When Lewis and Gloria Aurelio first bought their shingle-and-clapboard home in Freedom in 1983, the couple had no idea of the historical significance of their purchase. Their six-room house was circa 1911, not a very auspicious date, and the Aurelios just felt lucky to have found such a well-cared for , albeit plain, sturdy and roomy cottage.
"We had no idea what it was until one of our neighbors came over and asked us if we knew about our house," said Lew.
What the oldtime residents of Freedom knew and the Aurelios didn't was that the unassuming bungalow the couple now called home was, if not one of a kind, then at least one of a limited edition. It was one of the approximately 100,000 Sears mail-order "Honor-Bilt" homes sent by kit between the years 1908 and 1937 primarily in the northeastern quarter of the United States--the area east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River.
Mail-order houses. What a novel idea, and why not? Sears, Roebuck and Company was first formed in 1893 by Richard Sears, a rail road agent turned watch salesman, together with Alvah Roebuck, his repairman. Roebuck sold out in 1895, but by the turn of the century, Sears was offering the booming nation a "wish book" full of consumer items that could see them from birth to death. If Sears could sell windows doors, sinks, and paint by mail, why not complete houses?
According to Lenore Swoiskin, archivist at the Sears headquarters in Chicago, "The modern homes department was introduced in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog in the spring of 1908 when four pages of homes were featured and a special homes catalog was issued. The primary purpose of this department--the sale of complete homes to the small homeowner--was to afford an outlet for the sale of general merchandise."
If Sears sold the structure, then chances were that everything else that went into it--from furnaces to furniture--would also come from Sears. As the company wrote in its 1919 catalog, "You can even go further and benefit yourself still more by including in your order not only all of the materials for your Modern Home as illustrated on this page, but by adding to your order to be shipped when convenient to you, your rugs, furniture, perhaps a piano, a Silvertone phonograph, chinaware, silverware, suits, dresses, linen, etc., all of which you will find illustrated, described, and priced in this catalog."
In this modern day of prefabricated houses which seem to go up overnight, maybe the idea of picking a house out of a catalog doesn't seem so amazing. But, not one part of these Sears houses was prefabricated. They were shipped by box car to the closest railroad station (and often transported by horse and buggy to the final destination) with every piece of framing lumber--rafters, floor joists, studs, stair stringers, plates, braces, and girder posts--already cut to finished size at the mill and then numbered.
Everything was pre-cut, including all of the interior trim, often quite elaborate in the more expensive models. Doors even arrived already mortised for locksets, and china closets, bookcases, kitchen cabinets, even a telephone stand arrived ready to be installed.
Those who were doing the construction, whether the individual homeowner or a contractor, received a 75-page book entitled, "How to Build Your Rady-Cut Honor Bilt Home," along with a blueprint and thousands of numbered pieces grouped by category. They were also given the warning, "Carpenters must not cut this material."
According to a 1934 Sears Modern Homes catalog, "...our complete delivered price includes everything to build your home complete with the exception of cement, brick, and plaster. No extras to buy. We not only guarantee quality, but quantity as well, Already cut lumber, millwork, cellar frames, hardware, paint, metal work, heating, lighting and plumbing are carefully packed and shipped to arrive when needed."
Sears didn't ship everything at once, but in installments based on how long it should take to build the house, considering the time-saving factors of their pre-cut method. Sometimes, however, they didn't take into account that some of their customers had elected to save even more money by building the homes themselves. An article in the November 1985 issue of the Smithsonian compared the dilemma in which Carl Puffe of Meriden, Conn., found himself in 1925 when he got behind schedule building his Sears house to a scene from the Sorcerer's Apprentice as supplies started arriving faster than he could use them. "It's a good thing my mother lived next door," he said. "We shoved windows in her closets, doors under the beds, plaster, paint, and everything else where we could."
Sears, Roebuck and Co. advertised the many advantages to buying their homes, with the first, and most important, of these being the savings. In the days before power saws, Sears pre-cut homes could be built significantly faster than on-site construction, which still used the hand-sawn method. Most of the savings were in the labor end of the construction, but Sears also stressed that there was no fee for the architectural renderings which included, "Plans, specifications, bill of material, detailed working drawings, and full instructions for building."
