The Mail Order House
- Home ownership in the United States has long been a primary goal of working class families.
- Between 1908 and 1940 more than 200,000 American families purchased a new home from the catalogs where they purchased clothing, hardware, house wares and other domestic necessities.
- The mail order house gave thousands of Americans the opportunity to purchase and build an inexpensive home.
- These “homes by mail” serve as a symbolic reflection of the time period in which they were constructed.
- Catalog homes were offered in a variety of architectural styles such as Colonial, Craftsman and Tudor Revival.
- Many of these houses remain in existence today and are found in most towns and cities across the United States.
- Catalog homes were a fashionable choice in Morris County.
Interior spaces were far from drab, featuring:
- Built in book cases and storage
- Crown molding
- Door and window trim
Timing Was Everything!
- Morris County’s population grew from 65,156 in 1900 to 74,704 in 1910, a ready market.
- Families were moving to the suburbs in their “Model T”s, and Sears and other catalog home vendors had just the house for them.
- In 1900 only 8,000 automobiles were on America’s roads.
- A decade later, 468,500 cars were registered and licensed in the US.
The Catalog House
Just What is a Catalog House?
- Catalog Homes (from Sears and other companies) were ready-to-assemble houses sold through mail order by mail order catalog companies.
- Between 1908 and 1940, Sears alone sold over 70,000 catalog homes in North America.
- A basic mail order home came complete with blueprints and materials, including the nails. Either the owner or a contractor could construct the home.
- The customer could also purchase everything necessary to complete his/her home of their dreams.
- Plumbing – sinks, bathroom fixtures, furnace
- Electrical – wiring, lighting, switches
- Paint and wallpaper
Optional features from the company included:
- And more!
The Process of Buying and Building a Catalog Home
- Catalogs were circulated through larger catalog companies.
- Advertisements ran in many newspapers and magazines.
- When a buyer decided on a house model, they either filled out an intent form, or visited a branch sales office.
- After consultations with the sales representative were completed the order was sent to the company’s factory.
- Several weeks later, a kit complete with lumber, cabinets, roofing materials, flooring, siding, downspouts, doors, windows, nails, and paint arrived and construction could begin.
How Did a Mail Order House Arrive?
- Within a few weeks after the order was placed, two boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house would arrive at the nearest train depot.
- The contents of the box cars would be loaded onto trucks and taken to the building site.
- For this reason, many catalog homes were built near railroad depots.
The Sears Modern Home
- The 1908 Sears General Merchandise Catalog carried an ad which read:
“$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you.”
- The first Modern Homes catalog issued in 1908 was 68 pages long and offered 44 house designs, ranging in price from $695 – $4,115.
- By 1939, nineteen Sears offices were established; Seven of the nineteen were in New Jersey
Building Materials and Plans
- In 1895, Sears, Roebuck and Company began selling building materials in addition to the multitude of items offered in their mail-order catalog.
- By 1908, customers were invited to request a copy of their Book of Modern Homes, which featured house plans and building materials.
- The 1913 Sears Modern Home Catalog featured 112 designs “for homes of comfort and refinement.”
- Pricing did not include electrical wiring, furnace, radiators or copper plumbing.
- A Sears home came with a 75-page, leather-bound instruction book described how to assemble the 30,000 pieces.
- Kits also include nails, paint, varnish, roof shingles and siding
- For example, the kit for the Chelsea included 750 pounds of nails, 22 gallons of paint and varnish and 20,000 shingles for the roof and siding.
- Sears estimated in 1908 that a carpenter would charge $450.00 to assemble American Four Square design, The Chelsea.
Sears Quality incorporated into every home
- The basic Standard Built homes were of good quality — however, they were recommended for warmer climates.
- The Sears Honor Built homes were the top of the line.
- Prior to World War I, prices ranged from $146 for the Sears’ Golden Rod cottage, up to $5,140 for the Magnolia, the grandest of all the homes.
- Sears flexibility included:
- Customizing a basic design
- Ordering everything at once – from door knobs and hinges to built-in breakfast nooks and cabinets, bathtubs and sinks, to the toilet of your choice.
- Reversing floor plans
- A customer could sit with five different salespeople during the purchasing process, depending on how complete a home the customer wanted.
Financing Was Available
- Sears and other mail order companies offered short term mortgages.
- Typical 1926 Sears mortgage terms were:
- APR 6%
- 1st payment due 4 months after delivery of materials
- 25% down payment
- Maximum 15 year term
- Houses were required to have a basement – no crawlspaces or slabs
Ward's & Others
Other Mail Order House Companies
- Sears was the largest seller of houses by mail.
