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Noted in Passing: One Ten Room Colonial Home “Already Cut and Fitted. $5,375”

In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 44 house styles ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. These early houses, however, were not prefabricated. Sears simply provided the raw materials; the buyer had to cut the timber to appropriate dimensions themselves. The first pre-cut timber pieces were offered in 1916. According to Sears, building a house with pre-cut lumber reduced construction time by up to forty percent. Sears also provided wallpapers, paint, and varnishes, lath, shingles, roofing, and windows. Doors and windows in particular were pre-assembled and trim pre-cut and shaped. However, the package did not include the foundations, masonry cladding, or plaster because providing masonry would have increased overhead cost-reducing customer satisfaction in terms of cost.
An average Sears Modern Home kit had approximately 25 tons of materials, with over thirty thousand parts. To keep costs low, certain items such as indoor plumbing, furnaces, electrical wiring, and bathroom were offered as options. Sears also offered a plasterboard product similar to modern drywall as an alternative to the plaster and lath wall-building techniques which required skilled carpenters and plasterers, all done to keep prices low and appeal to prospective buyers.

The delivery chain logistics of the Sears Modern Home was very efficient for the time, with customers receiving updates when a product was shipped and their expected date of arrival. The materials were usually sent through rail, because it was efficient and relatively inexpensive. Most houses would fit into two boxcars, but they were generally delivered in stages as the construction progressed. The customer received a detailed list of the materials scheduled to arrive, their origin and expected arrival date. Then each supply point mailed a postcard to the customer to say when each component had actually been shipped. Once the shipments arrived at the local train depot, the customer arranged for them to be transported by cart or by truck to the building site. — Sears Mail-Order Homes

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  • ghostsniper June 29, 2021, 6:46 PM

    I didn’t live in that era, but I sort of knew it.
    My grandparents on my dad’s side had a Sears house and I stayed there a lot when I was but a lad.
    My dad was born in that house in 1932. It was a craftsman style with dark red roof shingles all over the outside. If you fell against the wall, like I did once, it wore the hide right off’n ye. Burned like nitro lava. Lots of dark wood everywhere inside. Full width front porch, 2 story, eat in kitchen, basement with coal furnace. This was on N. Spring Road in Carlisle, PA and the backyard faced right up against the Pennsylvania turnpike.

    Came complete with window sash weights and a slinking gloss black panther statue for the mantle.

  • EX-Californian Pete June 29, 2021, 7:55 PM

    Wow. What an era that was.

    And what a shame that a gigantic American institution like Sears, Roebuck, & Company went belly up after struggling for so long. Remember the old ads- “Sears has everything?” And the 1910 Sears catalogue I had proved it- EVERY-FREAKIN-THING. It was bigger than a phone book.

    I guess the competition with Harbor Freight, Amazon, etc., was just too much for them. American-made goods couldn’t compete with cheapass foreign labor.
    I figured that S&R (and Craftsman) might be going extinct back about 2006 when I went to the Sears store in Chico to get a replacement pressure regulator for my big old Craftsman compressor, found the right one, took it to the cashier and then saw that the package said “MADE IN CHINA.”

    In shock, I asked the cashier why I should buy that one instead of the exact same one that H.F. was selling for half the price. He said the same company made both ones, and H.F. just sold it cheaper. Bummer.
    At least I could exchange the broken 25′ Craftsman tape measure that was lifetime guaranteed while I was there, right? Nope. That policy was discontinued.

    Now we have a “President” that’s pretty much “made in China,” and we’re watching as the USA economy collapses like Sears & Roebuck did. How sad, indeed.

  • gwbnyc June 29, 2021, 8:22 PM

    Thomas Sowell makes mention of the failures of sears, montgomery-ward, A&P in his explanations of economics.

    Edison marketed concrete homes, I think two still exist in NJ.

  • Gordon Scott June 29, 2021, 8:58 PM

    I had a temp job about 18 years ago with Wells Fargo. There was a company that sold you a house kit, all planned out like the Sears kit, with deliveries in stages. The homeowner had to arrange a contractor. But then the company selling the kits went belly up.

    Wells Fargo, having provided the financing, was on the hook for a lot of half-finished houses. They rented a floor of a suburban office building and started laying on staff. The first priority was to make contact with the homeowners, who had been in limbo for months. Explain that we’re taking over, we’re going to take care of you, and hang in there as we get up to speed.

    Some of the homeowners were pretty damn desperate. One I knew of was living in the driveway of the half-built house, husband, wife, two kids, pets, in an RV. Much hand holding went on.

    I watched them hire a Visual Basic programmer when good ones were scarce. They hired him at the salary he wanted, they hired his wife, and they paid all of his moving expenses, and rented him a nice house for a year.

    Once they got the program up and running, they decided they were going to allow new customers. Why not? It was profitable, they said. I left before that became reality.

  • Dan Patterson June 30, 2021, 4:28 AM

    I have two catalogs of Sears Roebuck Honor Bilt Homes that I bought from e-bay a few years ago; one from the late 20s and the other, much slimmer, 10 years or so older. I suppose I was searching for an artifact of the comfortable past, a security blanket; there are lots of examples of me subconsciously doing that and there is sound reasoning for it: as difficult as the past may have been I don’t see the succession of coming days as a pleasant place and experience has provided ample proof.

    Have a look at the complexity of the catalogs, the detailed illustrations, the mix of two-tone copy with multi-color. What an optimistic world those people populated despite the troubles and enemies it also held. And imagine the market for the product. Was it the single-mom with multiple-fathered feral kids? Maybe three room-mates with no marketable skills surviving on funds doled from the government? Was it the disaffected single man questioning his sex? Was it the college indoctrinated young woman seeking a target for her rage? No? How about a blended family with both parents working full time and some kids visiting only on weekends? Not that either?

    Must’ve been intact families, mom and dad, raising their children and being productive. The tomorrows of then held promise, because we can work through our troubles because that’s just how things are done. And depending on the budget there were options that fit all kinds of families, large and small. There used to be a lot of that around. Neighborhoods full of that sort of behavior. Whole towns, even.

    I’ll add a link to an example but don’t spend too much time imagining the past, especially if you are under 40. The difference between then and now is far too great a chasm to cross without assistance.


  • ghostsniper June 30, 2021, 6:49 AM

    @Dan, soft times make weak people. You described that well.
    Out internet is dragging today and it took 20 mins to grab them 2 files.
    In the past couple decades I have collected over 300 Sears homes plans in whole or part.
    I go through them sometimes and think about what was and may be again someday but not in my lifetime.

  • Walter Sobchak June 30, 2021, 11:00 AM

    Before WWII, Sears was what Amazon is today. If the internet had come along in 1940 instead of 2000, Sears would be here today. In the two generations between WWII and Century XXI, Sears tried to turn itself into a mall based department store chain, and lost the whole ethos created by its catalogs.

    There are plenty of Sears houses still around. I live in an area where about half of the homes are pre WW II, and there are a few Sears houses in the area.

    Given the shortages of skilled labor, I wonder if kit or pre-assembled module houses can make a come back?

  • Missy June 30, 2021, 1:01 PM