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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Sears and Roebuck Homes

Sears Modern Homes catalog from 1922. During the 1920s
sales ranged from 125 to 324 units per month.
If someone wants to build a new home in 2017, first they either pour through dozens of home planning magazines from which they may order blueprints, or they hire an architect, depending upon the depth of their pockets. The architect will draw up something truly unique, while purchasing plans from magazines or online will get you something usually quite conservative and conventional, though not necessarily cookie-cutter as to style and design. The difference is about half the price--sugar cookies or gourmet soufflé.
In the 1920s, "modern" meant central heating, electricity, asphalt shingle roofing, modern plumbing, porcelain fixtures and bathrooms (though they remained optional).
At a time when Sears and Roebuck is closing its retail outlets around the country about as fast as they can locate the door keys, it's thought provoking to realize that about 110 years ago, you could choose a "house kit," from their famous mail-order catalog, have it shipped to you in a railroad car, ready to be unloaded, trucked to your site, and nailed together by friends and family, or if so inclined, become the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. That's what Frank Nixon of Yorba Linda, California did in 1922, though just which company he ordered from remains uncertain. One thing for certain, it wasn't Sears or their perennial rival, Montgomery Ward. What he built is probably the most famous kit-built house in the world. His son, Richard, was born there, and is today buried nearby at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.
"The house my father built."
From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold between 70,000 and 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing 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.) Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets.
More pricey than most Sears offerings, The Carlton offered
a nod toward Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style homes.
More choices than
a Chinese menu.
Sears was by no means an innovative home designer. Instead, they were able followers of popular home designs but with the added ad-vantage of modifying houses and hardware ac-cording to buyer tastes. Their Carlton model (above) was not the norm. Individuals could even design their own homes then submit the blueprints to Sears. The company ran their own lumber mills. Once custom cut, they would then ship off the appropriate fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Thus, Modern Home cus-tomers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, while Sears helped them realize these dreams through quality custom design and fav-orable financing.
A Magnolia recently sold for $90,000.
The process of designing a Sears house began as soon as the Modern Homes catalog arrived at your doorstep. Over time, Modern Homes catalogs came to advertise three lines of homes, aimed for customers’ differing financial means: the top of the line Honor Bilt, their medium-priced Standard Built, and a low-cost Simplex Sectional. The largest and most expensive Sears model was the Magnolia (above). Only seven Magnolias are known to still exist. There are, however, "fake" Magnolias (below) which are virtually indistinguishable from Sears models.
During the height of Sears homebuilding venture, architects and
builders alike freely "borrowed" from (as in copied) one another.
To make matters more than a little complicated, there were at least eight other companies marketing pre-cut homes, including Aladdin, Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling, and Wardway Homes (Montgomery Ward). For instance, both Sears and Wardway offered a model each called The Lexington, (below). Sears was a standard colonial style while Wardway's Lexington was Dutch Colonia. However, Sears offered a nearly identical Dutch Colonial they called the Puritan.
Sears' version of the Lexington (above), Wardway's
version can be seen below.

The Sears version of the Dutch colonial style they
called the Puritan (below)
The Sears Dutch colonial Puritan. This home above
was probably built with the plan reversed.
It's not unlikely that you could drive through residential neighborhoods in most communities and see a dozen or more homes quite similar to those featured in Sears' mail-order catalogs from the 1920s. Few of them would be authentic Sears homes however. Some of them would be fairly attractive by modern tastes, some quite old-fashioned looking, and some we'd find downright ugly. Sears Alhambra (below) falls into the latter category. Fortunately few were built, still fewer remain, and no builders copied Sears homeliest home.

Alhambra's Moorish architecture was a total mismatch
for most American families and neighborhoods.
Catalogs such as Sears also offered several variations on churches, which were shipped in large sections for assembly. You wanted brick walls? Cedar shingles? You could order them. Fancy stained-glass? Plain windows for a cheaper budget? Just check the right box. I searched for Sears churches and could not find any references to authenticated examples, but there were plenty of illustrations involving barns, garages, outhouses, even chicken coops. I've heard it said of one of today's retail mega-stores, if you can't find it at Walmart, you don't need it. It would seem that line may have originated long ago with Sears.
Call in the neighbors, we got a barn to raise.

Sears' garages were all designed for
1920s vehicles. Virtually all of them
still in use have had to be enlarged.



  1. Another captivating and wonderful look back. Not sure whether you're an art historian, historian, nostalgian (probably not a word) or just a insatiably curious guy with a great knack for finding really interesting stories and factoids. I don't always comment, but I rarely miss one of your posts. Very impressed with your voluminous and consistent body of great info.

  2. Thanks, Max

    I think the key is that all art historians have to have a good basic grounding in history and current events in order to understand the correlation and relationship among the three. Likewise, what makes history (and art history) interesting is trivia. I especially look for that type of material. And of course, without the ease, breadth, and depth of information of all kinds so readily available on the Internet all this would be far too time consuming to pursue, as well as disseminate. I watch my statistic closely and it's quite interesting to see what interest my readers and, more importantly, what does NOT. My series on small museums, classic films, and artists homes have all been duds. However, as you mentioned nostalgia is always popular. So is nudity and anything of a sexual nature (no surprise there). Which artist will prove popular is completely impossible to predict. I should note that the majority of my readers now are in France, not the U.S. I don't know how to account for that.