- Further complicating matters, a handful of other companies, such as the Aladdin Co., and Gordon-Van Tine Co., produced mail-order homes closely resembling Sears models.
- Sears catalog homes were sold between 1908 and 1940.
- Montgomery Ward catalog homes were sold between 1922 and 1931.
- Aladdin catalog home sales began in 1906.
- Aladdin remained in business until the 1980s.
- Many designs were similar and reflected minimal changes to the overall design. These slight changes were made to keep each company design legally theirs.
Competitors In The Catalog Home Industry
Sears’ major competitors were:
- Aladdin, Bay City, MI
- Bennett Homes, North Tonawanda, NY | Example #2
- Gordon Van Tine, Davenport, IA 1916 | 1923
- Harris Brothers, Chicago, IL
- Lewis Homes/Liberty Homes, Bay City, MI
- Montgomery Ward, Chicago, IL
- Sterling Homes/International Mill and Timber, Bay City, MI
- Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Los Angeles, CA
- Radford Architectural Company, Chicago, IL
- Ready Built House Co., Portland, OR
Montgomery Ward and Van Tine
- Two of the major manufacturers, Aladdin and Sears, had been successfully selling “houses by mail” for years and had the manufacturing and infrastructure organization and facilities to design, cut, and package an entire house from a number of regional centers across the country.
- Montgomery Ward did not. To meet their demand for kit homes, Montgomery Ward subcontracted its manufacturing to the Gordon-Van Tine Company.
Montgomery Ward – Wardway Homes
- Wardway “ready-cut” homes were sold by Montgomery Ward from 1922 to 1931.
- Like Sears, Montgomery Ward offered financing.
- When the market collapsed in 1929, the ensuing failed mortgages took their toll on company revenues.
- Montgomery Ward became a casualty of the Depression, and discontinued selling its homes in 1931.
The Elizabeth – A Wardway Home
- This example of The Elizabeth in Succasunna reflects changes to home designs during the 1920s.
- Bathrooms had become standard – some models offered upstairs and downstairs bathrooms!
- Sun porches or sun rooms were sought after by home buyers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
These designs are similar to the Wardway Elizabeth located in Succasunna.
Each featured sun room/porch, covered entry, and nearly identical floor plans.
Sears Design and Montgomery Ward: A Design Comparison
- The Sears Crescent and the Wardway Priscilla were very similar in design and were popular choices in Morris County.
- Both homes were sold from the early 1920s through the 1930s.
- Both the Crescent and the Priscilla featured:
- Can you spot the subtle differences between the two?
Honor Bilt Modern Homes
- Honor Bilt Modern Homes were featured in a c.1928 Sears Special Supplement.
- There were 14 house styles that ranged from Craftsman bungalows to those reflecting Mediterranean and English Cottage influences.
- Framing spacing intervals were 14 3/8″ instead of the standard 16″.
- In size, these Honor Bilt Modern homes were comparable to other kit homes that were produced during this period.
Morris County Catalog Homes
Boonton’s San Jose
- Many catalog homes have a classic timeless appeal.
- The San Jose was advertised as a five room Spanish bungalow.
- The Spanish Revival style of the San Jose fit into Morris County’s architectural landscape.
- This model was sold by Sears during 1928 and 1929.
- Purchase price ranged between $2,026 and $2,138 depending on options selected.
Chatham Borough – The Crescent
- This home was very popular in Morris County.
- Examples can be found in Boonton, Boonton Township, Morris Plains, Riverdale, and Roxbury.
- Sold from the early 1920s through the 1930s.
Chatham Borough – The Elmwood
- Popular two-story design
- Attractive and affordable
- Offered by Sears between 1911 and 1921
Sears Modern Home #121 – Denville
This page from the Sears Modern Home catalog of 1913 indicates home number 121 was built in Denville.
A Fullerton in Morris Plains?
- The American Four-Square was very popular in the US and NJ during the early 20th century.
- The style and floor plan variations were copied by many architects, builders, and catalog companies.
- Its popularity of the makes it difficult to identify as a catalog home.
Sears Home #181 – Morristown
- There were many variations of the American Four Square.
- This example of the four square (on the left) was a popular design with catalog sales companies and builders as well.
Pequannock – The Osborne
- Sold by Sears from 1915 to 1929.
- Arts & Crafts style was popular between 1905-1930.
- The simple lines were a radical departure from the complicated Victorian style.
- The American Bungalow was popularized through mail order catalogs.
Ledgewood – The Crescent
- During the 1930s, Sears sold the plans, the materials or the entire house kit.
- The plans for this Crescent were purchased in the early 1930s from Sears.
