Last fall, e-commerce behemoth Amazon elicited bemused reactions when it started selling shipping container homes online. Beyond obvious jokes—was the Prime program simply finding a more straightforward way to ship you everything in your home—it was impressive that the company’s deliver-anything-to-your doorstep ethos now applied to homes, not just household goods. `
While Amazon’s logistics empire and same-day delivery service is perhaps its crowning achievement, sending homes through the mail isn’t new or novel. More than a century ago, Sears, Roebuck & Co. sent and shipped entire home kits across the country, a then-revolutionary service that would impact not just retailing, but home design and construction.
The retail chain’s bankruptcy filing this week, after decades of slow decline, obscures just how disruptive Sears was in its early 20th century heyday. While the business page obituaries will continue to position Sears as the Amazon of its day—and there’s some truth to that—the physical footprint left by Sears, especially via its kit home program and Modern Homes catalog, is wholly different than anything Amazon has yet to achieve.
Consider this: In an era before commercial aviation and long-haul trucking, Sears, Roebuck & Co. set up an operation that would package and ship more than 400 different types of homes and buildings to anybody who had the cash and access to a catalog. From 1908 to 1940, Chicago-based Sears sold between 70,000 to 75,000 homes—”from Craftsman to Cape Cods, they offered a custom home at budgets and sizes that could accommodate any size family,” according to Popular Mechanics—which were sent via train car and set up as far afield as Florida, California, and even Alaska.
As a company-produced history from 1918 noted, “the customer must be satisfied for a lifetime for every house we sell is a standing advertisement for Sears, Roebuck and Company.”
The dawn of catalog houses and DIY construction
To fully appreciate the impact of the Sears kit homes, it’s important to understand the reach of the company’s famous catalog. In 1908, when Sears began selling homes by mail, one-fifth of the country subscribed, according to a 99 Percent Invisible podcast about the program. Americans anywhere could flip through the four-pound, 1,400-page Bible of consumerism, thumb through more than 100,000 items, and have any one of them delivered to their door.
Sears gave consumers what they wanted, with a quality guarantee and cross-country shipping. The Modern Homes program, as the home kit division was called, simply took that philosophy to its conclusion, with the hope that anyone building a brand-new Sears house would furnish it with brand-new Sears goods.
Additionally, the Sears kit home program showcased some ingenuity in turning a loss into a sales leader. In 1906, the company’s building materials department was flailing, a result of an unwieldy number of items. Unsold goods sat in warehouses. That’s when Frank W. Kushel, former manager of the Sears china department, stepped in and suggested bundling inventory as a kit, an concept that competitors such as the Aladdin Company had already begun trying out.
As the company’s own archive site states, “Sears was not an innovative home designer. Sears was instead a very able follower of popular taste.” The company picked models, with appealing and aspirational names such as the Avondale, Crescent, or Starlight, selling the growing American middle class, and WWI veterans, the dream of their own home.
Buyers could request changes, and even send entire blueprints to Sears, which would have workers assemble all the requisite materials and ship everything needed to build their dream home. Buyers would simply provide land and labor. Sears would later even sell mortgages, until the Great Depression forced the retailer to foreclose on millions of dollars of customer homes, never a good look for building brand loyalty.
The public loved this new affordable means to buy a home, and still loves these homes to this day. In Carlinville, Illinois, Standard Oil bought $1 million worth of catalog homes to house their works, creating a 12-block area of Sears homes, the largest such collection in the U.S. (the company eventually named the Carlin model after the town). At one time, Pleasantville, New York, had a Sears & Roebuck hill because of the proliferation of mail-order homes, according to the book Houses by Mail. Today, several Sears homes are listed on the National Historic Register.
The cultural effects of homes by mail
Providing cheap, accessible, and quality housing is a significant accomplishment. But the cultural impact of Sears kit homes goes beyond just being a good buy.
Sears promised that a buyer with only rudimentary skills could assemble a kit home in 90 days. To back up this claim, the kit homes utilized balloon framing, a simpler method of building the skeleton of a home, helping to popularize the process. In addition, Sears also helped standardize the use of drywall and asphalt shingles, which both brought down the cost of construction for the average buyer.
Sears sold kits that lived up to the Modern Homes brand, making then new, novel, and costly modern conveniences such as central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity available to a wider array of Americans.
Farewell, Sears, Roebuck and Co., whose mail order catalogs included 400+ styles of kit homes that sold at least 70,000 units between 1908 and 1940. pic.twitter.com/Ce4x2bWkgi— David Rifkind (@acmedef) October 15, 2018
Sears’ more simplistic home system also shifted social views on housing, according to 99 Percent Invisible. Americans had been living in multigenerational housing, with different rooms for different family members. Sears helped popularize new homes for newlyweds, and helped kickstart the rise in single-family living that would dip during the recession, but accelerate dramatically after WWII.
These homes were also technological feats. Prefabricated in mills and workshops across the U.S., Sears homes utilized pre-cut timber and parts before Ikea, and foreshadowed the prefab and modular home movements decades before they became buzzwords.
Finally, the anonymity that catalog sales offered was a powerful corrective to the abuses of the Jim Crow era. This idea of delivering anything to anyone, anywhere, was selling social justice at a time when segregation and racism severely restricted the rights, as well as shopping habits, of black Americans.
Today, Sears homes still capture the imagination of history buffs and home buyers. Realtors place a premium on these quaint, Victorian-inspired designs, which often seem straight from a scene in the (fictional) Pleasantville, and some have recently sold for more than $1 million. A community of Sears catalog home fans has created books, maps, and tours of the homes (finding stamped lumber can be a sign your home was built from a kit).
In so many ways, the Sears kit homes popularized many trends that would shape American housing. Who would have thought that homes delivered through the mail would perhaps stand longer than the legendary company that sold and shipped them?