SEARS AND THE "SEARS MODERN HOME" HAS LEFT A LEGACY THAT CONTINUES
By Connor Mill-Built Homes Founder & CEO Mike Connor
With the announcement this past week that Sears, the Amazon of its time, was filing for bankruptcy, there has been much reflection on the long list of merchandise in its history that included everything from mechanics tools to appliances, furniture, automotive parts to lingerie, and much more. While most people are aware that Sears and Roebuck had a home manufacturing line, few know that in thirty-four years of home manufacturing, Sears produced 75,000 houses that permanently changed the American housing market. The efficiencies, design quality, and access to craftsmanship that made the Sears houses so popular between 1908 and 1942 are still desired, and perhaps even harder to find, in today’s housing market.
Sears was an innovative home manufacturer. The manufacturing side of the business was more limited than today's high-tech home manufacturers, as it primarily sold kits that were mostly pre-cut materials. But included in those kits was everything from nails, paint, central heating equipment, plumbing fixtures, floor registers and the wooden floors in which to install them, doors and windows, finish trim, storm windows, stairs, assorted hardware, and laundry equipment to wash all of the sears apparel that it sold in its retail merchandise catalog.
Sears called their line of homes the "Sears Modern Home" and they were modern by the standards of the day. Some of their earlier models had no indoor plumbing, but you could buy an outhouse from Sears to cover that requirement. But soon, the kits included plumbing fixtures, electrical supplies and lighting and central heating, all cutting edge advances for an industry that was still building homes much as they had been built for hundreds of years, with few amenities beyond their basic purpose of keeping their occupants from direct exposure to the elements.
The company had a line of home plans that eventually grew to about 350 designs. Customization was allowed on each plan, or, for a design fee, a custom home could be created by a Sears designer. Most designs were in the style of Colonial Revival, which was an architectural movement that celebrated the traditional while also embracing a new vision driven by the post-Industrial Revolution when agrarian lifestyles were transformed into more and more urban and suburban pursuits.
The homes were well-designed and built with an enduring quality that makes them stand out today as examples of how a large company with innovative ideas and proper resources was able to provide high quality housing, at a price point that made the product available to much of the country who were looking for an alternative to the more common and more expensive building model in place across the country. Today there are clubs of Sears Homes owners who share their satisfaction in having found and are now living in an original "Sears Modern Home". Sears must have been doing something right to have sold 75,000 of these homes.
The central premise of the Sears model which touted the advantages of factory precision and its resulting labor savings is still alive and well in today's home manufacturing world. Our own company, Connor Mill-Built Homes, uses a similar approach in its Catalog of Homes and its Mill-Built, systems-built approach to supplying high-quality architecture to the marketplace. With the technology advances in CAD design and dedicated machinery engineered for specific home building tasks, high quality homes are still possible and available to our customers. In an era much different from that of the Sears Modern Home, the idea that factory design and construction can create a higher quality home at reduced costs resonates more than ever.
My own personal experience with a Sears home was through my grandparents who bought and built a Sears "Lexington" model in the late 1920s. My father, who lived in that home, loved to tell the story of how his dad arrived at the construction site a few days after the house parts were delivered, to discover that the carpenters had decided to cut the second floor joists to make them "fit" properly. My grandfather heatedly explained to the carpenters that this was a Sears "pre-cut" home and there was no need to cut anything! After a closer look at the plans, the carpenters admitted that they had misread them, and that indeed they should not have cut the floor joists, but that my grandfather shouldn't worry because they had only cut a very small amount from each joists. I spent many years in and around my grandparents' Sears home and never noticed an idiosyncrasy that my father claims resulted from the errant carpenters' efforts. He said that the second floor was slightly smaller than the first floor and consequently the walls of the home tipped inward ever so slightly. For his part, my grandfather maintained that because of its slight lean inward, the house was incredibly strong, and might well be the strongest Sears home ever built!
In the 1970's my own fledgling construction company put a garage addition on to the house, in the style and intent of the original. Sadly, the house suffered a fire in 2007 and had to be torn down. But we have a new Sears home in the family, as my daughter and her husband purchased a beautiful gambrel style Sears Home, a relatively untouched Martha Washington model from the 1922 Sears catalog! (pictured above) Our company is presently building shutters for this house that will replicate the original Sears shutters offered at the time!