Mail order houses of the early 20th century
This structure along the town of Louisa’s Main Street is a catalog kit home built in the early part of last century. The building, which eventually was converted into a business, is an example of the Aladdin Madison Cottage. Aladdin designs were more prevalent in Virginia than the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog homes.
The nation’s number one authority on mail order homes, Rosemary Thorton, gave a presentation on kit homes in Louisa County on Sept. 15. She is the author of many newspaper and magazine articles, as well as several books on the subject.
Kit homes, also known as mail order or catalog homes, were pre-fabricated houses that were sold by six companies on a national level during the early part of the 20th century. These homes came in a variety of designs ranging from cozy bungalows to stately Colonial manors.
Thorton’s discussion focused mainly on homes by Sears, the most well-known company that produced kit homes in that era.
In 1908, Richard Warren Sears, founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was searching for a way to increase catalog sales for the retailers household items. In the early 1900s, large cities were becoming increasingly unhealthy, largely due to coal soot, which caused a variety of pulmonary issues.
Coal was used for transportation, as well as for heating and cooking. A 1928 Sears “Modern Homes Catalog” boasted “Make your dreams come true! Get your share of contentment for yourself and for your kiddies that comes only after you live in a home of your own. Get away from the artificial living in apartments and flats and know the joy of living close to nature, where your children have a chance to play in safety and where you have real friends and neighbors”.
By selling these mail order houses, Sears could boost their catalog sales by offering furnishings to come with your new, modern home.
Sears offered 370 different styles of homes between 1908 and 1940. During this time, roughly 70,000 of these Sears homes were sold throughout 28 states. The kits were shipped by train to the buyer and contained between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces and a 75-page instruction booklet.
Many of these homes were assembled by the homeowner, with the help of friends and neighbors in a barn-raising fashion. Sears estimated that “a man of average abilities” could assemble his own kit home within 352 hours, versus 583.5 hours for a traditional stick built home.
Sears also incorporated modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing and electricity into most of their contemporary homes. They offered bathroom packages ranging from “good” for $75.85 to the “best” for $138.25. However, they also offered portable two-seated outhouses for $41 to those who could not afford such contemporary amenities.
To read the entire story, see the Sept. 26 edition of The Central Virginian.