The Story on Sears Houses

For more than 30 years, the Chicago-based retailer was the king of catalog Sears houses.

Featured in catalogs from 1912 to 1929, the Westly was one of Sears’ most popular designs. It still shines in countless towns across the country by the hundreds, if not thousands.

Remember Frank W. Kushel? No? Well, you’re not alone. And more’s the pity, we might add, for the uncelebrated Mr. Kushel may have had as much impact on American housing as his famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Kushel wasn’t an architect. He was a merchandising genius credited with inventing Sears, Roebuck and Company’s Modern Homes program, which provided well designed, well constructed, economical shelter for perhaps 75,000 American families between 1908 and 1940. Today, buyers are still snapping up vintage Sears houses just as eagerly as they did 80 years ago.

Kushel was managing Sears’s china department in 1906 when he was given the dismal task of overseeing the dismantling of the catalog company’s unwieldy, money-losing building materials department. Sales were down, and there was too much inventory sitting in expensive warehouses. It seemed time to unload the lot.

Then, hmmm . . . Kushel had an idea. He was convinced that the building supplies could be sold at a profit if storage could be centralized and the goods distributed more rationally—and if there was a little extra incentive for buying them. Instead of abandoning the sale of millwork and other building parts, why not change the way these goods were sold? What if customers could pick a plan for their dream house from a Sears catalog? Then, instead of selling building materials in random bits and pieces, Sears could market them in a coordinated package—one containing exactly what was needed to build a particular house and shipped directly to the railroad station nearest the building site. One order could include everything—nails and screws, paint and roof shingles, windows and doors, woodwork, staircases, and mantelpieces.

Perennial bestsellers were suburbanized versions of the center-hall Colonial house, replete with full-width dormers and suitably early American names, such as the Puritan and the Martha Washington (shown here). (Photo: James C. Massey)

Of course, since Sears’s big general merchandise catalogs were already selling everything needed to furnish a house—from beds and chairs to toilets, sinks, and kitchen ranges—the sales of all these items would increase, too!

Kushel’s boss, Richard Sears—himself no slouch at merchandising—recognized the plan’s potential immediately and so did the buying public. Sears’s reputation for quality, low prices, and reliability, carefully nurtured since the company’s founding in 1886, was like money in the bank for its customers. The company’s first 44-page Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, issued in 1908, brought an immediate and enthusiastic response.

Kushel wasn’t the only or even the first person to come up with a scheme to sell houses by catalog and ship them by rail. In 1906 the North American Construction Company (soon to become known as the makers of “Aladdin Houses” and “Readi-Cuts”) of Bay City, Michigan, had begun selling rail-shipped pre-cut buildings—small cottages, garages, and boathouses—out of a mail-order plan book. It wasn’t until about 1911 that Sears included framing lumber in its package, and the company didn’t begin to offer pre-cut and factory-fitted lumber until 1914. Before then, the lumber still had to be cut to fit at the building site. Montgomery Ward, Sears’s foremost catalog competitor in general merchandise, was even slower to jump on the bandwagon, waiting until 1910 to sell house plans from a catalog and 1918 for ready-cut houses. Sears and its competitors all depended on rail service, which by the early 20th century covered most of the continent, and regional lumber mills where the wood could be centrally processed.

This early Sears house in Williamsburg, Virginia, not only predates the catalog name system, but also still carries many vestiges of the Victorian era, from bay windows to “horseshoe” gable ornament. (Photo: James C. Massey)

In 1911, Sears added an irresistible new twist. The company decided not just to sell house-building packages, but to finance them as well. The nation’s booming population was straining the seams of a tight housing market, yet the huge and fast-growing middle and working classes (many members of which were recent European immigrants) had been largely ignored by a conservative banking community. If Sears could offer reasonable interest rates and low down payments, the market seemed endless. Although the financing package initially included only building materials, it soon expanded to cover the building lot.

Not only were the terms easy—a down payment of 25 percent of the cost of house and lot, as little as 6 percent interest for 5 years, or a higher rate for up to 15 years—but the application form contained no questions about race, ethnicity, gender, or even finances. Thousands of formerly ineligible buyers were absorbed into the new-home market.

Catalogs by Category

Straightforward to build and practical to won, houses like the Woodland (1913 to 1933) appear in almost every catalog. (Photo: Charles Steck)

There is a tendency to think of the “Sears House” as a monolithic entity, but there were actually many different Sears catalogs that offered houses and auxiliary buildings, such as garages. Others continued to sell just lumber and building parts, which had been a Sears staple. Distinctions among the buildings offered, the quality of the materials, and the construction methods used can be confusing.

