$107 Sears catalog home, 1908 (assembly required)

Image: Click to embiggen. 1908 Sears mail-order house No. 115 for $725.

I used to write ads for Sears, and I always admired their influence in American DIY/maker culture. They had a huge influence on reducing local general stores' price-gouging practices, and they gave consumers access to goods that were hard to come by (they started when there were no cars and only 38 US states). Back when Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward were battling it out over who would be the analog version of Amazon, Sears offered increasingly ambitious and specialized catalogs. One of their most ambitious projects was mail-order homes, inspired by success of The Aladdin Company. Last year, Cory blogged about Thomas Edison's similar prefab concrete home venture. But Sears Modern Homes had huge success with their wood-framed homes from 1908 through the Great Depression. Their cheapest model was $107 in 1908 (about $2,000 today). Unlike a lot of modern prefab, these were made to last; you can still find these homes here and there around the country.

Sears Homes 1908-1914


  1. Sears was certainly diverse. When I had a job at one of their phone centers I found a catalog that you could order live bees from.

    1. I’m sure the outhouse plans were elsewhere in the catalog. …or maybe that would be in the companion Sears plumbing catalog?
      For that price, I’d make do with a little inconvenience.

  2. My parents next door neighbor had one of these homes, the Model 52, I think. It was the farmhouse for a pretty large parcel that unfortunately sold to a developer the day after my parents closed the sale on their house. The developer lived in the house for years while he built the subdivision, moving out only when he had built himself a suitable new house. He was a great neighbor, and it took a good 25 years for the subdivision to completely encroach on my parents’ property lines.

    The house was very well-built, with a nice porch and is still standing today, though it has undergone several rounds of remodeling and these days doesn’t much resemble the original house at all.

  3. A friend of mine, a local bicycle shop owner and DIY/Maker here in Seattle, recently built a house based on Sears plans very similar to these. It turned out swell.

  4. The environmental center at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY is based out of one of these homes. I don’t remember which kind, but it’s still sturdy and useful. The rooms are a bit cramped and the ceilings are pretty low, but it does exactly what it’s meant to do.

  5. As an architect, I partially find this to really fantastic (kits! DIY!) and in part it makes me shudder… (Although they do warn about unscrupulous contractors – sadly, that hasn’t changed in 102 years)

    The biggest issue with a kit like this is the same issue that current “modular” or “prefab” housing faces – foundations. No kit instruction book can explain how to design and build a good foundation on the amazing variety of soils and subsurface conditions that exist in the real world. I wonder what percent of these kits were put up on really lousy foundations? The thing is – we will probably never know, because the ones that were propped up on stacks of rocks on soggy soil are long gone…

    On the other hand, these are amazingly simple and straightforward compared with modern homes. In 1908, there would have been no electricity and in most remote locations, no natural gas. From the descriptions of the rooms, I’ll bet that most of these also didn’t have any plumbing (think hand pumped well and an outhouse). I wonder if they had any insulation at all? Few houses of that era did.

    I read an interesting comment from an older architect: He grew up in an amazingly energy INefficient house, but they used very little energy. (Incandescent lights, but very few of them; drafty wood burning fireplaces, but didn’t expect the house to be at all warm during the winter, and so on) Today, he works in an “green, energy efficient” office building, but they consume huge amounts of energy with more lighting, and constant year round temperature….

    1. Re: foundations – I would imagine they used whatever foundations their neighbors were using. It’s not as if they were building these things in a complete vacuum. All the craftsman style houses built 1908-1920 in my old neighborhood are pier and beam; I can’t imagine that is a complete accident/coincident.

  6. robcat2075, I DID order bees from those catalogs. I only know of three catalog beekeeping companies; The A.I. Root Company (now just candles), Dadant and Sons, and Sears.

    I can’t recall how many specialty catalogs they had but there were many of them.

    I have seen specials on these homes on the TV, can’t recall if it was PBS or something like History Channel but, nonetheless, pretty neat history I think.

  7. Lincourt Vineyards uses one of these homes for their tasting room near Solvang, CA. I’m sure it’s been remodeled plenty, but I’d never have guessed it was a kit home.

  8. Jack White plays a Sears guitar that used to sell for an unthinkably low price in the stores… it’s awesome. White and red, of course. Unfortunately they now go for $800.

  9. I’ve been inside one of the Arlington models in Birmingham, AL. It was swank.

    It’s stuff like this that convinced me that my problem with suburban developments isn’t that all the houses are the same. Hell, I live in a house that is basically clone-stamped (with only small alterations in square footage and quality of the finishes) all over south Minneapolis. Part of the fun now, 70 years after the things were built, is seeing how people altered (and are still altering) the basic story-and-a-half bungalow design.

  10. I love these old ads. A time when an individual had much more freedom to build their own shelter or house without a 30 year mortgage, but it’s better now, right?

