The Internet has caused many mail order catalogs to take second place to a mouse-click buying experience. But in the early part of the 20th century, buying by mail order was the equivalent of buying on the Internet today.
Arguably, the biggest purveyor of mail order goods during the early part of the 20th century was Sears, Roebuck and Company, which sold nearly everything a person could imagine. In fact, Sears also sold houses through mail order.
Sears, Roebuck published a specialty catalog in 1908 – the Book of Modern Homes and Plans – initially offering 22 styles of houses for sale. Seven years later, the Sears catalog included kit homes that had up to 10,000 numbered parts along with instructions for the buyer on how to put the house together.
Later Sears mail order homes had up to 30,000 pieces, along with a 75-page instruction book. Besides the wood framing, roof shingles, windows and exterior sheathing, the materials also included 10 pounds of wood putty, 750 pounds of nails, 460 pounds of window weights, 400 feet of sash cord and 27 gallons of varnish and paint.
Sears predicted that the average person could build their mail order home in 90 days.
The savings to be had by purchasing a Sears, Roebuck mail order home could be substantial. An early Sears advertisement stated that “$945 Builds This $1,500 to $1,800 Eight-Room Bungalow Style House.”
Other mail order companies also sold houses by mail, among them Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Bennett Lumber, Lewis Homes and Harris Brothers. However, Sears seems to have taken the lion’s share of the market, selling 30,000 houses by 1925.
Ultimately, between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold approximately 70,000 to 75,000 homes through its mail order Modern Homes program.
Choices abounded through the years, with 370 housing designs being available. These included deluxe versions such as the Ivanhoe, a multi-story, elaborate structure with art glass windows and French doors, as well as the much simpler Goldenrod, a quaint, three-room and no bath cottage for summer vacationers. An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod buyers and others who bought low-cost cottages without bathrooms.
The most expensive mail order home sold by Sears was the Magnolia, offered between 1915 and 1920, and selling for $5,140, although some custom modifications could be added that would bring the cost to nearly $6,000. The two-story house featured fluted columns flanking its portico, a huge staircase and a sun porch. Note: $6,000 in 1915 converts to $125,394.06 in 2008 dollars. Annual inflation over this period was about 3.32 percent.
The peak years for mail order house sales came during the 1920s. For instance, in 1929, Sears shipped more than 300 houses a month, selling $12 million in mail order homes during the 12-month period.
The first step for a family interested in a Sears house was to procure a Modern Homes catalog, which showcased houses designed for customers of widely-varying financial means – Honor Bilt, Standard Bilt and Simplex Sectional.
The basic house units were the Simplex houses, made along simple designs – often only a couple of rooms – ideal for summer getaways.
Standard Bilt houses were best for warmer climates because they didn’t retain heat very well.
The most expensive of the Sears catalog homes were the Honor Bilt houses, made of the finest quality. Sears proudly proclaimed that Honor Bilt houses had joists, studs and rafters spaced 14 3/8 inches apart and had cypress siding and cedar singles. The Honor Bilt interiors, depending on the room, might feature knot-free (clear grade) flooring and inside trim made from yellow pine, oak or maple.
Sears also was an innovator in construction techniques when it came to house design, offering advantages over other construction methods with its catalog homes. Because Sears was able to mass-produce materials for its houses, it could lower manufacturing costs for its customers.
Sears’ techniques used precut and fitted materials that served to shrink construction time by up to 40 percent. In addition, Sears used balloon style framing, drywall and asphalt shingles to ease costs for homebuyers.
It’s estimated that about 90 percent of the Sears catalog homes are still standing, but their locations can’t be verified because sales records were destroyed when Sears closed its Modern Homes department.
Cost of living in the 1930s
Average wages per year $1,600
Gallon of gas 10 cents
Average for house rent $22 per month
Average new car price $625
A loaf of bread, 8 cents
Dozen eggs, 18 cents
Sharp Wisconsin cheese, 23 cents per pound
Sugar, ten pounds, 49 cents
A pound of hamburger, 11 cents
Spring chickens, 20 cents per pound
Bacon, 38 cents per pound
Wieners, 8 cents per pound
Chuck roast, 15 cents per pound
Pork loin roast, 15 cents per pound
Peanut butter, 23 cents per quart
Bananas, 19 cents for four pounds
Applesauce, 20 cents for three cans
Oranges, 2 dozen for 25 cents
Fresh peas, 4 cents per pound
Cabbage, 3 cents per pound
Lettuce, iceberg, 7 cents per head
Potatoes, 18 cents for 10 pounds
Pork and beans, 5 cents per can
Campbell’s tomato soup, four cans for 25 cents
Ketchup, 9 cents
Camay soap, 6 cents per bar
Toothpaste, 27 cents
Lux laundry soap, 22 cents
Toilet tissue, 9 cents for 2 rolls