On one level was what Sears called a house kit. For these, Sears provided building plans and specifications, along with the lumber and any other materials needed. The shipment included everything from nails, screws, and paint to prebuilt building parts, such as staircases and dining nooks. It did not include masonry, such as bricks and cement blocks, which would be cheaper to procure locally than to send by rail. The lumber was cut to size at the building site before being assembled by a local builder.

Ready-Cut: The true Ready-Cut House package, first offered about 1914, included plans, specifications, and detailed assembly instructions, along with pre-cut and factory-fitted lumber and all other building materials except masonry. The lumber was stamped with the Sears name and numbered on the ends of the boards to correspond to numbers on the floor plans, so that mistakes in assembly were less likely—though far from impossible, as many extant Sears houses testify by their otherwise inexplicable deviations. Sears estimated that using their pre-cut and fitted lumber could save 40 percent on labor costs.

Staircases were often the visual centerpiece of the two-story models, and their design reflected the era in which the houses were constructed, varying from rectilinear Arts & Crafts in the 1910, such as in the Woodland (shown here), to Spanish and Old English in the 1920s to Colonial or Early American in the 1930s. (Photo: Charles Steck)

In theory, really handy homeowners could—and some did—put together their own Sears houses with only the aid of the instruction manual. More often, the actual construction was left to—or at least required considerable help from—a local builder. Over the 30-year lifespan of the Modern Homes program, the various service systems within the house—such as plumbing, electricity, and heating—became more complex, so that owners were more likely to call in trade specialists. At any rate, Sears always furnished estimates of the finished cost of the house, including labor (not part of the Sears package).

Honor Bilt: Among Ready-Cut Houses, the Honor Bilt line (apparently established about 1918) was the standard setter. Honor Bilts used high-quality materials and heavy framing. They had double floors (a subfloor and a 13/16″ thick finish floor of maple or oak), oak wall paneling, doors, trim, and cabinets, three coats of exterior paint, and higher-grade hardware.

Sears encouraged Honor Bilt buyers to specify the more deluxe bathroom “outfits”—sets of tubs, sinks, and toilets—and kitchen sinks, all of which were optional and separately priced. Electrical systems, water heaters, and furnaces were also separate options. The Honor Bilts were generally larger, more elaborate houses than the ones that Sears called “Standard Builts.”

This Arlington, Virginia, house is the Fullerton, which appeared from 1925 to 1933. (Photo: James C. Massey)

In a few cases, Honor Bilts were not pre-cut. Sears furnished wood lath for plaster walls, but not the plaster. Alternatively, customers could opt for “sheet plaster” (gypsum board, an early form of wallboard) at considerably greater expense. For roofing, they could choose between red cedar shingles or the costlier “Oriental Asphalt” shingles, which came with a 17-year guarantee.

Standard Builts: Less expensive than the Honor Bilt and of correspondingly lower quality was the Standard Built House (also known as Econo Bilt or Lighter-Built). The lightly framed Standard Builts were most often used for summer cottages, hunting cabins, and very small dwellings, and were generally recommended for warm-weather situations. Some designs were offered in both Honor Bilt and Standard Built versions. Sears advised potential buyers that, because the Standard Builts had only a single layer of flooring and the walls were not plastered, they were harder to heat than Honor Bilts. Nonetheless, these little light-weights sometimes turn up even today as year-round residences. They were usually not precut or fitted.

Simplex: The Simplex was a prefabricated, panelized, one-story building that could easily be taken apart. Demountable and portable, it was most often used for garages, summer cottages and cabins, and small, utilitarian buildings that the owner might wish to move from place to place. There are separate Simplex catalogs dating from as early as 1911.

Ever the savvy marketers, Sears debuted its long-running bungalow, the Avondale (1911 to 1922) with a promotional postcard and a model at the 1911 Illinois State Fair. (Photo: James C. Massey Archive)

What Styles When?

Modern Homes catalogs were issued most years (apparently sometimes twice a year) from 1908 until 1940, although there are a few years for which no catalogs are presently known. In the beginning, Modern Homes designs were assigned numbers rather than names, but soon titles—often suggesting a style provenance—began to accompany the attractive illustrations. Sears knew its audience well and its designs were those most popular at the time. The styles were deliberately conservative rather than innovative.

Beginning with a simplified Queen Anne, Modern Homes styles ranged from Arts & Crafts bungalows and Foursquares in the 1910s and ’20s, through the various European revivals of vaguely French, English, and Spanish (usually Mission) styles in the 1920s, to the Colonial Revivals, Cape Cods, and Dutch Colonials found mostly in the 1920s and ’30s.