- Construction materials were purchased locally.
- Options available on the Crescent of the 1930s included:
- 2nd floor plan
- 5 rooms (plan #3258A)
- 7 rooms (plan #3259A)
- The exterior is virtually unchanged from the 1930s catalog image.
Roxbury Township – The Grant
- Sold by Sears from 1925 – 1928.
- Original price ranged from $947-$999.
- Built by a Brooklyn family in 1929 as a summer cottage.
Rockaway – Sears Home #103
Mr. McGrath of Rockaway was pleased with his two bedroom Sears home, model 103.
- Identifying a house as an authentic mail order or catalog home can be challenging.
- From the early 1900’s to World War II, Sears and other companies offered almost 1,000 different models through catalogs.
- Buyers often customized the original plans to their personal preferences and needs.
- Later homeowners modified exteriors, removed walls, changed windows, enclosed porches or made additions to the original structure.
- You may have quite a mystery to unravel to find out if your home, or one in your neighborhood, is a true mail order house.
Helpful Hints to Help Identify a Catalog Home
- Because a house matches a picture in a catalog doesn’t mean it’s a catalog house.
- It could be a copy by a local builder…
- Or a popular style that catalog home manufacturers copied, such as the American Four Square
- Inside the house, clues such as labeled woodwork and plumbing fixtures can also be misleading, because catalog home manufacturers sold these items separately.
- One way to tell: a stamp of a letter and a three-digit number on beams, which were marked to facilitate assembly.
- The wooden parts of a kit house were numbered in order to facilitate construction.
- Presence of part numbers constitutes proof that the house is in fact a mail order kit.
- The style of the numbering may be a good indicator of which company built the house.
- Look on basement ceiling joists
- Attic rafters
- Basement stair risers and treads
- Wall studs any visible board which has not been painted
Identifying Mail Order House Part Numbers
- Sears part numbers are stamped on the wood in dark blue, black or gray ink. They are about one inch high, and almost always consist of a capital letter followed by one or more numbers.(A345 or B4)
- Gordon-van Tine and Wardway numbers are handwritten in grease pencil, usually in the middle of a board. They consist of, hyphenated groups of numbers or 3-5 digit numbers. (34-26-17 or 567, 24987)
- Aladdin, Lewis and Sterling Company numbers are handwritten in grease pencil, usually in the middle of a board. They consist of numbers, usually hyphenated in groups of 2 or 3. (24-25-16)
- Harris Brothers numbers are stenciled in ink, often in the middle of a board, and may be a combination of numbers and letters or just numbers.(58, AR 60)
Rosemary Thornton is one of the country’s leading experts on Sears catalog homes. Her book, The Houses that Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalogue Homes was published in 2002.
Other books of interest:
- Cecil C Hoge Jr., The First Hundred Years Are The Toughest: What We Can Learn From the Century of Competition Between Sears and Wards, 1988.
- Dover Publishing, Small houses of the Twenties, The Sears Roebuck 1926 House Catalog, 1991.
- Dover Publishing, Wardway Homes: Bungalows and Cottages, 1925, 2004.
- Dover Publishing, Aladdin “Built in a Day” House Catalog, 1917, 1995.
- Dover Publishing & Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 117 House Designs of the Twenties: Gordon Van Tine Co., 1992.
- Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Homes in a Box, Modern Homes from Sears Roebuck., 1998.
- Sears Archives, www.searsarchives.com/homes/1908-1914.htm.
- Robert Schweitzer and Michael Davis “Aladdin’s Magic Catalog” in Michigan History, Jan/Feb 1984.
- Robert Schweitzer and Sally Linvill Bund “Lewis/Liberty Homes – 59 Years in the Ready-Cut Homes Business”, Michigan History, Vol. 79, No. 2, March 1995.
- Robert Schweitzer and Grace Shackman “Ann Arbor’s Kit Houses”, Ann Arbor Observer, January 1991.
- Roxbury Township Historical Society, Old Homes of Roxbury Township, Vol III.
Research Sources in Morris County
You can research catalog homes at the Morris County Clerk’s Office (Deeds, Mortgage Records), the Morris County Heritage Commission (Building Contracts), or at your local library (Historic Site Survey, Town History).
About this Exhibit
- The Heritage Commission hopes to foster awareness and appreciation of the catalog homes in Morris County.
- The pricing and availability of catalog homes helped many county residents become home owners.
- Many homes are located close to railroad tracks, or near track beds once active in the early 20th century
- We hope this exhibit will bring to light documentation of other catalog homes in Morris County
- If you live in a catalog home or know of one, let us know! This is an ongoing project!