The Sears homes can be found virtually everywhere in the United States.  Most of the homes are of modest size and are often appointed with “Craftsmen” details.  These homes are often identified as “Craftsmen Bungalows”.  As design tastes changed, the Sears Modern Homes changed as well.  The last few years of the Modern Homes don’t bear much resemblance to the earlier homes, but they retained the construction techniques and quality of all the Sears homes of the past. 

More to come on Sears:  Accessories!

"The Elsmore" - from 1921 - a very typical Sears Craftsman

"The Hammond" from 1937 - Much less "Craftsmen"-y, but still a Sears Modern Home. 

1 comment:

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