It is easy to think of prefabricated homes
as a modern building trend. But did you know that the history of prefabricated
home kits dates back to the early 20th century?
Way back before we had modern shipping
container homes for sale on Amazon.com, there was Sears Modern Homes. That’s
right—as far back as 1908, you could mail-order a kit to build your own home
through Sears, Roebuck and Company.
How Did Sears Get Into The Mail Order Homes Business?
In the early days, Sears wasn’t doing too
great when it came to selling construction materials. This created two
problems. The first was a deficit in the company’s bottom line where it needed
to see a profit. The other was a lot of building supplies hogging space in
A manager named Frank W. Kushel found a way
to kill two birds with one stone when he took over the department in 1906.
Instead of trying to sell one material or
tool at a time, Kushel came up with the idea of bundling together the surplus
supplies into building kits.
Another seller called the Aladdin Company
actually beat Sears to becoming the first company to offer a prefab home kit
via mail order, also in 1906.
It would take two years before Sears was
ready to start offering building kits through the mail, but when the company
made its foray into the building kit game, it did so in a big way.
In 1908, Sears shipped out Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans.
Contained in this catalog were 44 different types of home kits, all of which
were available by mail order.
The least expensive model was priced at
$360. According to this
inflation calculator, that would be approximately $10,373.40 in 2019 dollars.
The priciest home in that year’s catalog
was $2,890. In 2019, that would be equivalent to approximately 83,275.36.
Sears was quickly able to leap to the
forefront of the home building kit niche. The company had a massive inventory
of supplies to sell, a large selection of plans, and a massive reach with its
Soon, what had begun as a struggling
department became a success. Sears was able to quickly sell its surplus
inventory, and found itself needing to boost production in order to keep up
How Did Sears Keep Prices Low?
You will have noticed that the costs for
Sears kit homes even back in 1908 were quite affordable.
The way that the company was able to keep
costs so reasonable for its mail order craftsman home plans was through
developing efficient mass production techniques.
With manufacturing costs low, Sears was
able to pull in a profit while also keeping costs low for homebuilders.
Sears Homes Were Easy
Although saving costs is one of the reasons
why many people turn to home building kits today, it is not the only one, and
it wasn’t in 1908 either.
Home building kits also are appealing
because they can be fast, affordable and easy to put together even with limited
personnel, equipment and experience.
Here are a couple of the ways in which
Sears was able to make its home kits easy to assemble:
Precut framing timbers. This was actually an invention of Sears’ competitor Aladdin, but Sears started using them in 1916. It was precut lumber which really made Sears’ mail order houses into functional kits. The company advertised that it took 40% less time to erect a home using a kit with precut framing timbers than it would a traditional home.
Balloon style framing systems. Just one person could erect this type of framing system without pegs or members, using only nails.
Drywall. This material was new when Sears started making use of it in home kits. Prior to that, homebuilders had to use plaster and lathe to construct walls. Drywall was cheap. It also was easier to use in the assembly of homes.
Asphalt. Another material which really took off during the era of Sears home kits was asphalt. These roof shingles were inexpensive and didn’t require the same degree of skilled labor as wood or tin. Further, like drywall, they were not as flammable as some other materials.
Sears home kits really were an “all in one” solution for those who needed one. The base kits did not include heating, electricity or plumbing, but buyers could tack them on if they were able to pay more.
Rail cars and trucks transported the 25-ton
kits (on average—the exact weight varied from one model to the next) to the
buyer, who would then find himself with around 30,000 parts to assemble.
Sears House Kits Were a Revolution
After taking off during the early part of
the 20th century, Sears homes remained a big seller over the decades
While the original Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans included 44 different
styles, by 1940, the company had come up with 400 types of mail-order homes.
No one seems to know the exact number of
homes Sears sold during that time period, but estimates place it anywhere
between 70,000 and 75,000.
Because these homes were well-built out of
sturdy materials, some of them still stand today.
You are most likely to find a Sears kit
home if you live in the Midwest or Northeast
In particular, you are in luck if you are
located within driving distance of Elgin,
IL—a town put on the map by the
Elgin National Watch Company which was first incorporated in 1864 and operated
This is an interesting intersection of
events, actually, as the Elgin National Watch Company and Sears had something
Both built their reputations and grew their
customer bases by leveraging mass production without compromising on quality.
