Built from a Kit: A Brief History of Sears Catalog Homes
Once, I bought a bag of dirt on the internet. I continue to be amazed by the variety of things you can buy on Amazon, but long ago, in the pages of the Sears Catalog, Amazon’s predecessor, you could even buy a house. Between the years of 1908 and 1942, the Sears Roebuck company sold more than 70,000 of these Sears Catalog homes, which were built in locations all over the country.
The houses, which were shipped on railroad boxcars, came as giant kits, a concept you will be familiar with if you’ve ever tried to build a dollhouse. Everything was included: lumber, siding, windows and doors, shingles, flooring, even the kitchen sink. The only thing that wasn’t included was plaster and brick for finishing the walls. (Plumbing, electrical fixtures and heating systems were not included in the base price but could be added on for an additional fee.)
Starting in 1916, Sears began shipping their homes with pre-cut lumber, which significantly reduced the amount of time required to construct one of the houses. Other innovations included drywall in place of plaster on lath and asphalt shingles, which were cheaper and easier to install than wood ones — and also fireproof.
Since Sears was able to buy building materials in bulk, and because the pre-cut parts saved so much construction time, building a house from a kit could represent a significant savings over other construction methods. While Sears stopped selling kit homes in 1942, one of their competitors, Aladdin, was still selling pre-cut house kits until 1982.
This ‘modern’ home, offered between 1908 and 1914, was not yet modern enough to have a bathroom.
The humble Natoma had only one bedroom and no bathroom, but the price of $191 was hard to beat.
The four-bedroom Magnolia was the largest and grandest home offered by Sears. Only seven are known to still be standing.
A Magnolia in Benson, North Carolina. Photo from Rosemary Thornton, via Wikimedia Commons.
The four-bedroom Alhambra was designed in the Spanish Revival style.
An Alhambra built in Chicago, from Sears Homes of Chicagoland. Note that the floor plan is reversed. This was an option Sears offered for all their kit homes.
A beautiful brick Alhambra in Georgia, from Sears Modern Homes. The porch has been glassed in.
The Sunbeam had a feature that would have been welcome in the days before air conditioning — a screened in sleeping porch.
The diminutive one-bedroom Valley was advertised to the ‘city flat dweller’ as a more economical alternative to renting—a little bit like our tiny homes of today.