Historical Notes | Publications | Architectural Salvage | Bibliography
Rebecca HunterAuthor, researcher and lecturer Rebecca Hunter became fascinated with the phenomenon of mail order homes in 1996, and is currently engaged in the study of kit homes and agricultural buildings marketed from 1906-1946 by nine different companies. Hunter has sought these buildings throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and in many other states. She has located mail order buildings in over 400 Illinois municipalities and in 29 other states.
903 Cedar Ave.
Elgin IL 60120
Working with the Elgin Illinois Heritage Commission, Hunter located and photodocumented over 250 mail order homes in Elgin, and to date has authenticated over 170 of these. Hunter's books, Elgin Illinois Sears House Research Project and Beyond Sears: Mail Order Homes in Elgin Illinois from Gordon-Van Tine, Aladdin, Lewis, Sterling, Montgomery Wards and Harris Brothers are available in Elgin’s Gail Borden Public Library. Her books Putting Sears Homes on the Map and Sears, Roebuck Book of Barns were published in 2004 and 2005 respectively. She is planning books on Harris Brothers Mail order buildings and Gordon-Van Tine barns.
Hunter has spoken at the American Institute of Architects, the Sears Home Owners Association, public libraries throughout the state of Illinois, and at numerous meetings of historical societies, clubs and associations. She is a speaker for the Illinois Humanities Council Speaker's Bureau. She has done historical architectural consultation for Elgin, West Chicago, Downers Grove, Joliet, Libertyville, Lombard, Berwyn, Crete, and Springfield IL, as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul MN, Sylvan Lake MI, Hartford WI and Anderson IN.
Articles about Hunter and her research have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, the Elgin Courier News, the Daily Herald, and numerous local publications. She has served as a consultant for articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Bungalow Magazine. Her work will be featured in an article in Cottage Living Magazine late in 2006 or early in 2007. Hunter has received the Elgin IL Mayor’s Award for Historical Preservation, Elgin Image Award and the Elgin IL Genealogical Society’s Heritage Hall of Fame Award.
Hunter is available for consultation about individual houses, for conducting surveys of municipalities, and for presentations, lectures and workshops on mail order buildings, historic preservation, architectural salvage and other topics.
HISTORICAL NOTES ON KIT and PRECUT HOMES
[Based in part on research by Dale Wolicki, Bay City Michigan Historical Society]
General Information on Precut Homes
These well designed, practical, homes were made of top quality materials. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk then the structural elements were cut to exact size at the mill and shipped to the customer by rail. Parts for a typical home filled two boxcars, and included approximately 10,000 numbered pieces of lumber, kegs of nails and other hardware, roofing tar and shingles paint and varnish, and blueprints and instructions on how to assemble the house. Manufacturers claimed the pre-cut system would save the builder up to 30% compared to the cost of standard building methods.
These houses were usually not distinctive architectural designs, but copies of the most popular styles of the day. House designs were standardized to reduce waste in materials, but customers were encouraged to personalize their order by moving windows or doors, adding porches, fireplaces, sunrooms, window boxes, trellises, or built in cabinetry, and by selecting exterior finish and colors. Heating, plumbing and electric systems were available at additional cost.
In the days before home power tools, precut homes represented an enormous saving in labor and materials for the home builder. Catalog prices typically included only the building materials; cost of the finished house, including the lot, the foundation, and construction labor was usually about double the catalog price. To promote their homes, companies placed advertisements in national magazines and newspapers in major cities.
Pre-cut housing thrived until after World War II, when tract housing construction methods and increased popularity of prefabricated and mobile housing meant that pre-cut housing companies could no longer compete financially.
Below are brief histories of the major companies supplying precut homes in the United States and Canada. Most west coast homes came from Pacific Homes, Aladdin or Gordon-Van Tine. Aladdin, Lewis, Sterling, Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris, and Montgomery Ward supplied the east and midwest states. Aladdin supplied the most homes in Canada.
ALADDIN, LEWIS-LIBERTY and STERLING Bay City Michigan
[Bay City Michigan companies may usefully be considered as a single supplier, due to their history of mergers and subcontracting.]
Manufactured housing pioneers William and Otto Sovereign founded the Aladdin Company in the early 1900’s, selling first precut cottages, then arts and crafts residences using materials supplied by both Lewis Manufacturing and International Mill and Timber of Bay City. Lewis began producing their own line of homes in 1913, using some of the designs they had created for Aladdin. Aladdin continued to market their line of homes, opening new plants in Oregon, North Carolina, Mississippi and Canada.
