|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.