Have you assembled furniture from IKEA? Have you struggled to understand the instructions to put together a child's toy? Can you imagine ordering a kit to assemble an entire house?
A century before online retailers such as IKEA and Amazon, almost everything America needed came by mail from one source: Sears, Roebuck & Company. It is joked that in some rural homes there were only two books: the Bible and the Sears catalog. The mail-order catalog listed tens of thousands of items, including doors, hardware, windows, and shingles. Sears saw an opportunity to sell homes to the early 20thcentury's growing middle class by creating home kits with blueprints and all the building materials required – and Sears knew that new homeowners would purchase additional merchandise from their catalog to fill those homes.
This article is the fourth in a series about wyoming's architectural variety. Documents and books at the Wyoming Historical Society were the primary source of information for the story, including “The Houses That Sears Built” by Rosemary Thornton.
Kits from $495 to $6,000
In the early 20thcentury, Sears, Roebuck & Company advertised the solution for inexpensive new homes: “Let us be your architect without cost to you.” Sears offered hundreds of house designs in their Model Home catalogs and sold over 75,000 kits across the US during the years 1908-1940. Customers placed their order for a specific house kit, and within a few weeks, Sears shipped the materials by rail, timed to arrive based on a construction schedule. Everything to build the house was provided: precut lumber for joists, rafters, and studs; doors, windows, and moldings; hardware; putty, paint, nails, shingles, flooring, and gutters; blueprints, and a leather-bound, detailed instruction book. All millwork (doors, windows, and moldings) came from Norwood, Ohio. The materials were high quality, and Sears promised “if you follow these instructions, you can not make a mistake.”
Sears offered all the popular architectural styles of the early 20thcentury, including bungalow, american foursquare, Mission Revival, English Cottage, and Colonial Revival styles. To learn more about those styles, click here.
Sears Kit Houses Are Architectural Treasures
The National Trust for Historic Preservation considers Sears houses as historically significant. Fans of Sears kit homes appreciate the history and craftsmanship of the houses and are eager to identify and protect the tens of thousands of Sears kit homes still standing across the US. An architectural historian, Beatrice Lask, identified over 500 Sears homes in Cincinnati and 24 Sears homes here in Wyoming. Several Sears kit homes in Wyoming's Historic District are included in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory.
How Can You Identify a sears kit house?
When Shelly and Steve Bower moved to Wyoming and purchased a charming house on burns avenue, they didn't understand the seller's comment to “Enjoy this old Sears home.” They assumed that Sears was the name of the family who built the home in 1926. It was only after someone came to their house to invite them to a presentation about local Sears homes, and recommended a book, “Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, roebuck and company,” that they discovered the story behind their house. Shelly says “We found the book and were thrilled to find our home staring back at us: The Americus!”
How do you know if your home is a Sears kit house? First, it must have been built between 1908-1940. Reproductions of the Model Home catalogs provide images and floor plans of the designs, but with subsequent remodeling, it is not always easy to identify a Sears house by its exterior. Fans of Sears houses are known to search attics and basements for clues. Lumber is typically stamped with a letter and a three-digit number for assembly, unless the homeowner bought the lumber separately. The studs of Sears homes are typically 15” apart, compared to wider spaced studs in non-Sears homes. Hardware and plumbing fixtures are stamped SR.
Sales records no longer exist with Sears, Roebuck & Company, but courthouse documents may reveal if the original owner had a Sears mortgage when the kit house was purchased.
You can find the list of Wyoming's identified Sears homes at the Wyoming Historical Society, along with books about Sears kit houses, including reproductions of Modern Home catalogs.