In 1915, International Mill and Timber introduced their own designs under the name Sterling Homes. The Sterling plant was destroyed by fire in 1917; the company went into bankruptcy post World War I and was purchased in 1920 by timberman Leopold Kantzler. The facilities were again destroyed by fire in 1925, and after rebuilding, Kantzler took the name "Liberty Homes" for the manufactured housing division. Aladdin, Lewis-Liberty and Sterling all survived the Great Depression, despite a 52% decrease in housing starts nationwide. During World War II these companies kept afloat by manufacturing barracks and temporary housing. The post-war housing shortage brought a surge of home orders, but sales then declined steadily. Sterling closed in 1971, having sold about 35,000 homes; Lewis went bankrupt in 1973, after selling about 60,000 homes. Aladdin closed in 1983 after selling about 100,000 homes throughout the United States, Canada, England and Africa. Sales records for the Aladdin Company are available at the University of Central Michigan, Mt Pleasant MI. The combined sales figures for these three companies appear to make Bay City the leading supplier of precut housing nationwide.
BENNETT HOMES, North Tonawanda NY 1902-1935?
Bennett Home and Lumber Company Inc. was established in 1902. So far, only a few of their house catalogs are available to researchers. The company began by offering building materials, then added house plan books. Catalog #18, dated 1920, contains house plans. Catalog #39 (1930) and Catalog #41 (1935) offer precut homes. Many models very closely resemble designs from other mail order comapnies. Some Bennett trade names were "Better Built" and "Ready Cut."
GORDON-VAN TINE, Davenport IA 1907-46
A sawmill established in 1866 by U.N. Roberts became the parent of the Gordon-Van Tine Company, incorporated in 1907 to handle building materials. It is likely that the company name was derived from the middle names of 2 major stockholders, Horace Gordon Robinson and Harry V. Scott. There is evidence that Gordon-Van Tine supplied the building materials marketed by Sears from 1907 to 1912. Gordon-Van Tine issued its first house plan book in 1912, and introduced its "Ready-Cut" home line in 1916. Mortgages were offered on a limited basis from 1927 to 1931. Gordon-Van Tine continued selling homes through 1945. When the post World War II FHA price limits turned out to be less than the cost of production, Gordon-Van Tine and a number of other companies refused to sell lumber and building materials. In 1946, businessman Sidney Rose of Cincinnati bought the company, closed it and sold off the assets.
HARRIS BROTHERS Chicago IL 1913-60
[Currently available history of this company is sketchy, and only the mail order home catalogs from 1912, 1914, 1916, 1918, and 1925 have surfaced.]
In 1892 the company which would evolve into one of Sears' major pre-cut home competitors was a house moving company. In 1900, when they secured the contract to demolish the Columbian Exposition structures, the name was changed to Chicago House Wrecking Company. Sometime in the early 1900's, they began offering house plans and selling the material and lumber to construct these. In 1913, the company name was changed to Harris Brothers, and they published their first catalog of pre-cut homes in 1912. The company remained in business until 1960, moving to Wisconsin, where they produced doors and windows. Harris apparently stopped selling homes during the depression.
MONTGOMERY WARD, Chicago IL 1910-31
Wards introduced house plan books in 1910, featuring outdated turn-of the-century designs possibly by William Radford. Wards apparently never owned or operated housing production facilities. There is evidence that the homes were actually manufactured in Bay City MI. Beginning in 1917, Gordon-Van Tine provided the materials for the homes marketed by Montgomery Wards. No pre-cut homes were sold by Wards until 1921, when Gordon-Van Tine took over Ward's mail order housing department. The brand name "Wardway Homes" was used from 1922 until 1931, featuring the "ready-cut" system. These homes are identical to Gordon-Van Tine homes from corresponding years; only the model names and prices differ. Like Sears, Wards offered mortgage financing until 1931 when it closed its housing division.
PACIFIC HOMES, Los Angeles CA
The company was initially incorporated in 1908 under the name Pacific Portable Construction Company. To date, it is not known what the company’s early products were, or what years Pacific Homes sold precut houses. We have Pacific Homes catalogs from 1919, 1923 and 1925, offering "Ready Cut or Factory Built" homes. By 1940, Pacific Homes had sold an estimated 37,000 homes, primarily west of the Rocky Mountains. In 1929, the company began building surfboards. From 1938 until about 1940 these were sold under the brand name "Waikiki Surfboards."
