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Paint Colors for Sears Houses

Our expert updates the original palettes on the most popular kit houses offered by Sears in the early 20th-century, and updates them for today. By John Crosby Freeman

    Seroco paints catalogs from Sears outlined color schemes for all fo the company's mail-order houses.

    Seroco paints catalogs from Sears outlined color schemes for all fo the company's mail-order houses. (All illustrations from the collection of John Crosby Freeman)

    Many homes built in early 20th-century subdivisions were ordered from catalogs and delivered “ready-cut” in boxcars to be assembled on site. While several companies actively sold such prefabricated or “kit” homes, those supplied by Sears-Roebuck remain the most famous. Beginning in 1908, their “Modern Homes” division offered building plans, materials, and kit houses shipped by rail to every corner of the United States.

    These houses—produced into the 1930s—consisted of a few styles with many variations. One of the ways the homes could be customized was through their paint schemes, a fact that Sears capitalized upon with their own Seroco line of paints (from Sears Roebuck Company), which was promoted in separate catalogs. Through the years, individual Sears house designs came and went—but their Seroco colors remained constant. I’ve matched the original colors documented in rare Seroco catalogs with today’s extensive line of Sherwin-Williams paints. Since the original Seroco colors suggested for these five top-selling Sears houses are a bit bold for today’s tamer color sensibilities, I’ve lightened those palettes. All of these classic exterior colors are suitable for a range of old houses dating to the early 20th century.

    The Westly (Modern Home No. 144)

    The Westly (Sears Modern Home No. 144)

    In today’s post-modern era, Americans are more confused than ever about the meaning of the word “modern.” Stripped of architectural valuations, “modern” simply means “of today.” It was in this context that Sears identified the Westly model as “Modern Home No. 144.” While real-estate rhetoric of the period could be intoxicating, Sears soberly described the Westly in 1927 as “a high grade two-story house, retaining the architectural beauty of a modern bungalow. Built everywhere.” Surviving from 1911-1929, it was Sears’ all-time most popular house.

    The Westly is a classic American Arts & Crafts bungalow that symbolically marries elements of America’s two colonial architectures. Early Colonial of the 17th century is represented in both the brown weathered wood shakes on the second story and a New England Saltbox roofline turned back-to-front over a full-width recessed veranda. Georgian Colonial of the 18th century is represented, too, in first-floor clapboard siding painted Seroco’s Colonial Yellow.

    Westly color swatch featuring Sherwin-Williams paintsThe primary virtue of this illustration of the Westly from a 1920s Seroco catalog is shock value. Recent tsunamis of bland architectural off-whites have ruined America’s rich legacy of contrasting exterior colors, such as the saturated yellow ochre of Colonial Yellow. Although this original color is very close to Sherwin-Williams Gold Crest, today’s debilitated color sensibility isn’t up for living with it or the other bold Seroco shades in this original illustration (Leather Brown, Cream, and Maroon). Instead, I’ve substituted the weaker tint of Sunrise in my new prescription for colors and placements.

    • First-floor clapboards: Sunrise
    • Gable; foundation; veranda apron, piers, and floor; door casing:  Mocha
    • Windows:  Jersey Cream
    • Cornices, rafter tails, angle brackets, belt course, corner boards, foundation and fascia boards, pillars, rails, doors: Arresting Auburn
    • Eaves, balusters: Glamour
    • Veranda ceiling:  White Truffle

    Modern Home No. 105

    Sears Modern Home No. 105

    Sherwin-Williams paint colors for Sears Modern Home No. 105Here’s an inconvenient truth about America’s early 20th-century mass-marketed domestic architecture—old styles remained popular many years after they ceased being fashionable. Modern Home No. 105, from the back cover of the 1908 Seroco catalog, is a 19th-century classical vernacular homestead retaining popular late Victorian veranda and gable peak ornament. (Similar turned columns, angle brackets, and cornice drapery were available through millwork catalogs until World War I.) This house got a facelift in 1910, losing its gingerbread and gaining a neoclassical Colonial Revival veranda, but its homestead style survived.

    The original Seroco Terra Cotta walls and trim in Pearl and Myrtle Green make a bold statement. The following prescription is based on tints in the same palette, reduced in intensity.

    • Roof: Tile Red asphalt
    • Siding: Folksy Gold
    • Cornices, corner boards, angle brackets, rails: Jadite
    • Eaves, railing spindles: Kind Green
    • Windows, veranda ceiling: Creamery
    • Veranda, doors, foundation boards, gable ornament:  Isle of Pines
    • Foundation, veranda floor, fascia boards, stairs, door casing: Sawdust

    Modern Homes No. 111 & 146

    Sears Modern Home No. 111Sears Modern Home No. 146

    These two houses, both examples of square-type homes but with different stylistic flourishes, can be painted in similar schemes. Modern Home No. 111 (top), also from the back cover of the 1908 catalog, is a progressive descendant of the Victorian Italianate, minus the bracketed cornices. It retains its Late Victorian parfait layers of different wall coverings, with uncommon stucco down and clapboard up. These square-type houses, as they were called, drew attention to the economy of a square plan having the highest ratio of usable space to outer walls, other than an octagon or circle. In 1918, the latent Victorian paneled pedestals below the veranda columns were replaced with full-length Colonial Revival columns.

