Remember when Sears sold mail-order homes?

A copy of an old Sears Roebuck and Company Modern Homes catalog page showing a drawing of her home with the actual home in the background Sept 28, 1998. The house is listed for $883 in the catalog. It was built in 1914 and is the only known one of its kind in Marshfield.
Tara Walters | Marshfield News-Herald | AP
A copy of an old Sears Roebuck and Company Modern Homes catalog page showing a drawing of her home with the actual home in the background Sept 28, 1998. The house is listed for $883 in the catalog. It was built in 1914 and is the only known one of its kind in Marshfield.

To many, Sears is the place to buy a washer and dryer, a new set of towels or diamond earrings. But for many people in early 20th Century America, Sears was the place to buy a home.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold between 70,000 and 75,000 mail-order homes from 1908 to 1940 under their Modern Homes program. The company boasted 447 different styles from towering multi-story structures to cottages with outhouses sold separately.

The process started, of course, as only a Sears purchase could: With a catalog. A customer would pick their home, then the supplies would be shipped to the soon-to-be homeowner. People could construct their home themselves, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, or hire a contractor.

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The Modern Homes catalog featured different styles and levels of quality. The Honor Bilts were the most expensive, the Standard Builts were better for warmer areas and the Simplex Sectionals were just a few rooms and worked well as cottages. Customers also could customize their homes. The company even accepted blueprint submittals.

It was a less-expensive way to buy a house. Sears, which has expressed doubts it can stay in business, mass-produced materials, which lowered the price for buyers. The pre-cut wood and fitted materials, the company said, reduced construction time by 40%. The New York Times reported the homes came in 30,000 pieces and ranged in price from just a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.

The materials, all of them, would come by train. The Enquirer reported the shipment indeed included everything: The kitchen sink, doors, drywall, shingles, windows, floors, furnace, hundreds of pounds of nails and paint.

It took just one carpenter, the company said, to frame the house, through a process called "balloon framing." The company said it used drywall, then a new material, because it was cheap and easy to install. The company replaced wood and tin roofs with asphalt shingles, which also were cheap and easy to install, as well as fireproof.

The company claims it helped "popularize" modern conveniences such as central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity through its program.

The homes are now a favorite for historians and hobbyists. The Times reported a New York historical society hosted an exhibit on Sears homes and the blog Sears Modern Homes is devoted to spotting the structures.