SEARS ROEBUCK AND COMPANY Chicago IL 1908-51
Between 1908 and 1939, Sears Roebuck and Company marketed over 450 different models of homes by mail order catalog. From 1908 to 1915 Sears sold only plans. Materials wre provided initially by Gordon-Van Tine; in 1911 Sears purchased its first lumber mill at Cairo IL and in 1915 purchased a millwork plant in Norwood OH. In 1916 Sears began marketing precut homes or kits, at the same time offering mortgages in hopes of attracting customers who did not have the cash to purchase Aladdin or Gordon-Van Tine precut homes. Sears soon discovered that the mortgage business was even more profitable than the housing business. However, due to financial losses during the Depression, Sears discontinued mortgage financing in 1933, and continued to market precut homes of simplified design and lesser quality until 1940. Sears sold an estimated 60-70,000 homes from 1908 to 1940. A set of 12 building plans titled "Sears Modern Homes" with a 1941 date has been discovered, but it is not known whether any of these home plans were marketed. Post World War II Sears began marketing a limited number of partially prefabricated models under the brand name "Homart" (from HOMan and ARThington streets where the main Chicago office was located.) These did not seem to have popular appeal, and were discontinued around 1951.
NEW PUBLICATIONS ON SEARS MAIL ORDER HOMES
Putting Sears Homes on the Map: A Compilation of Testimonials Published in Sears Modern Homes Catalogs 1908-1940 by historical architectural researcher Rebecca Hunter is now available!
An important reference book for libraries, heritage commissions, historical societies and individuals, this study presents the only information available directly from Sears Roebuck and Company about the specific locations of the homes they sold. Since Sears no longer has any of its Modern Homes sales records, researchers have been looking for potential Sears homes by doing street-by-street surveys in likely communities.
This book will make the process of discovering Sears homes easier. This comprehensive compilation of testimonials from satisfied customers published in Sears Modern Homes catalogs from 1908-1940 lists geographical locations, street addresses, model names and names of buyers. Over 1300 entries tell us that Sears sold homes in 48 states. The largest numbers of homes were sold in Illinois, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana. While this represents only a small fraction of all the homes Sears ever sold, it is an invaluable resource for those interested in Sears homes.
Since most of the testimonials list only partial information, this book provides an opportunity for others to contribute to knowledge about Sears homes by engaging in local detective work to trace the names and addressees of original buyers, and to search for missing street addresses of the listed models.
Copies are available from Amazon.com or from R.L. Hunter Press by phone, FAX, email, or postal mail.
Payment to R.L. Hunter Press may be made by check or money order made out to Rebecca Hunter.
903 Cedar Avenue
Elgin IL 60120
Telephone 847 697-4551, FAX 847-697-4550
ISBN 0-9762096-0-8. Published 2004. 116 pages.
Shipping: $ 4 for a single copy - call for bulk order shipping rates.
Tax: $ 1.45 (Illinois sales only)
Sears, Roebuck Book of Barns: A Reprint of the 1919 Catalog with a preface by historical architectural researcher Rebecca Hunter and architect Dale P Wolicki is now available!
By now, most people are aware that companies such as Sears Roebuck, Gordon-Van Tine and Aladdin sold houses in mail order catalogs. Less known is the fact that five of the major mail order house companies also sold barns and other farm buildings.
This is the first available reprint of a catalog of mail order barns. 1918 and 1919 were the years during which mail order catalogs offered the largest number and variety of farm buildings, hence the selection of the 1919 catalog for republication.
The preface details the known history of mail order agricultural buildings from five companies, and is illustrated with photographs of authenticated Sears barns in Virginia, Michigan and Illinois. Included are a compilation of the contents of available Sears barn specialty catalogs, a bibliography for mail order houses and barns, and a listing of barn preservation resources in the United States.
The catalog contains descriptions and illustrations of the exteriors of the buildings, floor plans, and interior schematics for the larger barns. Included are twenty-seven models of barns, as well as hog sheds, chicken coops, granaries and other farm outbuildings.
Copies are available from from Amazon.com, or from R.L. Hunter Press by phone, FAX, email, or postal mail. Payment to R.L. Hunter Press may be made by check or money order made out to Rebecca Hunter.
903 Cedar Avenue
Elgin IL 60120
Telephone 847 697-4551, FAX 847-697-4550
ISBN 0-9762096-1-6. Published 2004. 84 pages.___________________________________________________________________________________
Shipping: $ 4 for a single copy - call for bulk order shipping rates.
Tax: $ 1.45 (Illinois sales only)
LOCATING AND IDENTIFYING MAIL ORDER HOUSE PART NUMBERS
The wooden parts of a kit house were numbered in order to facilitate construction. After the house is built, it is usually possible to see some of these numbers. Presence of part numbers constitutes proof that the house is in fact a mail order kit. The style of the numbering may be a good indicator of which company built the house. The numbers are not visible on every board, so it may take a few minutes and a good flashlight to find one. Look on basement ceiling joists, attic rafters, basement stair risers and treads, wall studs - any visible board which has not been painted.
