Friday, March 29, 2013

The Sears House ~ Ellen O'Connell

The story I’m currently working on (as yet untitled) is my first sequel and features a hero and heroine who were children in 1881–2 in Beautiful Bad Man. That puts the new story up to the turn of the century, later than anything I’ve done in the past.

In researching, as usual I went off on interesting tangents, and one of the most interesting was finding out about the Sears house, a little later still, but such a historical tidbit I can’t help but share.

Starting in 1908 and ending in 1940, customers could mail order complete houses from Sears, Roebuck and Co. through what was called their Modern Home program. Sears shipped via rail everything single thing needed to build the house of your choice right down to the nails. (I can’t help but wonder—did you get the exact number of nails needed? Did they make an allowance of some percentage for bent and ruined ones?)

The illustration included here (which is now in the public domain) is for House #115. I don’t know if you’ll be able to read it on your screen, but the price for this house is $725. In the Sears archives, I found prices ranging from $452–$2,906 for different models sold in the 1908–1914 time period.

Sears destroyed its records of sales of these houses after discontinuing the program, but during the years of the Modern Home program, the company sold between 70,000 and 75,000 houses in 447 styles. The customer could choose to have central heating and plumbing packages with his house (or order an outhouse).

Lumber was shipped precut and fitted. The houses included a new framing system that made building easier. Drywall and asphalt shingles were new building materials that superseded the previous plaster and lathe walls and wood or tin roofs that required more expertise to construct.

The houses were of excellent quality and some are now designated as historical buildings. Since there are no longer records, a house has to be identified as a Sears house nowadays by certain identifying marks or characteristics.

I see modular houses clogging up the highways as they’re transported by truck along the highways sometimes, and in remote areas of Colorado modulars are more common than“stick-built” houses, but somehow the idea of prefab houses being shipped so long ago and put up by their new owners the way barns were raised in the good old days tickles my fancy. I really wanted these houses to fit in my time frame and include one in the story, but darn it they came along a little too late.


Jacquie Rogers said...

My mom's cousins lived in a Sears house--might even have been this plan. That was in the Palouse of Washington State.

I wonder if Sears was the first to offer house "kits"? It seems like this would be ideal for the Plains where wood was at a premium.

Lyn Horner said...

I wonder how much a Sears house would cost nowadays. Whoever dreamed up the idea was brilliant. Thanks for sharing such interesting info.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I love this! I only wish I could find floor plans for antebellum houses. (I used to collect house plans the way other kids collect stamps or coins.)

Caroline Clemmons said...

There were other companies who preceded Sears in this market concept, but I've forgotten the companys' names. I am fascinated by these mail-order homes. There are several in our town, and the one I especially love is what was formerly a 26-room home that is now a B&B. It was featured in our local newspaper. It didn't have closets or bathrooms, and some rooms were carved into those and thereby reduced the room number. I co-hosted a shower there once, and love the place. I believe there are several in our little town.

Ellen O'Connell said...

On one of the tours I took of old houses in Denver, the guide told us they didn't put closets in those houses because houses were taxed on the basis of how many rooms. Closets were counted as rooms. I should look into that further some time, see if it's exactly true and, if so, when the tax basis changed and closets became common.

My guess is I've seen Sears houses in the older areas of Colorado towns, but one of the difficulties in identifying them is that even if you're sure it was a kit house, there were other companies selling them. Proving a particular one is a Sears house (or from some other particular company, I suppose) takes some investigation and sometimes proves impossible.

In the end, the houses caused Sears serious financial losses because they had begun carrying loans on the houses before the Depression, then when hard times came, defaults and losses were enormous.

Paty Jager said...

That house plan look a lot like the house we lived in and my Dad added onto many times.

Meg said...

I know there are a few around here. Great photo, Eileen!

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...
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