Many American homes were “ordered by mail, sent by rail” in the early 20th century. The concept was simple: flip through a catalog, pick out a house, mail in money. Within weeks, your brand-new home would arrive by train – ready for assembly. Many of these historical homes are still scattered throughout our region.
The day is finally here! The first shipment of our brand-new house has arrived. I waved goodbye as Dad and Uncle Charles rode off in the wagon to the railroad station. They came back with precut lumber and an instruction manual to build our new home. Dad says he won’t even need a saw. Mom spent many days looking through the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog for our new house. She wanted No. 155, which had a bath! But Dad said it cost $1,100, which is twice as much as he can afford. They chose No. 140 instead for $550. It has two bedrooms and a front porch, but no bath. The rest of our house will arrive in a few days. Once Dad and the uncles are done building it, I’ll get to live in our very own Sears modern home.
Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold about 70,000 to 75,000 homes through a mail-order program. According to Sears archives, there were more than 400 housing styles available, from mansions to bungalows and even summer cottages. After flipping through the Sears catalog to see the many options, customers could order a home based on their individual tastes and budgets.
Across the country, many of these “catalog homes” or “kit houses” are still standing.
“The largest concentration of kit houses is in the Northeast and the Midwest, since these areas were served by more rail lines,” says Heidi Howlett, an educator at the Geneva History Museum. “Here in Geneva, we have identified more than 40 catalog homes. One way to see if your home has mail-order origins is to check the rafters for numbers.”
These quaint houses are also scattered throughout Geneva’s neighboring cities. According to Howlett, Elgin boasts more than 210 Sears-manufactured homes – making it the largest collection of Sears homes in the entire country.
Sears, the Chicago-based retailer once famous for its extensive mail-order catalog, was not the first company to sell homes by mail order. However, according to its archives, Sears was the largest manufacturer, selling as many as 324 units in one month. The entire home would arrive by railroad, often in multiple trips.
A typical, unassembled Sears house could fit into two box cars, but shipping dates were staggered to allow materials to arrive at about the time they were needed, Howlett explains. The first materials to arrive were the building paper, nails, precut lumber and frames. More items arrived throughout the building process, from carved staircases down to screws and varnish.
Though Sears provided pre-cut lumber at a time when power tools were almost unheard of, there was still much work to be done by the homeowner.
“Construction manuals would tell the owner how to put everything together,” Howlett says. “Owners had to make a record of each shipment and take an inventory of each piece. The number of separate parts, not including screws or nails, averaged about 30,000 pieces for an ordinary home. Imagine having to count all that.”
According to Sears archives, kit houses were meant to fill a need for sturdy, inexpensive homes. Many models were complete with such desirable conveniences as indoor plumbing and electricity, though these luxuries were oftentimes unaffordable for the average homebuyer.
A national interest in saving and restoring catalog homes began in the late 1980s.
“Until then, there wasn’t much interest in them,” Howlett says. “But when the supply of affordable Victorian homes dwindled, young homeowners started buying and rehabilitating older homes built in the first decade of the 20th century.”
Few original buyers are still alive to share their excitement of building a catalog home. However, the houses themselves stand as historical testaments to an era when homes could be “ordered by mail, sent by rail.”
Geneva, in particular, has a diverse selection of homes to spot – if you know what to look for.
Growing Up in a Catalog House
By 1925, Sears had sold 30,000 homes.
“The main reason for their success was having a good reputation for building quality homes at a reasonable price,” Howlett says.
Geneva resident Mick Zollers has memories of growing up in a Sears home built just after this time. In 1942, at age 4, Zollers moved into a little house on Richards Street with his parents and lived there until 1964.
Since those days, Zollers has taken an interest in learning about the history of his childhood home, and by volunteering at the Geneva History Museum he’s managed to learn quite a bit.
“I’ve volunteered there for more than 16 years,” he says. “I’ve worked with abstracts and Geneva-related obituaries, but now I do my favorite thing, which is researching houses. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others – especially homeowners who are curious about their homes.”
Zollers learned his Sears kit house was a Berwyn model, which became available around 1928. With five rooms and a bath, the 870-square-foot house started at $1,200.
Its advertisement in the 1928 “Sears Modern Homes” catalog reads:
“In designing small homes, the main thing to keep in mind is to obtain an attractive appearance in the exterior and a convenient arrangement of the interior, and yet keep the construction cost as low as possible. In presenting this five-room design, we have observed the above requirements, resulting in a happy combination of these desirable features.”
According to Zollers, the best way to identify a Berwyn is to look at the front door area. A double-arched front entrance makes the style easy to recognize.
The house from Zollers’ childhood has been modified over the years, and today it stands without the signifying arch. Look closely, however, and you can imagine the original design.
