Modular Home History
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).

Construction

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.

Modern Conveniences

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.

 
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