When Amazon started selling houses online, it surprised and even shocked many. However, the concept is not as new or revolutionary as you might think. Over a century ago, you could buy an entire house from a catalog and have it shipped to you. Popularized by Sears, Roebuck & Co., the average do-it-yourself (DIY) mail-order houses came with over 30,000 pre-cut and fitted parts, 750 pounds of nails, as well as electrical and plumbing fixtures. The 25-ton giant kits were transported via railroad. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold over 70,000 of these DIY houses across America.
In the early 1900s, long before the era of long-haul trucking and commercial aviation, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was one of the largest and most prominent retailers in the United States. In 1892, they started their business as a mail-order catalog company which sold watches. Slowly, they expanded into furniture, hardware, and just about anything that an average American household could need. Known as the “Consumer’s Bible,” the Sears Catalog even started selling a DIY kit for houses. You could simply flip through the pages of the catalog, select a house of your liking, and have the parts sent to you via mail order.
Sears Catalog Homes had over 370 different designs in a broad range of sizes and architectural styles. Each design came with a special name and a description of its unique properties. For example, there was “Winona” which was a classic American-style bungalow. Then there was “Alhambra” which featured Spanish colonial architecture. The average house kit weighed over 25 tons and came with over 30,000 pre-cut pieces of lumber, 750 pounds of nails as well as electrical and plumbing fixtures, central heating, and all other necessary features at additional cost. Prices would range from $360 to $6,488.
The DIY house kit came with a 75-page instruction manual which detailed how the house should be constructed. The houses were primarily assembled by the owners with the help of friends, relatives, and other members of the community. According to Sears, “a man of average abilities” could easily assemble the house in approximately 90 days.
As the story goes, in 1906, a Sears manager was tasked with increasing the sales of “building materials.” That particular section of the catalog did not generate much profit or popularity. So, the manager pitched the idea of selling DIY kits to build entire houses to Richard Warren Sears. However, a company called Aladdin beat Sears to it and introduced mail-order kit houses that same year. Sears officially launched the catalog called Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans two years later with 44 different house styles.
Though Aladdin houses were soon forgotten, they pioneered the idea. In fact, they were the first ones to offer pre-cut and fitted lumber for the houses. Sears would do the same ten years later! Providing pre-cut lumber proved to be ground-breaking. Since customers would no longer have to cut the lumber, construction time was reduced by 40%. The Sears home kits sold like hotcakes, and between 1908 and 1940, the company sold over 70,000 such houses. Though they primarily focused on small farming towns, their DIY house kits were sold all over the country.
The process of ordering the DIY house kit started with the arrival of the Modern Homes catalog, which eventually listed designs in three main categories: Simplex Sectional, Standard Built, and Honor Bilt. The Simplex Sectional category had the simplest and cheapest designs. Best suited for summer cottages, these houses had two rooms. The Standard Built houses, though better and higher priced than the Simplex designs, were not ideal for colder climates. Finally, the Honor Bilt category, as the name suggests, listed the fanciest and most expensive houses. These houses came with the finest quality material such as oak, pine, or maple wood.
The Sears Catalog Homes were truly “modern homes,” and the company popularized all the amenities that were available at that time including indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. Of course, not all the homes came with these conveniences, and they also cost extra. The earliest home designs, however, did not include indoor plumbing or bathrooms because, at that time, these were not “standard” conveniences for the average American households.
Remarkably, 50% of the DIY homes were assembled by the homeowners themselves in a barn-raising fashion. The other 50% were built by professionals. In fact, carpentry companies and local builders would often purchase the Sears homes to showcase their building capabilities to potential clients. The Sears catalog was truly revolutionary in that it offered homeowners the chance to select the design and also customize it. Buyers could also submit blueprints and Sears would then deliver pre-cut and fitted materials accordingly.
The impact of the Sears Catalog Homes on the lives of rural Americans cannot be overstated. The company never claimed to be innovative home designers, but they provided variety and sturdiness in a wide range of price points. The Magnolia was the most expensive and largest Sears mail-order house ever made. This colonial house was inspired by neo-Georgian architecture and had three stories, eight rooms, porte-cochere, sleeping porches, and columned portico. At that time, it was priced at $6,488, which would be equivalent to $88,000 today. Seven Magnolias are still standing today.
Though sales of the Sears mail-order homes reached the highest peak in 1929, it was soon followed by the Great Depression. Slumping sales and increased payment defaults incurred significant losses for the company, and the program suffered heavily because of it. In 1934, the Sears Catalog Homes went on a hiatus only to return for a few brief years toward the end of the Great Depression, however, the division was finally shut down in 1940. Today, Sears mail-order homes are a thing of the past, but they have left a lasting legacy behind.