In 1938, Sears renamed the Berwyn model to “The Mayfield.” It was one of the few housing styles sold in the final catalog of “Sears Modern Homes,” circulated in 1940.
Thanks to volunteering at the Geneva History Museum, Zollers now understands and appreciates the origins of his home.
“As a retired person, I spend a lot of time volunteering, which has allowed me to broaden my knowledge,” Zollers says. “It’s neat to find other homes like ours in the Tri-Cities.”
Describing a Sears Modern Home
Howlett chuckles as she reads old catalog pages from “Sears Modern Homes.”
“Some of the housing descriptions are a little quirky,” Howlett says. “It’s like the writer is saying, ‘I’m going to stand outside and admire my home.’”
Howlett enjoys the descriptions for the Starlight, Hamilton, Claremont, Willard and Mitchell designs. All of these models are found throughout Geneva.
“I love how cute and small they are,” Howlett says. “These homes are something you drive by all the time in Geneva, so it’s fun to be able to spot them.”
The Starlight bungalow is one of our most popular designs. It is dignified and substantial in every detail. Architects and builders say the Starlight has as good an arrangement, considering its size, as it is possible to have. It has the proper number of rooms for the average family. The careful planning, together with our direct-from-factory prices, gives the utmost for the money spent.
The Hamilton bungalow fulfills all the promises of its handsome exterior. It is just as up-to-date and has as many good features in the interior. Just a glance at the floor plan will reveal the excellent arrangement of the rooms. Then again, the interior views on the opposite page show how tastefully one can furnish this home. Truly, the Hamilton is a model for appearance, convenience and price.
“Man works from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” The modern woman is no longer a slave to her home. No matter how much money a builder may have to invest in a home, he should aim at four objectives: appearance, convenience, durability and economy. In other words, he should make every dollar invested go just as far as possible in the way of a conveniently appointed, well planned, attractive appearing home.
The Willard, two-story English cottage type, adds distinction to any fine residential community, and is a remarkable value, thanks to our “Honor Built” System. The Willard fulfills the most exacting specifications for permanent construction, efficient floor plan, and makes a good investment.
The Mitchell is an English-type bungalow, so modified as to meet American requirements for modern exterior design and convenient arrangement of interior. Its attractive exterior features a high pitched roof, casement sash, batten doors and shutters, and general rustic appearance.
Other Kit Home Companies
Sears was not the only company to manufacture and sell homes through mail order. Other American companies added to the mix, including the Aladdin Company, International Mill & Timber Company (IMT), Lewis Manufacturing Company, Gordon Van Tine and Harris Homes.
Geneva has homes from all of these companies.
According to Howlett, the Aladdin Company was one of the country’s most long-lived manufacturers of kit homes.
“They actually sold homes longer than Sears did,” Howlett says. “Brothers William and Otto Sovereign started the company in 1906. Until its last day in 1981, the company remained family-owned.”
During its 75 years in business out of Bay City, Mich., the Aladdin Company sold more than 75,000 homes, Howlett adds.
“The catalog description really said that ‘skilled labor is absolutely unnecessary in any part of the construction,’” Howlett smiles. “One of the younger catalog homes in Geneva, built in the 1950s, is a Brentwood style from the Aladdin Company.”
Two other kit home manufacturers were also based in Bay City. IMT and Lewis Manufacturing Company both utilized Bay City’s abundance of timber and easy access to Lake Huron.
“It was a logical location for multiple homebuilders to emerge,” Howlett says.
IMT was the first kit home company to offer mortgages on houses, Howlett adds. The company sold houses for a 50 percent down payment and allowed homeowners to pay off the remaining balance with interest. However, when selling houses, IMT didn’t take into account the cost of the land. The company went bankrupt in 1922.
More successful was Gordon Van Tine, a company that offered 15-year mortgages with a 25 percent down payment. Established in 1907 in Davenport, Iowa, Gordon Van Tine offered multiple styles of kit homes – many of which are still found in Geneva.
“Colorful kitchens and baths were a feature in Gordon Van Tine houses,” Howlett says. “Linen closets and roomy shelves were other advertised features. They didn’t have fun names for their houses, though – they just had numbers.”
Harris Homes, based in Chicago, sold catalog houses as well. But, unlike other companies, Harris Homes got its start in the business of wreckage and salvage instead of milling and manufacturing.
“They jumped on the homebuilding train in 1905,” Howlett says. “It was becoming a booming business to sell kit houses. People sometimes forget that it wasn’t just Sears. There were actually a bunch of companies.”
Explore More Architectural History
Catalog homes are just a small part of Geneva’s rich architectural heritage.
Geneva History Museum, 113 S. Third Street, offers walking tours and “Geneva on Wheels” tours for people to learn more about catalog homes and other forms of historical architecture.
To sign up for a tour or to learn more about the museum’s offerings, call (630) 232-4951 or visit genevahistorymuseum.org.