1. SEARS part numbers are stamped on the wood in dark blue, black or gray ink. They are just over one inch high, and almost always consist of a capital letter followed by one or more numerals, for example: A159, L23, C2. The numbers are usually found near the end of a board, on the wider surface (for example, on the 4" side of a 2X4). Sears numbers after1933 may be stamped in red ink and smaller. The parts were not numbered before 1915, when Sears first produced kit homes. Model number or order number may be handwritten in grease pencil.
2. GORDON-VAN TINE/WARDS numbers are handwritten in grease pencil, usually in the middle of a board. They consist of numerals, hyphenated in groups, e.g. 17-21-19, or 3-5 digit numerals. Part names are stamped in capital letters about 1" high (e.g. "ceiling joist" "top rail"). Delivery address may be stamped or stenciled in ink.
3. ALADDIN, LEWIS and STERLING Company numbers are handwritten in grease pencil, usually in the middle of a board. They consist of numerals, usually hyphenated in groups of 2 or 3. Some of the numbers are fractions, e.g. 42-18-11 3/4. Part names may be stamped in ink.
4. HARRIS Brothers numbers are stenciled in ink, often in the middle of a board, and may be numerals alone, or numerals and letters, or Roman numerals. E.g. 76, HR 50, RI 32 or AII. Home model number and/or order number may be written in grease pencil.
5. Pacific Homes are marked in grease pencil with a 4 digit number, probably the order number, and the names of the parts.
ARCHITECTURAL SALVAGE OF SEARS HOME PARTS
The following original Sears parts are available to current owners of Sears homes. Contact information is listed at the end of each description. To list parts you have available, contact R Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847 697-4551.
1. Craftsman style porch columns for Americus, Vallonia, Cornell, Elsmore model. Rebecca Hunter
2. Section kitchen cabinet from Sunlight model. Rebecca Hunter 847 697-4551.
3. 9 double hung sash windows: from an Americus model.
Quantity 3: 4 over 1, 32" wide, 56" high
Quantity 4: 4 over 1, 32" wide by 60" high
Quantity 2: 4 over 1, 32" wide by 51" high
Quantity 3: 3 over 1. 28" wide by 47" high
Rebecca Hunter 847 697-4551.
4. Various trim boards and a door frame. Rebecca Hunter 847 697-4551.
5. Triple front window plus storm windows for a Crescent, Hamilton (#3200) or Collingwood model. Rebecca Hunter 847 697-4551.
BIBLIOGRAPHY ON MAIL ORDER HOMES
Prepared by researcher Rebecca Hunter, 903 Cedar Ave. , Elgin IL 60120.
Connolly, Mc and Wasserman, L. Updating Classic America Bungalows. Newtown CT: Taunton Press, 2002. Pp 118-121Restoring and enlarging the Sears "Sunbeam" model.
Fetters, Thomas. The Lustron Home. McFarland and Co, Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640, 2002.
Hunter, Rebecca. Beyond Sears: Mail Order Homes in Elgin Illinois from Aladdin, Lewis, Sterling, Harris Brothers, Gordon-Van Tine and Montgomery Ward. Elgin Heritage Commission 2004. Available from the Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin IL.
Hunter, Rebecca. Elgin Illinois Ornamental Concrete Block in Residential Architecture from the Elgin Heritage Commission, 2005. Available from Gail Borden Public Library Elgin IL.
Hunter, Rebecca. Elgin Sears House Research Project. Elgin Heritage Commission 1999. Available from the Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin IL.
Hunter, Rebecca. Putting Sears Homes on the Map: A compilation of testimonials published in Sears Modern Homes Catalogs from 1908-1940. Elgin IL; Rebecca Hunter 2004.
Morgan Woodwork Organization. Homes and Interiors of the 1920’s. Ottawa, Ontario: Lee Valley Tools Ltd, 1987. A Reprint of the 1921 Building With Assurance.
Reiff, Daniel D. Houses from Books. University Park PA: Philadelphia State University Press; 1990.
Schweitzer, R and Davis, M.W.R. America's Favorite Homes: Mail Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Houses. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1990.
Schweitzer, Robert. Bungalow Colors: Exteriors. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith 2002.
Stevenson K.C. and Jandl H.W. Houses By Mail. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1986. Available from John Wiley & Sons Inc, 605 3rd Ave., New York NY 10158-0012, 800 225-5945.
Thomas, Jo Ann. Lighting Fixtures of the Depression v I and II. Paducah KY: Collector Books, 2001.
