What is a Sears Modern Home?
From 1908 - 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Company sold between 70,000 and 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vactioners. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.) Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets.
Sears was not an innovative home designer. Sears was instead a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship them off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the homeowner in full creative control. Modern Home customers had the freedom to build their oown dream houses, and Sears helped realize these dreams through quality custom design and favorable financing.
Designing a Sears Home
The process of designing your Sears house began as soon as the Modern Homes catalog arrived at your doorstep. Over time, Modern Homes catalogs came to advertise three lines of homes, aimed for customers' differing financial means: Honor Bilt, Standard Built, and Simplex Sectional.
Honor Bilt homes were the most expensive and finest quality sold by Sears. Joists, studs and rafters were to be spaced 14 3/8 inches apart. Attractive cypress siding and cedar shingles adorned most Honor Bilt exteriors. And, depending on the room interiors featured clear-grade (i.e., knot-free) flooring and inside trim made from yellow pine, oak or maple wood. Sears' catalogs also reported that Standard Built homes were best for warmer climates, meaning they did not retain heat very well. The Simplex Sectional line, as the name implies, contained simple designs. Simplex houses were frequently only a couple of rooms and were ideal for summer cottages.
While searching neighborhoods and communities for Sears Mail Order Kit homes, you may see houses that partially or even closely resemble a house that you own or have seen. Look closely because the floor plan may be reversed, a dormer may have been added, or the original buyer may have chosen brick instead of wood siding. Plumbing may look like it was added after construction, or storm windows may appear on the house but not in the catalog's illustration.
All of this and more are possible, because the Modern Homes program encouraged custom designing houses down to the color of cabinetry hardware. The difficulty in identifying a Sears home is just a reflection of the unique design and tastes of the original buyer.
As mentioned above, Sears was not an innovator in home design or construction techinques; however, Modern Home designs did offer distinct advantages over other construction methods. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. Not only did precut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40%, but Sears' use of "balloon style" framining, drywall, and asphalt shingles greatly eased construction for homebuyers.
"Balloon style" framing. These framing systems did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as previous methods did. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This sytem uses precut timber of mostly 2 x 4's and 2 x 8's for framing. Precut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything including nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added greatly to the popularity of this framing style.
Drywall. Before drywall, plaster and lathe wall-building techniques were used, which again required silled carpenters. Sears homes took advantage of the new homebuilding material of drywall by shipping large quantities of this inexpensively manufactured product with the rest of the housing materials. Drywall offered advantages of low rpice, ease of installation, and owas added fire-safety protection. It was also a good fit for the square design of the Sears homes.
Asphalt shingles. It was during the Modern Homes program that large quanities of asphalt shingles became available. The alternative roofing materials available included, among others, tin and wood. Tin was noisy during storms, looked unattractive, and required a skilled roofer, while wood was highly flammable. Asphalt shingles, however were cheap to manufacture and ship, as well as easy and inexspensive to install. Asphalt had the added incentive of being fireproof.
Sears helped popularize the latest technology available to modern homebuyers in the early part of the twentieth century. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in home design that Modern Homes incorporated, although not all of the homes were designed with these conveniences. Central heating not only improved the livability of homes with little insulation but it also improved fire safety, always a worry in an era where open flames threatened houses and whole cities, as in the case of the Chicago Fire. Indoor plumbing and homes wired for electricity were the first steps to modern kitchens and bathrooms. Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of it's homebuyers and gave them the option to design their homes with modern conveniences in mind.
* Source: Sears Archives.
Imagine for a moment, living in the early 20th Century, 1908 thru 1940, and thumbing thru the Sears Modern Homes Catalog and planing your American Dream! Once a design and model was decided upon from the selection of 370 designs with precisely what he wanted, varying in price from $500. to $5,000. to the homebuyer, all that was required for ordering was answering one simple question, 'What is your vocation?' Sending and enclosing $1.00 in the envelope with the required paperwork provided in the Modern Homes Catalog, you would then receive a set of prints, and your quest for your chapter of The American Dream was underway. Most of the Sears Mail Order Kit homes are found within 1 to 2 miles of the railroad tracks, as these homes were delivered by way of railroad boxcar, often to the nearest train station. The homebuyer had only several days to unload the boxcar before being subject to a fine by the railroad. The homebuyer unloaded the boxcar containing anywhere between 12,000 and 30,000 pieces of house, and included in that order was a 75 page instruction book. These homes often found close to railroads as they were transported by the homebuyer by way of horse and wagon, or Model T truck. Included in the bill of sale were: 750 lbs of Nails, 27 Gallons of Paint and Varnish, 10 lbs of Wood Putty, 460 lbs of Window Weights, 72 Coat Hooks, ALL Pre-Cut Number Stamped Framing Lumber, Roofing Shingles, Trim, Doorknobs, and one Doorbell. The tagline in the Sears promotional brochures and catalog simply stated, "Hang your saw on the nail all day!" It's important to note that these were NOT pre-fab homes, but actual kits, and were often ordered and built by the homeowners themselves for their families, therefore often thorough and consciencious details were implemented into the construction of these homes, as many of them stand solid in communities today! Sears included spacing details of nail placement which added to the confidence to the homebuyer's craftsmanship. Finest Grade Lumber included Cypress Lumber and Southern Yellow Pine. By the homebuyer building the home himself without using the services of a contractor, he was able to accrue and enjoy a cost savings of 1/3rd, thus adding 1/3rd approximate equity. Many of these treasures, which are 100 years old, remain prominent in established communities to this day! Sears fanciest home was "The MAGNOLIA" which is a glorified Four-Square design. Below is a cover copy of the Original Sears Modern Homes catalog.