Modern Homes catalogs often carried designs well past what is generally considered their peak years. Bungalows, for instance, were among the most frequently built of all of Sears house types (and along with the Colonial Revival and the Cape Cod cottage, the longest-lived), appearing in every catalog from 1908 onward. As late as 1939 the “Winona,” which first appeared in 1916, is shown with another, rather stodgy five-room example, the “Plymouth,” which first appeared in 1934.

Trolling for interest in International-style houses, Sears sneaked a truly modern home, the Bryant, into its 1938 and ’39 catalogs. (Photo: James C. Massey Archive)

Although most designs were conservative, there were some large and elegant surprises. One of the most elaborate (described in the 1918 and 1921 catalogs as bearing “a close resemblance” to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, residence) is the three-story, eight-room neo-Georgian “Magnolia,” with its two-story columned portico, porte-cochere, and sleeping porches. The “Aurora” and the “Carlton,” both of which appear in 1918, are sophisticated Prairie School designs, and the flat-roofed “Bryant” is in the International style. The 1933 to 1939 catalogs feature several early split-levels, including the “Concord.”

Sears’s later catalogs included a number of Sears-built exhibition houses, including two reproductions of Mount Vernon (one for a 1931 exposition in Paris and one for a Washington Bicentennial celebration in Brooklyn); a reproduction of New York City’s Federal Hall, the first capitol of the United States (also for the Washington Bicentennial); a “dream home” for Warner Brothers (erected in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania); and a fully furnished model house exhibited at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

Sears Houses Insider Information

Sears prided itself on offering floor plans that were both efficient and attractive, maximizing the usability of very limited space. The smaller houses sometimes combined living and dining rooms, while the smallest made do with a built-in eating nook or the kitchen table.

Inventory and assembly stamps and labels on the backs of woodwork or parts help pin down the provenance of a Sears house. (Photo: David Sharpe)

Most of the houses had two or three bedrooms, although some had four or even five. The majority had only one bathroom, and some, especially in the early 20th century, had none, since many rural and even some suburban areas lacked piped-in water and sewers or septic fields. By the 1930s, though, quite a few of the larger houses had two (or even two and a half bathrooms) or a full bath and a “powder room.” Buyers had their choice of two different outfits, depending on their tastes and pocketbooks and on the requirements of the bathroom layout. Kitchen sinks were included in the specifications.

The Sears house was often equipped with the most sought after conveniences of its time, from built-in china cabinets, mirrored closet doors, dining nooks and kitchen cupboards, to built-in ironing boards, telephone niches, and medicine cabinets. Some of these amenities came as part of the package, while others were options.

Sears houses were often built in multiples, creating entire homogeneous neighborhoods. A number of these still exist, many in industrial towns. One of the best known Sears house locations is in Carlinville, Illinois, where Standard Oil of Indiana built a million-dollar development of 192 Honor Bilt houses for employees of Schoper coal mine (156 intended for miners and other workers, an additional 28 nearby and somewhat more deluxe meant for supervisors). The five- and six-room houses of what became known as the Standard Addition, which included many bungalows and Foursquares, cost roughly $3,600 to $4,600 and were regarded as unusually fine examples of worker housing.

Pocket-sized English cottages were a Sears staple in the 1930s. Like many, the Bellewood (1931) was rendered in wood. (Photo: James C. Massey)

On the other end of the socioeconomic scale are places like Cheverly, Maryland, or Crescent Hills in Hopewell, Virginia, both affluent neighborhoods of “strictly high-class [Sears] homes” built by private developers in the 1920s. (Hopewell also has a large group of Aladdin houses built during World War I for workers at the DuPont Corporation’s gun-cotton factory there.)

The Modern Homes mortgage program peaked in the late 1920s but showed increasing signs of strain as the full effects of the Great Depression hit. Sears withdrew from the Modern Homes and mortgage loan market in 1934, but was selling houses again a year later, after the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration and its federally insured mortgages fueled a brief upsurge in the housing market. The Modern Homes program was finally defeated by tens of millions of dollars in mortgage defaults, as well as pre-World War II shortages of building materials. The last Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940.

By the time the Modern Homes project folded for good, Sears houses were a staple of the American landscape. Frank Kushel continued to head the Modern Homes program until the end, by which time he was still hardly any better known than he had been in 1906. And Frank Lloyd Wright? Interestingly enough, Wright—who always had a strong interest in designing houses for Everyman—entered the pre-cut home market himself when he produced a number of designs for prefabricated houses, American System-Built Houses, for the Richards Company of Milwaukee between 1911 and 1916.

Tags: Catalog Houses James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell OHJ July/August 2002 Old-House Journal Sears houses

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