From 1908 until 1940, a potential homeowner could order an entire house from Sears Roebuck. The home arrived ready to assemble — complete with pre-cut wood, nails, roofing shingles and interior finishes, including doors, windows and even paint. Virtually everything needed to build a house. A 75-page leather bound instruction manual with the owner's name embossed in gold accompanied the order. The owner was responsible for supplying the foundation, but instructions were included, including directions for making cement blocks.
Although Sears began selling mail order building materials in 1895, the company issued the first "Book of Modern Homes" in 1908. The catalogue offered 44 home designs, ranging in price from $495 to $4,115.
The prospective owner selected a home from the catalogue and placed an order, accompanied by $1. Soon a list of building materials and full blueprints arrived. The customer placed a final order and in several weeks, two box cars, containing about 30,000 pieces, arrived at the local railway station for pickup. Many early shipments were hauled by mule-drawn wagon to the owner's property.
The homeowner with some construction skills could build the house himself or hire a contractor, but was warned to follow the instructions and "not take anyone's advice concerning the assembly."
Sears' reputation for quality products at a fair price and its guarantee of satisfaction, plus the need for housing for a growing population, made the Sears' homes an immediate success. Over the next 32 years Sears sold 75,000 homes through its catalogues and sales offices.
In 1911, Sears began offering financing at 6 percent interest, counting the value of the owner's labor in the down payment. The only question concerning financing was: "What is your vocation?" Thousands of families, who had only dreamed of owning a home, could now afford to build their own.
Of course, Sears wanted to sell customers everything to go into their new home. Sears catalogues offered bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, furniture, curtains and linens. In 1929, Sears hired interior designer, Miss E.L. Mayer, to advise the homemaker on furniture selection and "other contrivances so important in home comfort." Miss Mayer included detailed drawings for appropriate furniture placement and even landscaping.
By the early 1920s, the catalogue offered 90 different designs. The cost of the houses ranged from $495 for the 4-room "Hudson" to more than $5,000 for the ante-bellum style "Magnolia." Sales peaked in 1929 at 44,200 homes. Net sales volume that year was more than $12 million. In 1918, Standard Oil of Indiana placed a $1 million order for 192 homes for company employees around Carlinville, Illinois.
Initially, Sears identified the homes by number. Later catalogues featured distinctive names, like "The Alden" and "The Richmond." Catalogues also included plans for barns, chicken coups, out-houses, vacation cabins, and later plans for two-family homes and four-family apartment buildings.
The 1908 catalogue featured plans for a two-story brick school. Designed primarily for rural communities, the eight-classroom plan included an auditorium and a library, but no plumbing. The cost was $11,500. Sears offered homes without plumbing until the 1930s.
The majority of Sears' homes were in the Midwest. However, as a railroad hub, Chattanooga and the surrounding areas were ideal for shipping and transporting the materials. Local historian LaVonne Jolley states her father, Horace Collins of Collins Brothers Construction Co., built a number of Tudor-style Sears homes on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in the 1920s and 30s. A number of the bungalows in St. Elmo could be Sears' homes as well as others in the Highland Park and the Belvoir-Germantown Road neighborhoods.
If you suspect you have or know someone who has a Sears home, look for several clues, including the Sears name stamped on millwork. The Chattanooga Public Library has two excellent books on the company's homes: "Houses by Mail," by Cole Stemnson and H. Ward Jandal and "The Houses that Sears Built" by Rosemary Thompson.
Sears houses did not feature distinct or innovative architectural styles. Instead, architects favored simple, unpretentious designs popular with middle class, working families. They are exceptionally well built. (Not all kit homes were manufactured by Sears. Aladdin Co. sold pre-cut homes from the late 1800s until the 1940s. Montgomery Ward also sold homes under the WardWay brand.)
If you find a Sears' home, please contact Chattanhistoricalassoc.org. The association and I plan to include more information on Chattanooga's Sears houses in a future column.
Gay Moore is the author of a number of books and articles on Chattanooga history. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.