    The popular name for Modern Home No. 146 (bottom), a more stylish square-type design, was Shirtwaist House. Light-colored lower clapboard walls compress darker shingles on the second floor by rising to windowsills laterally extended as a belt course. Modern Home No. 146, the lead house in the 1910 catalog, was a robust mélange of Arts & Crafts and Colonial Revival details (note the over-scaled keystones in the third-floor Palladian windows).

    While No. 146’s sketch is in black & white, the Seroco catalog suggested a palette of Colonial Yellow stucco, Beaver Brown clapboards, and trim in Willow Green and Buff, illustrated on 111. Based on these originals, I suggest the following.

    • Roof: Gray shingles
    • Stucco walls: Harvester
    • Clapboards, railing spindles, pedestal panels, cornice eaves: Ryegrass
    • Cornices, corner boards, belt course, foundation boards, veranda (except panels), doors: Basque Green
    • Foundation, rails, stairs, veranda floor, fascia boards, door casings, dormers: High Tea
    • Windows: Vanillin
    • Veranda ceiling: Celery

    The Verona

    Illustrations in early Seroco catalogs showing and specifying colors quickly disappeared. Black-and-white pictures in Sears architectural catalogs only reveal lighter and darker parts. The Verona appears in the 1927 catalog in color only to promote the savings Sears’ houses offered without an architect’s fee (“from $100 to $1,000”).

    The Verona is a Colonial Revival, three-bay, central entrance, two-story classical vernacular homestead masquerading as a side-gabled Dutch Colonial. The Verona’s colorless walls cry out for contrasting colors, but to protect those with faint hearts not up to the Viagra of vivid colors, I’ve selected a conservative, classic gray color scheme rooted in Seroco’s Slate and French Gray, with green and red accents. Flower boxes help draw attention away from the roof, and awning stripes would traditionally repeat the roof color.

    • Roof: Dark gray shingles
    • Lower walls: Gray Area
    • Dormer walls: Unusual Gray
    • Roofline trim, door casing: Web Gray
    • Windows, side veranda : Navajo White
    • Shutters, flower boxes: Shamrock
    • Doors, stoop brackets: Fireweed

    Online Exclusive: Download a chart of all Seroco/Sherwin-Williams color matches.

    See Choosing Victorian Exterior Paint Colors for more inspiration.

    Published in: Old-House Journal August/September 2010


    Hilda Hilpert June 15, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    It’s really interesting to see how bold some of the color schemes where on old houses of the period. Wish I owned a Sears or other home of the period, but mine was I think built in the late 1930s, or early forties.
    By the way Mr.Freeman, I know you were working on a book,The Joy of Color. Has it ever been published? It was mentioned back in an Old House Journal from the 1990s.
    Thank you

    Michelle Thompson October 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Hello, I live on a farm, it has been in our family for over 100 years. There are 2 slave cabins and a few slave walls on the farm. Anyway my sister just recently moved into the old farm house which was built in 1909. The ceilings are 10 feet tall, and we are looking to paint a few rooms. We would really like to paint the house back to the era in which it was built in. If you could give us some suggestions it would be greatly appriciated! Thanks Michelle.

    Janata January 20, 2011 at 10:28 am

    I am writing a novel (first try) and it is set in a fictional town of Mosiac Louisiana. Since I am facinated by Sears kit houses would like to use a Shirtwaist House as a house the main character inherits. Do you know if there are copyright restrictions in describing such a house? These works of art deserve to be brought to the general public so new people can be introduced to them and their historic importance. I would so love to inherit such a treasure!

    Sharon Wolfe Railey February 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I own a Sears home like the one pictured here. I want to know where to put the second bathroom. Please advise. Mine is the 5 bedroom, the only bath is on the first floor. I added a sunroom off the kitchen. Very pretty!
    I think the only place is upstairs in the big eaves closet.

    Ken March 28, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    “Since the original Seroco colors suggested for these five top-selling Sears houses are a bit bold for today’s tamer color sensibilities, I’ve lightened those palettes.”

    I guess I consider myself more of a preservationist instead of having a modern, tamer color sensibility, and would prefer to know what the historic colors were. Too bad they weren’t included. I would think there are a lot of people interested in the original non-modified history – at least those reading a publication about old houses.

    Vickie Warf April 1, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I grew up in a Sears house that my father built. It had the dark grey shingles and lighter grey shutters around the windows. The house was white with a bright red door. My mother said the red door told suitors that there were eligible women inside. My father died when I was 10 so there were 3 eligible gals inside which included my sister. The house is now gone as it was bulldozed and replaced with a million dollar mansion with maids quarters. Oh well, the memories are great!

    Joe March 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Trying to match Catus Yellow paint use to buy at Sears.
    A Wheater Beater Product

    Hazel Twigg March 26, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I have house number 146! Right now it’s a dark gunmetal gray (pictured at my website) and white with a red door. I have a hard time imagining it in any other color scheme!

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