So, it seems appropriate that Elgin became the most
popular location for Sears home kits. Hundreds were constructed there.
You might think that Sears home kits simply
paved the way for modern prefab home kits, but that would be a great underestimation
of their broader impact.
Again, consider that materials like asphalt
tiles and drywall were not in widespread use prior to the Sears Modern Homes
Also, not a lot of homes had, for example,
central heat before Sears started up with this program.
So, through its catalog and the 70,000+
homes the company shipped, Sears helped to bring modern building materials,
techniques and living conveniences to people across the country.
So, no matter when your own home was built
or by what company, in some way, the Sears Modern Homes program probably has
had an impact on your life.
Examples of Sears Modern Homes Models
Now that we have introduced Sears Modern
Homes and you have learned about their place in history, you probably want to
take a look at some of these homes!
During the early days of Sears homes, many
of the houses simply had model numbers instead of names. As an example, here is
Model No. 113. This home was from the 1908 through 1914 time period. The price
in US dollars at that time was $1,062.
The house featured eight rooms in total,
with large front and side porches and a gambrel roof. It had a kind of
“farmhouse” appeal to it, and measured 27 feet and 6 inches wide by
40 feet long.
A smaller, low-budget home in the 1915
through 1920 era which you could mail order from Sears was the Natoma.
The house measured 20′ x 16′ for 320 ft.²
That measurement did not include the porch, which provided another 9’8″ x
5′ of outdoor space.
So, you could actually classify the Natoma
as an early prefab tiny house. It is pretty cool realizing that something so similar
to modern day prefab tiny houses existed all the way back then!
There were two options for pricing for the
Natoma, depending on whether you wanted the “standard built” version
of the house or the “already cut” and fitted version of the house.
If you went for the latter, the cost was
$266, and if you went for the former, it was only $191.
For reference, $191 in 1920 would be
equivalent to approximately $2,478.03 in 2019.
So, even by modern-day standards, the Natoma was a very cheap house.
Even Sears showed awareness of this fact, writing in the catalog, “No doubt you will be surprised at the idea of getting the material for a house of this kind for such a low price. The picture of the house, however, cannot be expected to show anything with the quality of the material which we furnish … we aim to provide material that will be even better than is considered necessary by a good many people.”
The San Jose Model
For another example, this time of a larger,
more expensive Sears home, let’s jump to the 1927 through 1932 era and take a
look at the San Jose Model.
Advertised as a “five-room Spanish
bungalow,” this house was an “already cut” and fitted model
available for $2,138. For reference, $2,138 in 1932 would be equivalent to
approximately $40,649.03 in 2019 dollars. It was approximately 24 feet wide by
48 feet long.
The design of the house was inspired by Spanish missions with stucco siding and a shingled roof. Included were a vestibule, living room, dining room, kitchen, basement, bathroom and bedrooms.
Now let’s move forward into the 1933-1940
era to take a look at the Gateshead, a
cut-and-fitted “Americanized English type” house. Describing it, the Sears
catalog writes that it was “particularly adaptable to narrow city blocks. The
exterior is of clear bevel siding with half timber and stucco on the front
gable. The main roof sweeps gracefully over the front vestibule and the front
gable roof is treated in the same way, extending over the side porch.”
Consisting of two stories, the house
included two large bedrooms and a bathroom together with four closets on the
second floor. On the ground floor, there was a living room, dining room,
kitchen, vestibule and porch.
Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this ad
is the graphic in the lower right with the caption, “When is your own
home, mowing the lawn is a pleasure instead of work.”
In fact, just by reading through a
selection of these catalog pages for Sears Modern Homes, you can learn a lot
not just about the building styles and techniques of the time, but also about
the culture and how it evolved over those decades and was expressed through
homeownership and the desire for it.
Indeed, the advertisement for the Gateshead makes a particularly strong push for it—just read the first paragraph in its entirety and you’ll see.
The base price for this house was $1,345.
For reference, $1,345 in 1940 would be equivalent to around $24,871.72 in 2020.
Sears Home Kits Paved the Way for Modern Houses
We take drywall, asphalt tiles, HVAC and
other materials and conveniences for granted nowadays.
But in the early days of Modern Homes, a
lot of customers had never experienced these features.
Modern Homes revolutionized the way homes
are built, and the legacy of the program is one which, like those techniques,
materials and conveniences, will continue to endure.