Certain things come to mind when I think of Sears: appliances of all sizes, tools, fitness equipment, and (to a lesser degree) clothes. I think of the occasional weekend day roaming around the store while my parents shopped for this, that, and the other thing. When Father’s Day rolls around, more often than not, Sears is a mainstay for me. Yes, I associate a lot of things with Sears, but I never associated prefabricated homes with Sears until I was sent an article recently.
In the early twentieth century, Sears, Roebuck & Company was one of a handful of companies that sold kit houses, including Montgomery Ward and Aladdin, Lewis, and Gordon Van Tine. The idea behind kit houses was to offer a do-it-yourself option and to keep home construction cost down per square foot by mass producing home components, while giving the consumer ways to customize their new home. Prices for kits ranged from about $400 to $1400. There were more than 40 house designs to choose from in 1908, and more than 90 designs by the 1920s. Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 slowed down kit home purchases to the point that Sears had to discontinue sales in 1940.
Here’s how it worked: you would browse the mail-order catalog of home designs, choose one, and have the blueprints and materials list sent to you. You could make any desired customizations. Sears would then pack up a shipping container with all the necessary components to build the house, which would arrive via train, and you would have 48 hours to unload the contents and truck them to the build site. The container would include everything from a barrel of nails to paint, and wood stenciled with alphanumeric markings to make assembly easy. A booklet of instructions would come with the shipment, and construction was very similar to Lego® builds. Foundations had to be poured prior to delivery of the container.
Kit houses aren’t just a thing of the past! There are a number of companies today that have revolutionized kit houses. Newer kit houses aim for aesthetics, energy efficiency, weather proofing, temporary shelters, and other innovative designs. Hopefully, these newer kit houses will stand the test of time, as many have from the early 20th century, which have held up due to the high quality of lumber and components, as well as from efforts by enthusiastic historians.
Have you ever dealt with a kit home? Tell us about it!
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