Sears, Roebuck & Company Kit Homes
Examples of Sears Kit Homes in Buffalo:
An excerpt from
"A New Look at an Old Neighborhood: Historic Homes of Buffalo's Linwood Avenue Preservation District 1820-1982," Susan M. Pollack, ed.
... it was possible to purchase plans for houses through the mails. In addition to the books and trade manuals published by architects for carpenters and builders, there was a company which was responsible for the design of a great number of houses later built in this fashion - Sears, Roebuck & Company.
After 1900, they apparently began to offer this service. Since they sold virtually all of the materials necessary to actually build houses except the rough lumber, their arrangement was somewhat different. As set out in their 1908 catalogue, a prospective buyer would receive a free copy of their Modern Homes and Building Plans which illustrated " a large variety of completed homes, together with the floor plans of each."
It was noted that the vast majority of these had been designed by "the most skillful, licensed architects in the country ." Prospective buyers could then order a free set of building plans and specifications, which included all the information required to actually build a house. Of course, the free service was provided in the hope that all of the necessary materials - furnaces, hardware, plumbing, doors, windows and trim -would be ordered from Sears. Because Sears; Roebuck & Co. manufactured all these items, it was assumed that thrifty customers would avoid paying the middleman and wholesalers, and would order directly from them.
The paint industry
The growing railroad network help to speed this process. It connected large urban manufacturers with distant markets. In addition to these more sophisticated architectural books, new developments in the printing field flooded America with colorful paint advertisements. Tempered by post-Civil War technological innovations which were sweeping the nation, pigment and containers in which to ship the ready-made product were developed. There was no genuine prepackaged paint industry until the first cans were sold in America in the 1860's.
Homeowners were no longer dependent on local painters, who were forced to mix dry colors with lead and oil. But the greening and browning" of America was a gradual process, complemented by the growing complexity in architectural styles. With the 1870's and 1880's Mansardic and early Victorian designs, colors were darkened and contours on a single building became more apparent.
"Picking out" the abundant architectural detail also intensified. Rossiter and Wright, in their book Modern House Painting (New York, 1883), cautioned against "picking out small members in a brighter color than the rest." Instead of bringing out the architectural detail in a subordinate way (as color should), they felt this would give a "choppy and mincing effect." They did, however, advocate a diversified color treatment. They said, "the old puritanical hatred of color, which found its natural outcome in white houses with green blinds, [had] to give way; at first to a compromise in which neutral and sickly, drab tints played a prominent part."
Later, with more advanced notions, positive and more vibrant colors found a chance for expression. House painting schemes began to stress the vertical and horizontal trim elements which suggested structure. Darkening the trim against a lighter house body was common. This was used to emphasize the literal, upward thrust of the home from the foundation to its cornice brackets.
An excerpt from
USA House and Garden: The Magnolia (online August 2015)
What is a Sears Modern Home? From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold more than 100,000 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.
Sears was not an innovative home designer. Sears was instead a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Modern Home customers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, and Sears helped realize these dreams through quality custom design and favorable financing.
Designing a Sears Home
The process of designing your 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: Honor Bilt, Standard Built, and Simplex Sectional.
Honor Bilt homes were the most expensive and finest quality sold by Sears. Joists, studs, and rafters were to be spaced 14 3/8 inches apart. Attractive cypress siding and cedar shingles adorned most Honor Bilt exteriors. And, depending on the room, interiors featured clear-grade (i.e., knot-free) flooring and inside trim made from yellow pine, oak, or maple wood. Sears's catalogs also reported that Standard Built homes were best for warmer climates, meaning they did not retain heat very well. The Simplex Sectional line, as the name implies, contained simple designs. Simplex houses were frequently only a couple of rooms and were ideal for summer cottages.
While browsing the Imagebank, you may see many houses that partially or even closely resemble a house that you own or have seen. Look closely, because the floor plan may be reversed, a dormer may have been added, or the original buyer may have chosen brick instead of wood siding. Plumbing may look like it was added after construction, or storm windows may appear on the house but not in the catalog's illustration.
All of this and more are possible, because the Modern Homes program encouraged custom designing houses down to the color of the cabinetry hardware. The difficulty in identifying a Sears home is just a reflection of the unique design and tastes of the original buyer (see FAQs).
As mentioned above, Sears was not an innovator in home design or construction techniques; however, Modern Home designs did offer distinct advantages over other construction methods. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. Not only did precut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40% but Sears's use of "balloon style" framing, drywall, and asphalt shingles greatly eased construction for homebuyers.
"Balloon style" framing. These framing systems did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as previous methods did. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. This system uses precut timber of mostly standard 2_4s and 2_8s for framing. Precut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything, including the nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added greatly to the popularity of this framing style.
Drywall. Before drywall, plaster and lathe wall-building techniques were used, which again required skilled carpenters. Sears homes took advantage of the new homebuilding material of drywall by shipping large quantities of this inexpensively manufactured product with the rest of the housing materials. Drywall offered advantages of low price, ease of installation, and was added fire-safety protection. It was also a good fit for the square design of Sears homes.
Asphalt shingles. It was during the Modern Homes program that large quantities of asphalt shingles became available. The alternative roofing materials available included, among others, tin and wood. Tin was noisy during storms, looked unattractive, and required a skilled roofer, while wood was highly flammable. Asphalt shingles, however, were cheap to manufacture and ship, as well as easy and inexpensive to install. Asphalt had the added incentive of being fireproof.
Sears helped popularize the latest technology available to modern homebuyers in the early part of the twentieth century. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in home design that Modern Homes incorporated, although not all of the homes were designed with these conveniences. Central heating not only improved the livability of homes with little insulation but it also improved fire safety, always a worry in an era where open flames threatened houses and whole cities, in the case of the Chicago Fire. Indoor plumbing and homes wired for electricity were the first steps to modern kitchens and bathrooms. Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of its homebuyers and gave them the option to design their homes with modern convenience in mind.