For years, I have been fascinated by the pre-cut catalogue/kit homes that were available in the early twentieth century. My youngest daughter and I love vintage homes tours and have been in many of the types. These kits provided a wide range of houses for Americans. Around ten companies offered this advantage to would-be homeowners, but the most prominent were Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Wards, Aladdin, and Gordon Van Tyne.
The houses came from hundreds of plans. Once people selected their plan, they could buy the materials for their home. These were shipped by boxcar to the nearest railroad depot, and put on a side rail.
The average Sears Modern Home kit had approximately 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts. These houses arrived as kits and came with a 75-page instruction book that told the homeowner how all those pieces and parts went together. Plumbing, electrical, and heating systems were available for an additional charge. In addition, porches, sun rooms, flower boxes, trellises, balconies, built-in cabinets, and a variety of door and sash patterns were available at an additional charge.
Sears promised that a “man of average abilities” could have the house assembled and ready for occupancy in 90 days. Some buyers chose to include friends and neighbors for a faster “barn raising” assembly. Others hired local carpenters to build the home. Construction of a house with pre-cut lumber reduced construction time by up to 40%, according to Sears.
|Loading the home on a wagon to transfer|
to the home-site.
Unlike modular homes, which are built in sections at a factory, in a kit house every separate piece of lumber was shipped already numbered and cut to fit its particular place in the house, thus eliminating the need for measuring and cutting, and likewise the waste of time and of materials. Thus, kit home manufacturers claimed to save the customer as much as 30 to 40 percent over traditional building methods.
One unusual mail-order home in the town in which we formerly lived was originally a 26-room home with large wrap-around porch. I don't know which company supplied the materials, but remember an article in the local paper discussing the home. Some of the bedrooms have been converted to bathrooms and closets, so the number of rooms has decreased. This beautiful home is now a bed and breakfast. Years ago, I co-hosted a wedding shower in this lovely venue.
All designs were standardized to maximize efficiency and reduce waste in materials and labor. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk. The factories had skilled employees and special machines to cut difficult pieces such as rafters and staircases. Lumber was pre-cut to length, guaranteed to fit, ready to nail, and labeled for easy assembly. Floor joists and bridging, sub-flooring, finished flooring, studs, rafters, sheathing, clapboards, shingles, stucco, plaster or drywall, columns, railings, doors and windows, hardware, nails, and paint for two exterior coats were included in the order.
Although the lumber and hardware were standardized, the designs were not and buyers were encouraged to personalize their order. Many models had two or three floor plans, while the exterior could be clapboards, shingles, stucco, or framed for brick. Walls, windows, and doors could be moved, added or eliminated.
Some companies, including Sears, Montgomery Ward, Gordon-Van Tine, and Harris Brothers, offered cash discounts and generous mortgage terms. The most common was 5-15 year mortgage at 6% interest. By the time the home was built on a purchased lot and constructed by local carpenters and ready to move into, the home-owner had generally spent twice the cost of the home shown on the plans.
If you look at the plans, you will be able to recognize many homes in your community. Although over a hundred years old, they stand as a testament to the ingenuity of marketers that aided consumers. From small bungalow to luxurious home, they served a strong need in pre-World War II America.
Caroline Clemmons is an award-winning and Amazon bestselling author whose latest release is DANIEL McCLINTOCK, available at Amazon here. Sign up here for her newsletter to be notified of new releases, contests, and giveaways.