William Levitt was not the first person or business to use a prefabricated method of home construction. He certainly took the science to the next level when he was building almost 30 homes per day in the late ’40′s in Levittown. But, the prefabricated business of home construction was 50 years old by that time. In the late 1800′s, Sears and Roebuck was the leading retailer in the home mail order business. Almost every rural community in America relied on their highly anticipated thick catalog full of every gadget known to man. The catalog contained every necessary item for the house and barn, and when no longer needed, it supplied the outhouse. Sears was known for reliability, quality and, convenience.
Around the turn of the century, Sears was entering the catalog Home building business. They would design, cut, package and ship, by rail, more than 70,000 homes between 1908 and 1940. Sears created hundreds of different floor plans and exteriors. They were also able to take any individual customer’s design and pre-package the order with all the required items. This style of construction was extremely efficient and affordable. Traditional forms of home building required creating, fashioning, forging or milling the necessary materials to complete the home at considerable expense and time.
The construction techniques designed by Sears were clearly ahead of its time. The builder was occasionally the home buyer with help from willing neighbors but most of the time carpenters were hired. Unskilled labor was not an issue due to the simplistic construction design. One of the newer building techniques, for example, consisted of the interior walls being constructed from nailed framing of 2×4 pine studs extending from the floor sill plate to the rafters, instead of the heavy timbers that had typically been used which required hand hued mortised tongue and groove connections. This new style of construction was called ‘balloon’ studded framing; it made possible for fewer, less skilled workers to erect a single wall section. This design was used into the 50′s and modified techniques continue today. There are other examples of cost saving and simplistic design methods, like inexpensive sheets of dry wall nailed over the balloon framing of the interior walls instead of the labor intensive plaster over lattice and wire mesh that was normal for the day. Asphalt shingles for the roof were relatively new to construction but much more efficient than the typically, labor intensive, split shingle (shake) system or a Tin roof covering, both requiring extensive labor and skill.
Modern conveniences were continuously being incorporated into plans and the catalog was full of add on options. Kitchens had the latest appliances and homes were outfitted with central heat and in some cases, central air.
Detailed in her book entitled, The Houses That Sears Built, Rosemary Thornton writes: “Between 1908 – 1940, more than 75,000 Sears’s homes were built. Sears kit homes contained 30,000 pieces, including 750 pounds of nails, 27 gallons of paint, and a 75-page instruction book. Sears estimated that the average carpenter would charge $450 to assemble those 30,000 pieces of the house. The painter’s fee – $34.50. Other estimated skilled labor would cost $1.00 an hour. Prices for these build-it-yourself houses ranged from $147.00 to $6,000.00. After selecting a house design from the Sears Modern Homes catalog, customers were asked to send in $1.00. By return mail, they received a bill of materials list and blueprints. When the buyer placed the actual order for the home building materials, the $1.00 sent in earlier was credited toward the purchase.”
Sears catalog orders were robust until the Great Depression gripped the nation, stripping over 30 billion dollars of her wealth in the first week. The continued effects were devastating as businesses, and home owners lost everything they had. Home foreclosure rates soared to approximate 1,000 per day. Sears catalog orders certainly were affected by the Depression as their business started to slow. Although, The Great Depression never stopped the Sears Home catalog business, changing housing codes would bring an end to it. Sears could no longer adapt to the changing local building codes in municipalities and states. By the 1940′s, Sears had dropped their catalog home mail order business.
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Sears Catalog Homes:
For more than 10 years, Rose Thornton has traveled throughout the country, seeking and finding Sears Homes. In that time, she’s written countless newspaper and magazine articles, in addition to several books.
Rose is the author of The Houses That Sears Built (2002,) Finding the Houses That Sears Built (2004) and she’s the co-author of California’s Kit Homes (2004) and Montgomery Wards Mail-Order Homes (2010). Rose’s newest book – The Sears Homes of Illinois – was published in December 2010.
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