The American Dream in a Catalog
Considered the Amazon of its day, Sears, Roebuck and Company offered customers a vast array of
products in its popular catalogs, including kits to build houses.
Humans have always been innovative when it comes to creating shelter. Today’s creative housing trends of barndominums, treehouses, and shipping containers rival our ancestors’ caves and sod homes. Homebuilding in the 20th century, however, has its own unique place in history, thanks to Sears and other mail order companies that provided kits to build homes. From 1908-1940, more than 70,000 homes were sold through the mail-order Sears Modern Homes program. Home buyers throughout the nation, including Mississippi, eagerly awaited the arrival of their new houses via railroad.
Sears, Roebuck and Company offered 447 design plans, ranging from elaborate, ornate homes to a simpler style, which offered an outhouse that could be purchased separately.
According to the Sears Archives, the company was not the innovator of these popular home designs. Rather, they were able to provide the materials and designs at an affordable price, with the most popular designs under $3,000.
Jimmy Still of Batesville, Mississippi, shares the affordable price of the Sears home referred to as the “Whitten House.” Named after the previous owner and neighbor of Still, he recalls the price of the Whitten House, for which he has a copy of its bill of sale.
“They built it in 1915 and it cost $646,” he shares.
Prior to that time, many families lived in multi-generational homes. As the trend for single family homes grew in popularity, Sears was just one of several businesses offering model kit homes. Submitting original designs and blueprints was also an option for homebuyers. Sears would then send the appropriate home building materials for construction.
In 1911, Sears began offering home financing. With 25 percent required as a down payment for a house and lot (if applicable), low interest rates attracted many buyers. In addition, their loan application did not require demographic information, including the applicants’ finances. Subsequently, people who might not have been given the opportunity for financing at their local bank had a chance at home ownership.
The ability to mass produce building materials passed on a savings to the Sears buyer. Not only did pre-cut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40 percent, but the use of “balloon style” framing, drywall, and asphalt shingles greatly eased construction for homebuyers. This type of framing system did not require a team of skilled carpenters, as previous methods had. Family, friends, and neighbors would often pitch in to help construct a home. Balloon frames were built faster and generally only required one carpenter. Precut timber, fitted pieces, and the convenience of having everything, including the nails, shipped by railroad directly to the customer added greatly to the popularity of this framing style, according to the Sears Archives.
Considered modern conveniences at that time, electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating were also available with several of the designs. Home buyers could request a myriad of design ideas to customize their homes, such as storm windows, brick rather than wood siding, and reversed floor plans.
Additionally, many homeowners preferred asphalt shingles, which were quieter than tin roofs and more fireproof than wood shingles. Minimizing the threat of open fires within homes was a serious consideration for homeowners as out-of-control fires had destroyed homes and cities in that era.
For Cayce Starr’s family in Senatobia, Mississippi, the addition of a screened-in porch was a must for her great-great grandmother, Pearl Cayce Dinkins.
“My great-great grandfather, Edwin Dancy Dinkins, was practicing law in Charleston, Mississippi. Once he became judge, he planned to move his family to Senatobia. However, his wife refused to move unless they added a screened in porch to the house plan,” she shares.
Pearl got her porch, and the house has since passed down through members of Starr’s family. Starr’s mother as well as her aunt and uncle currently reside there.
Sears homes can be found today in numerous locations across the U.S. with several on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, sales records of all the homes sold were destroyed in a corporate clean-up decades ago.
However, model home kit enthusiasts are continually searching and identifying these homes. Modifications and renovations can make identifying Sears homes tricky, especially since they were not the only model kit home business. Several homes are located throughout the South.
“I can remember seeing a stamp on the wall of the Whitten House identifying it as a Sears home,” recalls Still. “It has since been painted over.”
Today, the Whitten House is owned by the Batesville Presbyterian Church. It is used to hold meetings and to make pottery as part of one of their ministries, according to Still.
The largest bulk of surviving Sears model kit homes is located in Carlinville, Illinois. The Standard Oil Company spent approximately $1 million to construct 12 blocks of homes for its mineworkers in 1918.
For Starr, the Senatobia home is still very much a family affair.
“They remodeled in 2004 – 2005, and they did add on a little to the house. I have another aunt that lives next door to them.”
With plenty of fun family stories through the years, her family’s home has been more than a house selected from a catalog. Its construction in 1918 offered more than just shelter; it has also provided treasured memories with many more to come.
HOW TO IDENTIFY KIT HOMES
Considered the foremost authority on Sears Roebuck kit homes, Rosemary Thorton, who wrote “The Houses that Sears Built,” suggests the following tips to identify a possible mail-order kit home:
• Look for stamped lumber on the exposed beams/joists/rafters in the basement, crawl space or attic.
• Inspect the back of millwork (moldings and trim) for shipping labels.
• Check the home’s floor plan, footprint (exterior dimensions) and room size, using a field guide to Sears Homes, such as “Finding the Houses That Sears Built” (2004, Gentle Beam Publications).
• Visit the courthouse and inspect old building permits and grantor records.
Inspect plumbing fixtures for marks, such as “R” or “SR”.
• Look for markings on back of sheet rock.
• Unique column arrangement on front porch and five-piece eave brackets.
• Square block on moldings at staircase landings, where moldings meet at odd angles.
• Verify the home’s construction date. To be a Sears-kit home, it had to have been built between 1908 to 1940.