And, most definitely, quality of materials was not sacrificed for speed or efficiency. Full-dimensional 2x No 1 material was used througout the framing and all of the oak, fir, and white pine used in the interior of the house was of the highest quality. Sending all their material pre-cut meant Sears absolutely couldn't skimp on the grade of wood. As an article in the August/September 1985 Fine Homebuilding stated, "Imagine the twisted 2x's you'd get if you duplicated a pre-cut package with today's fast-growth framing lumber and then let the pieces sit for a week or two."
"I'm amazed at the quality of this house, considering it was all pre-cut at a factory," said Lew, whose Freedom house has two simple but beautiful built-in oak hutches along with the original bathroom fixtures. "The whole house is either made out of oak or fir and there are no knots in any of the wood," he added.
After moving in, the Aurelios found that with a little elbow grease, they unsurfaced shiny brass lighting fixtures and door knobs. Although very simple inside and obviously offered for those on a more modest budget, their house also features a leaded glass window, good-sized rooms, ample closet space, and even a wall safe, something Sears provided in al their Honor Bilt homes free of charge. "Unfortunately, we don't know the combination," said Lew as he pointed out the slightly rusted contraption nestled under an eave in an upstairs bedroom.
Sears' production of mail-order homes coincided with the remarkable growth of the United States during the first two decades of the 20th century. Each year, the Modern Homes catalog expanded untik its biggest year, 1926, when the company offered more than 100 different house models--meaning that there is no such thing as a typical Sears house. In their 29 years of selling mail-order houses, Sears offered up to 450 different models ranging from a 10-room mansion for a whopping $5,140, down to a mere $990 for a four-room bungalow.
Beginning with the 1918 catalog, each house was given a name--The Preston, The Fairy, The Warrenton, The Whitehall, and the magnificent Magnolia, to name a few. As the country became mechanized and industrialized, more people abandoned the farms and the cities grew at an amazine rate--a few of them company boom towns built almost entirely of Sears mail-order homes.
Leading the field is Carlinville, Ill., almost a mail-order town, with 192 Sears homes built for its employees by Standard Oil. I was in 1918 that Standard Oil placed is million dollar order, reputed to be the largest the mail-order company had ever received. They then filled entire sections of Carlinville with at least eight different models, which differed in roofline, porch location, window type, and other details, so that there is now no way to tell the town arrived, en masse, out of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouses.
There are concentrated pockets of these houses elsewhere around the country--61 in Hellertown, Penn., built by Bethlehem Steel, and 41 in South Plainfield, N.J., As they were transported by rail, the houses spawned communities close to railroad sidings all around the country.
Home sales slowed after 1926 and almost stopped completely following the stock market crash in 1929, but Sears might still be offering mail-order homes today if they hadn't also gotten into the home mortgaging business along with the home building business. In 1911, Sears started financing many of the homes they sold, offering the same liberal monthly payment plan they had used successfully for years. With the economic hard times of the '30s, Sears found itself repossessing homes all around the country. What had been an extremely profitable venture soon turned sour with mortgage losses totalling nearly $7 million.
In 1934, the accounts of the Modern Homes department were liquidated, and in 1937, the department made its last appearance in the Sears spring catalog. Although the company was still disposing of stock into the 1940s, the majority of the more than 100,000 Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order homes sold during the 29 years they were offered were sold before 1930.
After learning of the existence of Sears mail-order homes, one can spot possible examples of them all over the place. Since the Sears architects copied popular house styles of the day, there is no way to determine whether a house is a genuine Sears product just by its appearance. In addition, the Search company hasn't kept any records of where their houses when, so unless suspicious homeowners have a neighbor who remembers, or they crawl up into the attic to check for numbered framing, there is no way to verify that, yes, indeed, they might possess a classic.
"We've been having a lot of fun trying to restore the house to its original condition since we found out what we had," said Lew, whose house only had one previous owner. "Now I think we're lucky that the house hadn't been modernized of changed much at all."