PITTSBURGH – When Karen DeJeet moved into her suburban home four years ago, her neighbors filled her in on its unique history. The house, dubbed a Hamilton, had been assembled from a kit purchased through Sears and Roebuck Co.
“I had never heard of these before,” DeJeet said.
The discovery opened the door for a new hobby that connected her with other enthusiasts, tracking down other versions of the homes shipped by retail giant Sears in pieces so they could be assembled – often by the owners themselves – according to instructions that even included codes stamped on the lumber that would form the bones of the house.
These days it’s not unusual to get unassembled furniture in flat boxes from Ikea, but an entire home is another matter.
From 1908-1940, Sears and Roebuck sold somewhere between 70,000 and 75,000 homes through the mail-order Modern Homes program, according to the Illinois company’s archives.
It was a retailing triumph, the kind that the company could use about now as it is struggling with years of declining sales and looking at options that range from selling off businesses to partnering with other companies to sell its goods. This summer, Sears reported that it would start selling appliances through online rival Amazon.com.
In the first half of the last century, the Sears team made it easy for residents of a rapidly developing country to have a nice house – no matter where they lived. And if that newly built house then spurred orders for curtains, stoves and bedspreads, so much the better.
Sears designed 447 different 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 vacationers. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.),” the company said.
Some customers took the DIY idea further, designing their own floor plan and sending the blueprint to Sears, which would ship the precut and fitted materials, including the nails and varnish.
The mail-order option became popular as families moved away from crowded cities, an exodus made possible by trolley lines and railroads that extended transportation options. As Sears noted, companies also were building factories further away from urban centers and needed options to for employee housing.
Sears doesn’t have an official tally of the number of mail-order houses still standing. But the company said that in 1926, it sold 324 units in the month of May alone.
The mail-order program had been launched after struggles to sell building materials from Sears catalogs.
“Frank W. Kushel, who was reassigned to the unprofitable program from managing the china department, believed the home building materials could be shipped straight from the factories, thus eliminating storage costs for Sears,” the company said.
The retailer wasn’t alone in popularizing the kit system. Other companies provided mail-order homes.
“People tend to use the term ‘Sears house’ rather generically, like ‘Kleenex,’ when the house might have been a kit from the Aladdin Co., Gordon-Van Tine, Wardway, Harris, Bennett or Lewis homes, to name a few,” said Judith Chabot, who runs the blog Sears House Seeker and works with DeJeet and others around the country to track of the historic homeownership trend.
When authenticating a Sears home, the trackers look for things like the mortgage coming from Sears. Another distinction: the coding system stamped on the lumber and often found on rafters, joists or the backs of staircases showing where to connect them.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, the trackers have found nearly 700 likely Sears homes.
DeJeet said so far “only a small percentage of them have been authenticated by marked lumber, old sales or mortgage documents, building permits, deeds, shipping labels, original blueprints, etc.”
These days the researchers use a technique they call “Google driving,” strolling through search engine giant Google’s photo-based maps of neighborhoods looking for tell-tale architecture on homes visible in “street view.” Using real estate website Zillow is another search technique.
“A lot of people are surprised to find out that they live in a Sears home,” DeJeet said. “I thought it was weird at first and thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to live in this,’ but they’re really well built. It has a lot of character.”
By Stephanie Ritenbaugh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)