The hour has arrived. Dad gathers Mom and Sis into the carriage. He hops in
the wagon with his brothers to ride off to the railroad station. The day and
hour have come to greet the first shipment of your family’s brand-new house.
All the lumber will be precut and arrive with instructions for your dad and
uncles to assemble and build. Mom and Dad picked out No. 140 from Sears, Roebuck
and Company’s catalog. It will have two bedrooms and a cobblestone foundation,
plus a front porch—but no bath. They really wanted No. 155, with a screened-in
front porch, built-in buffet, and inside bath (!), but $1,100 was twice as much
as Dad said he could afford. In just a few days, the whole family will sleep
under the roof of your custom-made Sears Modern Home.
Entire homes would arrive by railroad, from precut lumber, to carved staircases,
down to the nails and varnish. Families picked out their houses according to
their needs, tastes, and pocketbooks. Sears provided all the materials and
instructions, and for many years the financing, for homeowners to build their
own houses. Sears’s Modern Homes stand today as living monuments to the fine,
enduring, and solid quality of Sears craftsmanship.
No official tally exists of the number of Sears mail-order houses that still
survive today. It is reported that more than 100,000 houses were sold between
1908 and 1940 through Sears’s Modern Homes program. The keen interest evoked
in current homebuyers, architectural historians, and enthusiasts of American
culture indicate that thousands of these houses survive in varying degrees of
condition and original appearance.
It is difficult to appreciate just how important the Modern Homes program and
others like it were to homebuyers in the first half of the twentieth century.
Imagine for a moment buying a house in 1908. Cities were getting more crowded
and had always been dirty breeding grounds for disease in an age before
vaccines. The United States was experiencing a great economic boom, and millions
of immigrants who wanted to share in this wealth and escape hardship were
pouring into America’s big cities. City housing was scarce, and the strong
economy raised labor costs, which sent new-home prices soaring.
The growing middle class was leaving the city for the—literally—greener
pastures of suburbia as trolley lines and the railroad extended lifelines for
families who needed to travel to the city. Likewise, companies were building
factories on distant, empty parcels of land and needed to house their workers.
Stately, expensive Victorian-style homes were not options for any but the upper
class of homeowner. Affordable, mail-order homes proved to be just the answer to
Sears was neither the first nor the only company to sell mail-order houses, but
they were the largest, selling as many as 324 units in one month (May, 1926).
The origin of the Modern Homes program is actually to be found a decade before
houses were sold. Sears began selling building materials out of its catalogs in
1895, but by 1906 the department was almost shut down until someone had a better
idea. Frank W. Kushel, who was reassigned to the unprofitable program from
managing the china department, believed the homebuilding materials could be
shipped straight from the factories, thus eliminating storage costs for Sears.
This began a successful 25-year relationship between Kushel and the Sears Modern
To advertise the company’s new and improved line of building supplies, a
Modern Homes specialty catalog, the Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,
appeared in 1908. For the first time, Sears sold complete houses, including the
plans and instructions for construction of 22 different styles, announcing that
the featured homes were "complete, ready for occupancy." By 1911,
Modern Homes catalogs included illustrations of house interiors, which provided
homeowners with blueprints for furnishing the houses with Sears appliances and
It should be noted that suburban families were not the only Modern Home
dwellers. Sears expanded its line to reflect the growing demand from rural
customers for ready-made buildings. In 1923, Sears introduced two new specialty
catalogs, Modern Farm Buildings and Barn. The barn catalog boasted "a big
variety of scientifically planned" farm buildings, from corncribs to tool
sheds. The simple, durable, and easy-to-construct nature of the Sears farm
buildings made them particularly attractive to farmers.
Modern Homes must have seemed like pennies from heaven, especially to
budget-conscious first-time homeowners. For example, Sears estimated that, for a
precut house with fitted pieces, it would take only 352 carpenter hours as
opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house—a 40% reduction! Also, Sears
offered loans beginning in 1911, and by 1918 it offered customers credit for
almost all building materials as well as offering advanced capital for labor
costs. Typical loans ran at 5 years, with 6% interest, but loans could be
extended over as many as 15 years.
Sears’s liberal loan policies eventually backfired, however, when the
Depression hit. 1929 saw the high point of sales with more than $12 million, but
$5.6 million of that was in mortgage loans. Finally, in 1934, $11 million in
mortgages were liquidated, and despite a brief recovery in the housing market in
1935, the Modern Homes program was doomed. By 1935, Sears was selling only
houses, not lots or financing, and despite the ever-brimming optimism of
corporate officials, Modern Homes sold its last house in 1940.
Between 1908 and 1940, Modern Homes made an indelible mark on the history of
American housing. A remarkable degree of variety marks the three-plus decades of
house design by Sears. A skilled but mostly anonymous group of architects
designed 447 different houses. Each of the designs, though, could be modified in
numerous ways, including reversing floor plans, building with brick instead of
wood siding, and many other options.
Sears had the customer in mind when it expanded its line of houses to three
different expense levels to appeal to customers of differing means. While Honor
Bilt was the highest-quality line of houses, with its clear-grade (no knots)
flooring and cypress or cedar shingles, the Standard Built and Simplex Sectional
lines were no less sturdy, yet were simpler designs and did not feature precut
and fitted pieces. Simplex Sectional houses actually included farm buildings,
outhouses, garages, and summer cottages.
The American landscape is dotted by Sears Modern Homes. Few of the original
buyers and builders remain to tell the excitement they felt when traveling to
greet their new house at the train station. The remaining homes, however, stand
as testaments today to that bygone era and to the pride of home built by more
than 100,000 Sears customers and fostered by the Modern Homes program.