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U.S. Mail Order and Catalog Homes in the Early 20th Century | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

U.S. Mail Order and Catalog Homes in the Early 20th Century

U.S. Mail Order and Catalog Homes in the Early 20th Century | Wisconsin Historical Society

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: More than one class period

The "Wisconsin Historic Buildings" an eight week online course, sponsored by the Wisconsin Historical Society in partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth, Inc (WCATY) was held during the Fall 2001 semester for WCATY youth members. The course encompassed both workshop attendance and participation in on-line instructional activities as well as the presentation of a final project.

This course, designed for students in grades 8-11 interested in historic buildings gave them the opportunity to discover and apply their interest in history and architecture by focusing on Wisconsin built structures. Using "Wisconsin's Built Environment" as a guide, the course content introduced students to architectural historic preservation topics as they relate to larger themes in Wisconsin History.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Be introduced to mail order homes and the various styles of home architecture
  • Learn how architecture is symbolic of its time period
  • Integrate knowledge about their own community's development and history by studying the pattern and mix of mail order houses in their community
  • View mail order homes in one community and learn how to identify these homes in their own communities

Background

Home ownership in the United States has long been one of the primary goals of working class families. The mail order or catalogue homes offered in the early 20th century provided thousands of Americans the opportunity to acquire inexpensive housing. These "mail order" homes serve as a symbolic reflection of the time period in which they were constructed.

The homes came in many different styles, ranging from Colonial to Dutch to Craftsman to Usonian. Some were designed traditionally, while others were innovative. Many of these homes remain in existence today and are found in most towns and cities across the United States.

History

The Great American Dream since the beginning of our country has been the owning of a piece of land and building your dream home on it. Sears Roebuck, Aladdin, Hodgson, and other companies helped make this dream possible by offering more than 1,000 different models of homes, and many variations of them. Between 1908 and 1940 more than 200,000 American families purchased a new home from the same pages that brought them books, baby bottles and beauty aids.

There were numerous categories of homes, from modest two-room cottages to ten-room residences in Prairie, Colonial, English, Spanish, Norman and other architectural styles. The Standard Built were quality Sears homes, but recommended for warmer climates. The Honor Built were of the finest quality - the top of the Sears 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.

You could order just a basic design and then add what you wanted afterwards, or you could order everything at once - from door knobs and hinges to built-in breakfast nooks and cabinets, bath tubs and sinks to the toilet of your choice. You might sit down with five different salespeople when you purchase your kit, depending on how complete a home you wanted.

Style and Visual Elements

Catalog homes were not just one architectural style; many different architectural styles were used to appeal to many different buyers in many different climates. Sears & Roebuck alone produced over 100,000 homes in approximately 450 designs. Designs by Sears alone were in many architectural styles, including New England Colonial, Craftsman, Spanish, Queen Anne, Cape Cod, Prairie, and Modernist. Depending on where the buyer lived, styles seemed to change along with the location. In California, the bungalow and Spanish style were very prevalent, while in Milwaukee, Craftsman Bungalows were dominant.

There were two main lines of Sears' homes, and other companies had similar set-ups.

  • Firstly, Sears had an Honor Built Line, which was the best line offered; it featured more joists and rafters as well as better supports. The Honor Builts also used heavy duty shingling and outside walls, designed for cooler climates.
  • Standard Built Line was intended for warmer climates, using less materials.
  • There also was the Simplex Sectional Cottage line, which produced simple designs and kits, usually without plaster, for summer use.

Most homes built by mail order companies featured high quality wood for support, and high quality wood for floors and trim. Also, there were several options for roofing at the time of purchase, featuring cypress and cedar shingles, or asphalt tiles.

Buying and Building a Catalog Home

The process of buying a mail order home was worked out to an almost art.

  • Firstly, catalogs were circulated through larger catalog companies, like Sears. Also, there were ads for homes in many publications, like Ladies Home Journal, Harper's Weekly, and The Chicago Tribune.
  • Next, when a family found an ideal home, they either filled out an intent form for their model, or visited a catalog home branch in the nearest city. At this point, a company representative would visit the family and finalize building issues: the site, materials, plan alterations, furniture.
  • Then the house order would be phoned to the company's factory, and in several weeks or months, the kits (with timber, cabinets, roofing materials, flooring, siding, downspouts, doors, windows, nails, paints, and varnish) would arrive by boxcar in the town, and construction would begin. Usually the owner would built it themselves, or hire a construction company in town.
  • Next, optional features from the company (furniture, lighting, heating, plumbing, garages, and other interior touches) were ordered and installed, and the family would move in and begin paying off a very generous loan from the company.