Thornton, Rosemary. The Houses That Sears Built. Alton IL: Gentle Beam Publications, P O Box 1392, Alton IL 62002; 2002.
Wolicki, Dale Patrick. The Historic Architecture of Bay City Michigan. Bay City MI: The Bay County Historical Society, 1998.
Aladdin. Aladdin "Built in a Day" House Catalog 1917. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 1995.
Bennett Lumber Co. Bennett’s Small House Catalog 1920. New York: Dover Publications, 1993.
Gordon-Van Tine. 117 House Designs of the Twenties. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 1992.
Pacific Homes: California’s Kit Homes: A Reprint of the 1925 Pacific Ready Cut Homes Catalog. Alton IL: Gentle Beam Publications, P O Box 1392, Alton IL 62002, 2004. Preface by Rosemary Thornton and Dale Patrick Wolicki.
Sears Roebuck. Sears Roebuck Catalog of Houses 1926. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 1991.
Sears Roebuck. Homes in a Box: Modern Homes from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Schiffer Publishing; 1998. This is a reprint of a 1912 Sears Modern Homes catalog.
Sears Roebuck. Sears, Roebuck Book of Barns: A Reprint of the 1919 Catalog. Elgin IL: R L Hunter Press 2005. Preface by Rebecca Hunter and Dale Patrick Wolicki.
Sears Roebuck. Sears Roebuck Homes of Today 1932. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 2003.
Sears Roebuck. Sears, Roebuck Home Builder's Catalog 1910 Edition. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 1990.
Montgomery Ward. Wardway Homes, Bungalows and Cottages 1925. Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 2004.
Gail Borden Library, Elgin IL 60120 has bound circulating photocopies of a number of catalogs from Sears, Gordon-Van Tine, Pacific Homes, and Harris Brothers. 847 742-2411
Billings, Mark. "In Praise of Kit Homes." American Bungalow, Spring 2003.
Halpin, Kay. "Sears Roebuck’s Best Kept Secret." Historic Preservation, Sep 1981.
Hicks, L Wayne. "The House is in the Mail." American History, April 2000.
Hunter, Rebecca "Kit and Precut Homes: An American Architectural Phenomenon." Preservation and Conservation Association Newsletter, vol 23 No 3-4, Champaign IL 2003.
Maxwell, Shirley and Massey. James C. "Pre-Cut Houses." Old House Journal, Nov/Dec 1990.
Murray, Alan. "Mail Order Homes Sears Sold in 1909-37 are Suddenly Chic." The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1985.
Maxwell, Shirley and Massey, James C. "The Story on Sears." Old House Journal, Aug 2002.
Poore, Patricia. "Pattern Book Architecture: Is Yours a Mail Order House?" Old House Journal, Dec 1980.
Reiff, Daniel D. "Identifying Mail Order and Catalog Houses." Old House Journal, v. 5 1995.
Schwartz, David M. "When Home Sweet Home Was Just a Mailbox Away." Smithsonian, Nov 1985.
Schweitzer R. and Davis M.W.R. "Aladdin’s Magic Catalog." Michigan History, Jan-Feb 1984.
Snyder, Tim. "The Sears Pre-cut: A Mail Order House for Everyone." Fine Homebuilding, Aug-Sep 1985.
Thornton, Rosemary. "The Sears Homes: Quality Homes Made to (Mail) Order." Historic Illinois, v. 25 No. 2. Illinois Historic Preservation Services August 2002.
Wolicki Dale Patrick. "Aladdin Homes: Comfortable, Convenient and Cozy." American Bungalow, Summer 2003.
Wolicki, Dale Patrick. "Gordon-Van Tine Company." ickilow inc., 2002.
On The Web
Elgin Illinois Sears House Research Project
Go to www.elgin.lib.il.us/community/community.html Then select “Digital Past” then select
‘Sears house research project’
www.kithouse.org: Services and publications by historical architectural researcher
Rebecca Hunter. Includes architectural salvage items.
www.searshomes.org: website of Rosemary Thornton, author of The Houses That Sears
www.searskithouse.com: website of James Chapa, with information about his upcoming
book on Sears Homes.
www.searsarchives.com/homes: The website of Sears Roebuck Archives, including the
national Sears Home Registry.
http://clarke.cmich.edu/aladdin/Aladdin.htm: Information about Aladdin Company
from Clarke Library, University of Central Michigan, which holds the original sales
records of the Aladdin Company.
http://clarke.cmich.edu/aladdin/catdir.htm: Aladdin Home catalogs from Clarke Library, University of Central Michigan.
www.lustron.net : information on all-steel Lustron homes; list of home locations.
[Updated August 30, 2007]