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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 such dilemmas.

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 Homes program.

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 fixtures.

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.

 
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