Researching and Identifying a Mail Order Home

Identifying a house as an authentic mail order or catalog home can be a difficult challenge. Over 40 years from the early 1900's to World War II, Sears and other companies offered almost 1,000 various models through catalogs. To make things more complex, customers were allowed to alter the original plans to customize them for their personal needs. Now add to that successive homeowners, who have modified the exteriors, removed walls or enclosed porches. As a result, you may have quite a mystery to unravel to find out if a home is a true mail order house.

Beginning your research at the public library is a good start. See if you can get a copy of "Houses by Mail," written by Stevenson and Jangle. This is a detailed manual reviewing all the known catalog models. Illustrations, room sizes and floor plans are included. Should your house be very similar to one of the models in the book, there is a very good chance it's a Sears or Aladdin house.

Unfolding the mystery is a continuing process; it may be difficult to prove a structure is a Sears' mail-order house. However, the best way to determine a mail-order structure is to go to the attic and examine exposed beams for numbering or markings. Many researchers have also discovered while removing walls for an addition that the studs are numbered or stamped with the Sears & Roebuck or another mail order company's imprint. Even windows and storms are numbered correspondingly. Look carefully for any original lighting or plumbing fixtures. The Sears name may be printed on the surface since these items were typically ordered from the kit. The clues are there, you just need to carefully notice them.

Listening to neighbors is a great resource since the older folks may remember your house as a Sears when it was built. Original owners may still be living in the area. Contact them to share information and possibly obtain old photos of the house.

Look for blueprints possibly rolled up in the attic. It's worth a look because that is valuable evidence. The catalog home company's seal will stamped someplace on the plans. If you don't have the prints, contact the previous owners and see if anyone has saved them. Local records in the form of building permits, tax records, deeds on file or other legal documents may indicate the home was purchased from a certain mail order home company.

Characteristics of Mail Order Architecture

There are many characteristic features that help identify a home as a mail order home. The following is a basic listing of some of these unusual building and architectural design characteristics.

Outside:

  • Catslide roofs over entrances.
  • One side of entrance gable longer than the other in front of the house.
  • Half -moon doors (not square on top; 180-degree arch).
  • Clipped gabled roofs (short hips at end of gables).
  • Double-hung windows with single pane on bottom, multi-panes on top.
  • Narrow panel windows each side of front entrance.
  • Unique-shaped steps on sides of exterior chimneys.
  • Concave arches over outside vestibules.
  • Two-story homes with a sun porch on one or both sides.
  • Crescent or eyebrow windows or vents under eves on gambrel-roof type homes.

Inside:

  • Large cove moldings that join the walls to the ceilings.
  • Niches for telephones, books and flowers.
  • Decorative archways or crowns on top of doorways.
  • Lumber marked with identifying numbers (on end grain; hard to find).
  • Built-in breakfast nooks, bookcases or cabinets that were unique.

Hardly any of the mail order homes existing today are completely original. Most have had additions, roofs raised, extensive remodeling inside and out, siding changed, etc., thus devaluing them as collector's items. It is exciting to find one that is in nearly original condition.

Resource Materials

Procedures

  1. Students will identify mail order and catalog houses in their own communities.
  2. They can post their location on a map of their community noting the areas and likely time periods when these homes were constructed.
  3. They can draw or take pictures of these homes and create a scrapbook or web site of the homes in their community.
  4. Students will create and design a floor plan for a mail order house they would offer. Have them imagine what the neighborhood should look like and what type of landscape and other features the home should contain. Encourage the students to keep it simple; set limits of 2 or 3 bedrooms, and discourage indoor pools, theatres, etc. Also provide rulers and encourage students to draw rooms to a scale. Then have students draw the outside of the house based upon their floor plan.

Discussion Questions

  1. Was home ownership by the middle class common in the U.S. (and their local community) during the early period of the 20th century?
  2. What did the community look like at 1900? What were the industries, modes of transportation, and make-up of the community then? How has it changed? How have the mail order homes in their community changed through the past century?
  3. How is architecture "of" its time period? What are some of the enduring features of the mail order homes in their community?
  4. What things did architects in the early 20th century need to consider when designing a home?

Enhancement

  • In-class writing: Analysis of the availability and popularity of mail order home in the United States from 1900 to World War II. How did these homes impact American live and urban living?
  • Read and discuss Jim Draeger's article "Postal Perfect, My Pursuit of Mail Order Houses in Wisconsin" in Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 2001, Volume 85, Number 1.

Vocabulary

  • mail order home
  • catalog home
  • kit home
  • Sears home

Credit

The instructor of the course, Rhonda L. Deeg, holds a Master's degree in Historic Preservation from Eastern Michigan University. Rhonda has worked for the Wisconsin Historical Society and Taliesin Preservation, Inc. For twelve years she taught interior design housing and preservation at Mt. Pleasant Area Technical Center in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Carl Krause, a Jefferson High School student, developed the following lesson plan as part of his final project for the Wisconsin Historic Buildings course.