    What I love about these is that it assumes the buyer is not an idiot. Building a house is not rocket science. Beyond the difficulty of a decent foundation, it’s only as complicated as you want it to be. Unfortunately, we have built in oppressive building codes to “protect” property owners. Yes, we’re all idiots and have managed to become completely helpless in the areas that directly affect our day to day life.

    I think the future is going to be more DIY housing, and less reliance on the old paradigms of housing and how it’s financed. Don’t tell the building industry, we’ll keep it a secret.

    1. I love these old ads. A time when an individual had much more freedom to build their own shelter or house without a 30 year mortgage, but it’s better now, right?

      I’m not sure where you’re getting this from. I know several people who have bought land and then built their own house on top of it. From Massachusetts where I live to as far away as Alaska. No one is stopping you from building a house and living without a mortgage. Don’t automatically see Nanny State where there isn’t one.

      What I love about these is that it assumes the buyer is not an idiot. Unfortunately, we have built in oppressive building codes to “protect” property owners.

      You may think that building code are oppressive and that you should be allowed to live in whatever shack you want. To a certain extent that’s correct, and you already are allowed to — a friend who build a shack in Vermont doesn’t get in any trouble so long as he’s the one living in it.

      But when you turn around and sell the house you built to someone else, how do they know if you actually know how to build a foundation, how do they know if your second floor can actually continue to bear weight, unless you built your house to code?

      Like codes preventing the beef industry from randomly spraying salmonella into their meat, there’s a reason these codes exist. In the case of houses, the codes usually exist when too many people die as a result of people thinking they can build a home from a Sears catalog with no prior building experience, and then selling it to someone else.

  11. I also think it’s really interesting–from a copyfight perspective–how many houses there are out there that are clearly modeled off Sears Homes, but aren’t Sears Homes.

    I mentioned my house and the South Minneapolis Special. It’s essentially the two-bedroom floorplan of the Sears Winona: http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/images/1927-1932/1930_12010a-12010b.jpg

    These things are ALL OVER Minneapolis. And they’re all slightly different. Mine, for instance, is the mirror image of this layout and has an enclosed sunroom in front of the front bedroom, instead of a full-width front porch. But our house is not a Sears House. And neither are most of the others I’ve been in, that are slightly wider, or slightly longer, or have some different configuration of the front. But the plan is so similar, there had to be some inspiration going on here.

  12. It would be interesting to see a modern equivalent based perhaps on everything being available in stock at your local home improvement center. In fact, wouldn’t it be worthwhile for the likes of Home Depot to give free plans that use such a concept? You get the plan, pays your money & the truck shows up with all the parts needed.

    1. A fascinating and fun post on Sears houses. Thanks for the information. In response to Comment #15 — I’m the editor of Houseplans.com, a website that is bringing the Sears mail order house model into the 21st century — we have created a collection of contemporary house plans by invited architects and designers from across the country and around the world — included are plans by Not So Big House architect/author Sarah Susanka, and Melbourne, Australia modern architect Leon Meyer.

      You might also be interested in a recent exhibition on the history of the stock plan at the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design — which is described in one of my Eye On Design blog posts.

      By special arrangement with the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley we offer copies of rare mid-century modern Joseph Eichler plans, Case Study House #3 by William Wurster, and Sea Ranch Cottages by William Turnbull.

      Dan Gregory

  13. The “roomy closets” look to be 3 x 3 feet, or smaller.

    I have no room to complain. I own a similar-age house (not a Sears, though). Not one closet in the whole house.

  14. We’re pretty sure my parents’ house, where I grew up, was a catalog house. Maybe not Sears, but one of the ones where you got all the materials shipped to you pre-cut and so on.

    Someone in the area was selling the “same” house some years ago, and my mom went to the open house. She said it was interesting to be able to see how some of the features of our house had probably originally been – like the way the basement stairs would originally have been arranged, before they were moved to accomodate a gas furnace.

  15. In fact, there’s a whole *book* of Catalogue Houses.

    It’s called, unsurprisingly, “Catalogue Houses: Eaton’s and Others”, published in Saskatchewan, Canada by Henry Perspectives. It’s a pretty cool read. Contains blueprints and such, too.

  16. My next door neighbor lives in a Sears house. It’s very solid, and pretty big (must have been one of the higher-end versions).

    We have several in the (small) town I live in. They must have done a good job putting them together here.

  17. I’ve always wondered about how these things were shipped and packaged.

    In “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” Jean Shepherd’s first TV special about the Parkers (“A Christmas Story”), one of the father’s drinking buddies asks the guys in the bar for help picking up the parts for his new Sears kit home.

    The crowd, somewhat lubricated, show up at the railroad siding and begin unloading a box car. Fascinated at the idea of a kit home, they begin opening the boxes and removing signs and labels.

    When it starts raining, they disappear, leaving the hopeful home-builder standing amidst a heap of unbundled lumber . . .

