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Book Review : When a New House Came in the Mail

July 27, 1986|DAVID M. KINCHEN | Times Staff Writer

For 32 years, from 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the place many Americans went to buy not only the furnishings for their homes but the houses themselves.

The story of the Sears Modern Homes collection is chronicled in "Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck & Co." by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl (The Preservation Press, 1600 H St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, 368 pages, $24.95 plus $3 handling and postage).

More than 100,000 of these precut houses were shipped from factories in the Midwest and Northeast and many are still standing in the eastern half of the country. Very few were sold west of the Rockies because of the prohibitive rail shipping costs.

A personal note: One of the houses illustrated and described in the book is called the "Rochelle." I grew up in Rochelle, Ill., a small town about 75 miles west of Chicago, where Sears has always been based. The house--and others in the book--looks familiar; I probably saw dozens of Sears precut homes in Rochelle, Rockford, De Kalb and other surrounding towns without giving them a second thought!

The authors state that the designs were reflections of contemporary taste, with nothing innovative in terms of design, probably because the buyers wanted houses that would not be easy to identify as manufactured housing. Today's housing manufacturers could learn from the successful Sears experience and the prospering firms undoubtedly have the same philosophy.

Sears built conventional wood-framed houses until 1935, when steel-framed houses with plywood walls were introduced. The authors don't make it clear if this line was offered instead of wood-framed houses or in addition to them; I think steel-framed, plywood houses were offered in addition to conventional wooden houses.

The wood-framed houses were offered at three levels of quality: The Honor Bilt, the Standard Built and the Simplex Sectional, for summer cottages.

The "Preston" model, illustrated, was offered in the 1918 and 1921 catalogues at prices ranging from $2,978 to $3,766. This Dutch Colonial house had four bedrooms, a sleeping porch (Midwesterners often used these screened porches on typically humid summer nights), a huge formal dining room and a 27-foot-long living room.

This book is not only a valuable contribution to American social history, it's a lot of fun to read. The hundreds of illustrations will probably help many readers discover that the 100-year-old Sears firm was the source of their home.

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