In the early part of the 20th century, you could buy Sears houses for the price of a good pair of shoes today.
Times certainly changed. In 2005, a high-end Sears home sold for $900,000.
Sears sold about 100,000 kit houses from catalogs between 1908 and 1942. They were shipped by rail, with pre-cut lumber stamped for assembly. The company promised a man of average abilities that he could finish the house within 90 days -- if he followed the 75-page instruction book.
Sears got into the business of catalog homes because its building products division was losing money. Frank W. Kushel, who managed the company’s china department, was given the task of turning around building products. He suggested the company sell entire houses in 22 styles and ship them from the factory.
Sears copied the popular housing styles of the day, which included colonial revival features taken from historic New England homes. There's even one model called The Puritan.
Sears marketed the houses as ‘machine made’ with already cut lumber. “No waste, no mistakes, no big labor bills,” read the catalog copy.
The kits came with nails, shingles, shellac, windows, doors, trim hardware, paint and downspouts. They did not include cement, bricks or plaster. Materials for indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating had to be bought separately.
By 1920, Sears was shipping an average of 125 houses a month. Nine years later, Sears sent 250 houses each month from just one of its four plants. The company boasted it was the world’s largest home builder.
Sears also financed home purchases, and half its homes were tied up in mortgage loans by the time of the Great Depression. The company lost $11 million on defaulted mortgages in 1934, and by 1940 it was out of the house business.
Realtors say a Sears house can sell for more because of the enduring quality of the materials and construction.
Sears homes were built throughout Connecticut. In Hartford alone there are dozens, but they are also in Putnam, Hamden, Canton, Shelton, Bethel, Plainville and Torrington.
The 1916 Sears catalog featured testimonials from two men who bought Sears houses in Connecticut.
D.G. Arnold wrote he was 'well pleased' with his home, Modern Home No. 119, in Putnam, Conn.
"All the rough lumber, doors, windows, clapboards, flooring, moldings and stairs, in fact everything required to finish a first class house, came from Sears, Roebuck and Co. at a savings of about $500, as compared with local prices," he wrote. "My builder says he never used better finish and he has had fifty years' experience."
L.S. Chapman from Shelton wrote to say he saved several hundred dollars and found the materials better than expected. "Our house, No. C225, is beautiful.
Sears didn't make all pre-cut houses. There were actually six large companies that made kit houses, but none had the marketing clout of Sears and its famous catalog. Another company, Aladdin, sold enough homes to the Bristol Brass. Co. in 1916 to fill four blocks near the factory in Bristol, Conn.
Identifying Sears houses has become a cottage industry for fanatics who produce books, blogs, documentaries and even bus tours by the Smithsonian Associates.
Sears enthusiasts argue whether Bucksport, Maine, has a neighborhood full of identical Sears houses – Belfasts, to be precise. Writer Scott Sowers says yes. Rose Thornton, who has made a career of identifying Sears houses, says no.
“The Sears Belfast and the Bucksport Houses are wildly different from one another,” wrote Thornton after examining a photo of a Bucksport house.
(Tangentially, the front doorway of the real Belfast was modeled on the doorway of the historic Perkins House, built in 1769 in Castine, Maine.)
People authenticate Sears houses by comparing them to the models in the Sears archives. That’s usually not enough, since houses are often altered over the years. They must also look for stamped lumber in the basement or attic, shipping labels on moldings or the characteristic ‘SR’ stamped on bathroom fixtures. (For other clues, click here.)
We did track down a Sears house on Lindsay Road in York, Maine.
Sears houses arrived in two railroad box cars in a variety of styles and prices. At the high end was the Magnolia, a four-bedroom, high-ceilinged colonial modeled after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, Mass. It sold for $5,972. (See featured image.)
At the low end was the Natoma, a three-room house that sold for $191. It had no bathroom, but you could buy the outhouse separately.
The Verona was another ‘high-class home,’ according to the catalog, ‘of the Dutch type of colonial architecture.’ An authenticated Sears Verona has been identified at 115 Belleclaire Ave., in Longmeadow, Mass.
A house on Medway St. in Norfolk, Mass., is in contention for being a Sears house. Authentic Sears houses were also assembled in Newton, Easthampton, Boston, Woburn, Springfield, Wrentham, Cohasset and Pittsfield.
Two small New England companies also sold kit houses.
The Thayer Portable House Co. operated in Keene, N.H., from about 1920 to 1940. It had grown from the Springfield Portable House Co. in Massachusetts. There was also the Robinson's-Money-Saving-Mill-Made Cut-to-Fit Houses of Providence, R.I.
Still, Sears was king in New England, shipping homes from its factory in Philadelphia.
Two Sears houses have been identified on Mulberry Street in Claremont, N.H. One was a Castleton; the other, a Lorain. (Click here to read more about these houses.)
The Castleton was promoted as ‘dignified and substantial,’ ‘a well-designed house that will make a pleasant home.’ The Lorain was marketed as a charming six-room colonial with dark shutters, snowy walls and window boxes. You can watch a documentary about restoring a Lorain here.
The Parkside was a cute, economical four-room house sold from 1934 to 1940. There’s an authenticated Parkside at 43 Beacon St. in Middletown, R.I. The current owner did considerable research into the house’s history and put up a website about it. (Check it out here.)
In 1938, the Middletown Parkside sold for $1,372. In 2006, it sold for $222,000. Bob Wolfenden, a military veteran, built the house in 1940 and lived in it for the rest of his life. He was a professional carpenter who became superintendent of the Newport, R.I., Water Department. He and his wife Mildred had no children.
John Little bought the house and enlarged it after his friend Bob died. The Parkside then changed hands several times, became a rental and went into foreclosure. It needed repair by the time the current owner bought it in 2006. You can see pictures of the house over the years here.
Burlington, Vt., has so many catalog houses there’s a field guide to them called A Guide to the Catalog Houses of Burlington, Vermont.
Burlington was an ideal market for kits of Sears houses as well as for those of its competitors, Aladdin and Gordon Van Tine. The city’s population grew by 10 percent every decade while growing richer. The expansion of the streetcar network opened up cheap empty land. Burlington could also be reached by two major railroads, making it easy to ship kit houses.
Kit houses cluster in Burlington’s South End, the Five Sisters neighborhood, south of the University of Vermont campus, the New North End and Lakeview Terrace. Of the 30 kit houses identified in the Burlington field guide, 14 came from Sears.
A cluster of Sears houses in Burlington shows the range of styles: A four-square Fullerton and a Westly bungalow were identified on N. Prospect Street. Also:
- A Dutch colonial Lucerne on Catherine Street,
- A colonial revival bungalow called a Crescent on St. Paul Street
- A Spanish Colonial Alhambra on South Winooski Avenue
- A Tudor Revival Barrington at Marian Street.
Images: Perkins House By S437885 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35346344; Sears Catalog House, by InAweofGod’s Creation, Creative Commons license. This story about Sears houses was updated in 2019.