  18. I have a Sears Kit House. From a 1918 plan, built in 1920. Nicely made though a very basic model (tiny rooms, no crown moldings, all painted woodwork and only one built-in).

  19. A good friend of my grandad’s bought and built a Sears kit house in the early 50s or late 40s. It was single story. He was a carpenter, and could not buy the lumber for what it cost to buy the kit, let alone do the labor of cutting it, so that’s what he did. He did make extensive modifications, though, and added a few rooms with lumber scrounged from jobsite leftovers.

  20. In the early 1920’s, Buster Keaton made a hilarious film about his own misadventures as a newlywed building one of thses for himself and his wife. The finished product needless to say looks not a thing like how it was advertised. The film was called ‘One Week’ and is highly recommended for good laughs.

  21. There is one of these houses in the town I live (Chenoa, IL). It has held up very well over the years.

  22. I’m living in a 1926 Montgomery Wards catalog house–have the original blueprints and a copy of the catalog it’s advertised in. Many, many changes over the years; the one I miss most is the laundry chute from the second floor which would now land in the showerroom in the basement if it still functioned! I’m in Minot, ND, and imagine this was optimal for them then–it’s a Devonshire model, top of the line!
    My sister lives in a Sears catalog house in Owings Mills, MD. Both of our houses have the bathroom on the second floor, btw.

  23. These aren’t just economical homes, they’re also examples of the Arts & Crafts architecture movement. Some really good and thoughtful design went into these, and they often had beautifully simple (eg. Mission) interior features and furniture to match.


    The stock of Arts & Crafts homes is one of the few things I miss about the midwest. It’s depressing to see the number that are being lost to urban decay in places like Detroit.

  24. Dover Publications has a whole bunch of reprints of these old kit home catalogs.

    The looks and proportions (and, I’m sure, the bones) of the homes, especially the Craftsman ones, are excellent. The more economical models, though, tended to be teeny-tiny, often smaller than the apartment I’m living in now. And, of course, many lacked bathrooms and/or closets.

  25. Its really a shame that modern housing for the masses is completely devoid of any charm, thought, sense of design etc. Some of these houses were very cheap yet they are still ascetically pleasing.

    1. Thank you for that link!

      The Sears Hamilton looks just like my grandparents’ home in Minneapolis, although theirs must have been a more basic model because it had fewer of the bells & whistles: no bump-out in the dining room, no pantry, and no closet bump out in the back of the back bedroom. Also, the dormer window in the attic wasn’t as big, just enough for ventilation. But otherwise, it’s *exactly* the same floor plan.

      Tiny, but efficient. Housed a family of 4 on a manual laborer’s salary. That’s a crucial component of the history, really: these homes made it possible for the equivalent of modern minimum wage earners to live in stable family communities instead of at the whim of slum landlords.

  26. My neighborhood (Houston Heights, TX) is dominated by houses of this style, mostly dating from the 1930s and 1940s, but there are some turn of the century houses still standing (which is quite old for Houston). It’s pretty hard to determine which are actual Sears houses and which are simply similar. There are a couple of other neighborhoods built as Houston’s first suburbs (now inner city areas!) with a lot of these types of houses.

    A lot of them grouped together makes for a very nice, human-scale neighborhood. Many have been renovated in really good ways, because their owners were smart enough to work with the basic structure, add garages *behind* the houses, etc.

  27. There are a number of these homes in Madison, NJ, many on Maple Avenue. Madison has become quite the gentrified town, so these homes sport many additions, to the point where they are all but unrecognizable. http://goo.gl/GzPB

  28. My Grandfather built one with his own milled lumber and money from his GI bill after WWII, raised two kids in it. And it still stands proudly today, and looks about as good as new!

  29. Andrea sez: “They had a huge influence on reducing local general stores’ price-gouging practices…”

    A lot like what Wal*Mart does today, you could argue. Oh, no, wait, Wal*Mart is bad, sorry.

  30. We live in a lovely version of the Hazelton model in central Illinois.
    Basement & nice woodwork (coffered 9 foot ceilings.)

  31. I know of two of these houses that are still inhabited. One is near Bottineau, ND. My friend’s 85 year old grandmother lives there. The other is near Long Pine, NE. A friend of mine grew up in it and his parents live in it.

  32. Thanks for posting a link to http://www.searshomes.org. As to the Sears Homes in Southeastern Virginia, there’s some debate about that. As the author of FIVE books on kit homes, I do not agree with the findings posted at the other link (above).

    Unfortunately, I’ve found that 75% of the homeowners who think they’re in a Sears Home are wrong. Often they are living in a kit home, but it’s a kit home from another company, such as Aladdin, Montgomery Ward, Gordon Van Tine, Sterling Homes, etc.

    Thanks again for posting a link to my site. I’ve spent 10 years researching this topic. It’s been a lot of fun and a labor of love.

    Rose Thornton
    author, The Houses That Sears Built

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