A headline on page 594 of the 1908 Sears Catalog probably startled readers used to page after page of plows, obesity powders, sewing machines, and cook stoves. It announced: “$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you.” From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold roughly 75,000 homes nationwide through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Illinois probably has the largest collection in the US, but Sears homes are located in all 48 contiguous states.
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.
Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets. A few weeks after the customer selected a home and placed the order, two railway boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house – everything from doorknobs and carved staircases to varnish and roof shingles – would arrive at the nearest train depot.
How to get it from the station to the lot was up to the new homeowner. In the early days, people made trip after trip between the building site and the railroad station. Since it would have been difficult to transport all that material long distances, Sears homes were often located within a mile or two of train tracks and in cities that were reachable by rail.
Karen Hudson, of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, reports the results of a 1992 survey the Center conducted in the New River Gorge region of West Virginia to describe that area’s built environment:
“The survey revealed a much more diverse landscape than has been described in the past,” she notes. “While it was easy for project researchers to locate log cabins and abandoned coal towns, we also found many cinder block bungalows, glazed tile barns and silos, Lustron houses, concrete block churches, Sears mail order homes, and geodesic domes. Contrary to past reports, the New River Gorge cultural landscape reflects the history of a community that designed, built, and used its buildings according to individual tastes and principles.”
In 1932, Sears Modern Homes department began operating at a loss for the first time since 1912. The company’s annual report stated that sales of the mail-order homes had dropped 40 percent in one year.
Sears closed the Modern Homes department in 1934. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $3,000 (and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount), this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) customers from their homes became a public-relations nightmare. The Modern Homes department was reopened the following year, but the days of Sears “easy payment” mortgages were over.
Between 1932 and 1940, Sears probably sold another 15,000 to 20,000 homes, perhaps fewer. When the last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940, Americans had purchased an estimated 75,000 homes.