VICTOR — Sears started selling mail-order houses from their specialty catalog — the Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans — in 1908. It is reported that over 100,000 houses were sold between 1908 and 1939.
Why was it so popular?
You had a choice, over the years, of over 400 different styles; you could save money by building it yourself; they were made of quality building materials; and Sears offered liberal loan policies. A family could have a custom home at a certain price for a certain size — the family made the choice and built it themselves.
The custom-made Sears Modern Home was advertised that, for a precut house with fitted pieces, it would take only 352 carpenter hours to assemble as opposed to 583 hours for a conventional house. Sears sold complete houses, including the plans and instructions. By 1911, the catalog would include illustrations of the interior of the house and provide homeowners with blueprints for the ability to furnish the home with Sears appliances and fixtures. Owners could also modify the plan, for example, by using brick instead of wood siding or reversing floor plans.
In 1908, only one model — No. 125 — was sold for $945. After that, the models had names like Adeline, Maplewood, Magnolia and the one built in Victor: the Crafton at 6427 state Route 96 in east Victor.
The “kits” were about 25 tons and shipped by railroad — 30,000 pre-cut parts, plumbing, electrical fixtures and as much as 750 pounds of nails. Building the house was done step-by-step using a 75-page instruction book and blueprints. Sears, in time, offered three built qualities: Honor Bilt, Standard Bilt and Simplex Sectional. Many of the low-end models were smaller, simpler and didn’t include a bathroom. (The company did sell outhouses separately.)
The framing system, called “balloon-style” framing, didn’t require you to be a skilled carpenter — they were built faster and usually only needed one person. This type of framing used precut timber in standard sizes. Another easier homebuilding material to use was drywall — it was easy to use and cheaper than the plaster and lathe that was used by skilled carpenters. Another material that had just been invented was the asphalt shingle, which took the place of tin or wood roofing materials.
These homes are known for their sturdiness, variety and the latest technology available to modern homebuyers in the early part of the 20th century. Central heating, plumbing and electricity were all new developments, and Americans wanted these conveniences.
When the kit house business ended, Sears lost most of its records. Many people didn’t document their home as being a Sears catalog house. The blog Kit House Hunters has found over 10,000 Sears houses still preserved. The Northeast and Midwest have the most, because they sold best in those regions.
Victor’s one documented Sears catalog house was built in east Victor by Ermil Peglow in 1931. It was the best plan offered by the Crafton model: Plan 3318D. This house plan had the most square footage — 988 — with six rooms and a bath. It was a bungalow with cedar shingles and a large porch with a baluster railing. Mr. Peglow kept all of the documentation for his home — the lists of inside and outside doors, windows, sashes, door trim and jambs, pipes, linoleum, lumber, nails, sheet plaster, septic tank, furnace — even down to the clothes rods and lamp bulbs!
This was the complete house, all one needed to do is assemble it. Instructions on how to build the house were given in the form of blueprints. A separate sheet explained how to lay linoleum and Floor-or-leum, and a booklet explained instructions for installing modern plumbing systems. Although Mr. Peglow kept all of his documentation, none of it included the final price he paid for his home. It is safe to say, though, that it was about $1,400 excluding plumbing, heating, wiring, electric fixtures and shades, and appliances.
Sears discontinued its Modern Homes catalog after 1940. Sales through local sales offices continued into 1942. I wonder why, was it because of World War II? Years later, the sales records related to home sales were destroyed during a corporate house cleaning. Only a small percentage of these homes were documented when built. Mr. Ermil Peglow probably didn’t know at the time that keeping his documentation was very important to Victor’s knowledge of his special house!
Babette Huber serves as historian for the town and village of Victor. The information and photos in the column are courtesy of Paul Prietz from the town of Victor Archives.