In 1888, Richard Sears, the son of a blacksmith and wagon maker, put out a thin catalog full of watches and jewelry claiming, “The Lowest Prices On Earth.” A telegraph operator, the 23-year-old Sears started the R.W. Sears Watch Company after making a bundle selling watches through a side hustle for a wholesaler, and he moved his company to Chicago the following year. He soon moved on to selling anything and everything a person could want—mail order bicycles, firearms, baby carriages, and, in 1908, houses. But what exactly is a mail order home?
Mail order homes could be purchased through catalogs from as early as 1906 to as late as 1982. Purchasers could expect to receive both the architectural plans and all the materials needed to build the home. What did that look like? You mailed in your order and then all the pieces were collected and shipped via train car. Sometimes that meant that a load of bulk lumber would be dropped on a lot, ready for the future homeowner to cut it to size for construction. But for obvious reasons, that wasn’t ideal and more often pre-cut lumber was dropped off, ready to assemble. Pre-cut lumber shipments were called “kit” homes.
These kit home shipments would also include doors, windows, flooring, roofing materials, hardware, and even enough paint to cover everything with two coats. Everything fit together like Ikea furniture on a grand scale. Sometimes folks wanted to build their homes themselves, but often people hired contractors. There were copious design options, and the styles of the homes had names like Starlight or Crescent, making them all the more alluring. Even more remarkable is that the homes were customizable, and buyers could ask for design alterations. In fact, they could even submit their own blueprints to Sears. Company staff then packaged the necessary materials and shipped the loaded cartons to a buyer’s address.
Electric, plumbing, and heating fixtures were the only construction amenities that didn’t come with the kits, but fret not, those were also available as add-ons. About 20% of the country subscribed to what became a massive catalog of around 1,400 pages. More than 100,000 items could be delivered right to your door, and they all had a quality guarantee, so when you ordered your house, you could also tack on everything from a kitchen sink to bath towels. The homes styles ranged from American Foursquares to bungalows to Cape Cods. Around 400 different home styles were available!
Pages from Sears catalogs from 1908-1934 featuring the wide range of architectural styles and options.
Outside of the convenience of having your home delivered to you, the kits were hugely popular because they were affordable. Accessible, modern housing was made possible because people who had some basic carpentry skills and a bit of patience could build their own homes, cutting out the construction labor. Sears also used balloon frame construction, which simplified the process, and standardized cheaper materials like asphalt shingles and drywall.
Sears was not the only company selling homes through catalogs—there were eight major companies in addition to small, locally run companies that sold homes in both the U.S. and Canada—but Sears was a giant. By the time the catalog was discontinued in 1940, Sears sold a staggering 75,000 houses. In 1939, business was still booming, but in this regard and many others, World War II changed everything. Demand for lumber exploded and the Supplies Priorities and Allocations Board issued an order that any non-essential construction must be halted. Only employees in defense industries could build homes.
Today, there are plenty of mail-order home enthusiasts documenting and writing about Sears homes and places like Pleasantville, New York, which had so many of these mail-order homes that a hill in town was named Sears & Roebuck. Sears kit homes have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and can sometimes sell for huge sums of money. Some estimate that about 70 percent of Sears houses are still standing today.
Do you know of any kit homes in your neighborhood? We’d love to hear about them!
For more information on Sears and other mail order homes, check out the resources below: