Once Upon a Time in the Far Far West: Sears Mail-Order Homes in the U.S., L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Sep. 2021.
From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold about 75,000 homes in the United States through its mail-order catalogues. The homes appeared on the pages of Sears Modern Home catalogues as attractive architectural drawings accompanied by floor plans and descriptions showcasing hundreds of vernacular styles. Each style had a model number marketed with brand names such as the Maytown (a two-story structure featuring a porch with Colonial columns, three-sided window bays in the parlour and dining room, and an octagonal turret on the second floor), the San Jose (a Spanish mission-style bungalow), the Arlington (an eclectic Colonial bungalow with craftsmen features, cedar shingles, and a cobblestone chimney), and the Chateau (a pseudo-Second Empire brick-faced house with a mansard roof, dormers, and blue-green shutters).
The homes were inexpensive, benefitting from an idiomatic do-it-yourself American method of "balloon-style" wood-frame construction. Farmers on the Western frontier and minimally skilled workers with nothing but hammers and nails could assemble them without the need for experienced
carpenters to cut complex joints or teams of tradesmen to lift heavy pieces of lumber. It's a technology tied to the U.S.'s 19th century colonial expansion across the West, where streams of settlers flooded in following treaty after treaty with Native American tribes.
Sears homes sold at prices starting as low as 400 to 925€ (10-25,000€ in today's euros) up to 4,300 to 5,000€ (120-135,000€ in today's euros) depending on the optional features and quality of finishes a buyer selected. The Puritan, for instance, a two-story, three-bedroom Dutch Colonial with a gambrel roof and sun room, sold for the equivalent of 2,100€ in the 1920s. The Chelsea, aka Modern Home Number 111, a simple two-story, four-bedroom, nine-room house the catalogue said was "becoming more popular every day in some of the more stylish neighborhoods in cities" sold for the equivalent of 3.400€. The Magnolia, a four-bedroom, ten-room Colonial-style house with oak floors, birch trim, verandas, and French doors, went for the equivalent of 4,300€.
The homes were shipped across the country by train from factories in places like Newark, New Jersey and Norwood, Ohio. Workers pre-cut and milled the materials in assembly-line facilities, taking advantage of modern optimised production techniques. A kit of materials composed of some 30,000 pieces, not including nails and screws, was dropped on the purchaser's lot in two railroad boxcars to be raised up by the owners, friends, and neighbors, or hired workers. Buyers could also finance the homes through the company and pay off the mortgage in 12.50€ to 63€ monthly installments over 10 to 15 years. The ability of Sears to finance long-term mortgages was a key to its success. It also led to its downfall.
The method of prefabricated home construction worked well. Several other companies, including Gordon- Van Tine, Montgomery Ward, and the
Aladdin Company also succeeded in producing kit homes during the same period. Untold numbers of houses from the period survive in cities across the U.S. and remain in good condition, despite fears that the construction methods using lightweight Douglas Fir and hemlock for wall framing and
a choice of wood lath and plaster or "sheet plaster" for interior cladding–a precursor of today's standard gypsum drywall–would not be durable.