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When Did Sears Close Their Modern Homes Department?

When exactly did Sears stop selling their “Modern Homes”?

In an interesting and well-researched blog about Sears Homes (written by my friend Lara), she points out that the sale of Sears kit homes did in fact continue after 1940.

For many years, I’ve declared that if your house was purchased outside of 1908-1940 (the years Sears sold these houses), it can not be a house from Sears.

Well, I have a couple modifications to make to that statement. :)

First, based on information I’ve gleaned through the years, it seems that Sears didn’t sell any of their homes their first year in business. In other words, 1908 was a dud!  The first Sears homes were sold in 1909. And if you find a pre-1912 Sears Home, you have found a rare bird.

Very few of their houses were sold before 1912. Very few, as in, about 1,000. (In February 1911, American Carpenter and Builder magazine reported that Sears had sold 1,000 houses thus far.)

As to the “other end” of that date, Sears put out their last Modern Homes catalog in 1939. The 1940 catalog was just a straight re-print of that 1939 catalog. While 1940 was the official “end date” of the Modern Homes department, was that really when they stopped selling kit homes?

Maybe not.

In late-1938, it looked like Sears was gearing up to revitalize their Modern Homes department. That year, they introduced nine new house styles, even sticking a 3-page supplement into the 1938 Sears Modern Homes catalog with the note:

Nine new Sears Modern Homes, too late for publication in the catalog are shown in this enclosure. Since they represent the latest thought in architectural design and planning, we think you’ll find them especially interesting.

The nine houses were The Colebrook, The Malden, The Yates, The Branford, The Lynn, The Fulton, The Nantucket, The Medford and The Warren. All but two of the houses were Cape Cods. (These homes appeared in a catalog dated 1938, but this 3-page supplement was dated January 1939.)

The enclosure that offered these nine new houses also promised that all of Sears Modern Homes met FHA requirements and Sears even offered to assist homebuyers with the FHA mortgage application process.

The FHA was created by the National Housing Act of 1934. (The history behind the FHA is both disturbing and fascinating. Read more here.)

In September 2, 1939, an article in Business Week said the young men at Sears wanted to give the Modern Homes department another go, but that upper management wouldn’t hear of it. Business Week stated “Upper management all sweated buckets bailing the company out of the big-scale housing catastrophe that followed the slap-happy 20s. [They] would cheerfully get out of the whole department if they only knew how to get their money out.”

The money they hoped to get out included the millions of dollars Sears had invested in their lumber mills, such as the $3.5 million recently invested in Norwood, Ohio and Port Newark, New Jersey.

Based on what I know today (and admittedly, that’s subject to change), I stand by my earlier statement that Sears issued their last Modern Homes catalog in 1940, and yet, as Lara pointed out, it also seems likely that Sears continued to sell off their remaining inventory until at least Spring 1941 (based on Lara’s research), and perhaps beyond, and it’s possible that some of the millwork and building materials that Sears sold post-1940s were bits and pieces of formerly whole kits.

So, if you think you have a Sears Modern Home that was purchased post-1940, I’d have to say - it’s very possible! (Note that I said “purchased,” not built. I’ve heard many stories of people buying a kit home and then spending several years getting it built!)

And Lara found newspaper advertisements proving that Sears sold their kit homes into Spring 1941! To read Lara’s blog, click here.

To learn more about the Sears Modern Homes department, click here.

Thanks to Rachel Shoemaker for sharing the images (shown below) of the 1940 and 1941 General Merchandise catalogs.

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The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was published in 1939 and reprinted in 1940.

The last Sears Modern Homes catalog was published in 1939 and reprinted in 1940.

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Sears closed down their Modern Homes department (and the individual storefronts) in 1940, but probably continued to sell off inventory for several years.

Sears closed down their Modern Homes department (and the individual storefronts) in 1940, but probably continued to sell off inventory for several years. Above is one such storefront in Ohio. If you look closely at the sign in front of the center doorway, it says, "Sears Roebuck & Co. Honor Bilt Modern Homes."

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On the inside cover of the Sears Modern Homes catalog were interior pictures of the Colebrook.

The inside cover of the 1940 Sears Modern Homes catalog showed interior color pictures of the Malden. Look at the cat sleeping in the sunlight on the carpeted floor. Bliss!

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Rachel Shoemaker graciously shared many images from her own copy of the Spring 1940 Sears General Merchandise catalog.

Rachel Shoemaker graciously shared many images from her own copy of the Spring 1940 and 1941 Sears General Merchandise catalog (1940 shown above).

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And in those pages

And in that 1941 General Merchandise catalog, Rachel found this! Look at the small insert, where it says, "Interior Doors, now at Chicago, Norwood (site of the Sears Millwork plant) and Newark NJ" (site of one of their main mills). There's no doubt that Sears was looking for a way to sell off some of their remaining inventory, post-1940.

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Repeated here,

The "Chicago, Norwood, Newark" theme is repeated here, with a bolder graphic (Spring 1941). The Irish Setter is a nice touch, too.

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And my favorite image features this young couple

And my favorite image features this young couple moving through the steps of buying their own Sears Home! (Spring 1940.)

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Happy

The dapper couple begins their fun excursion into the world of homeownership.

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Its the Colebrook thats caught their heart, mind and imagination.

It's the "Colebrook" that's captured their heart, mind, imagination and wallet.

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As shown in the 1940

The four-room Cape Cod "Colebrook" (as shown in the 1940 catalog).

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To dream the impsso

Close-up of the individual frames shown on the catalog page above. Dapper Donna says, "We didn't even need to hire an architect!" (Spring 1940)

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Building

Sears was happy, happy, happy to be out of the mortgage business. According to "Catalogs and Counters," Sears liquidated more than $11 million in mortgages in 1934. In today's dollars, that would be more than $190 million, a fantastic sum for a business to absorb.

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building

A blind carpenter is shown here, sifting through the pre-cut lumber.

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Kitchen

'The stoker downstairs" was a reference to a new invention: The automatic coal stoker. This ingenious device used an auger to feed coal into the furnace or boiler in the basement. It was a remarkable advance in modern heating systems. No more shoveling coal into the fire-belching behemoth. The automatic stoker was a great labor saving device.

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The kitchen in the Colebrook was nowhere near that big, but hey, why let details get in the way of such a sweet story?

The kitchen in the Colebrook was nowhere near that big as is shown in the picture with the happy couple, but hey, why let details get in the way of such a sweet story?

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Building

While the Dapper couple are arguing about what to do with all their saved money, a grifter behind them is surreptitiously pocketing some cash he quietly lifted from Dapper Dan's wallet. I think the old lady on the left is in on it, too.

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A

In the Spring 1940 General Merchandise catalog, Sears asked, "What exactly is YOUR problem?" Who knew that Sears was the source of this popular mantra?

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To visit Lara’s blog, click here.

You can read Rachel’s blog here.

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  1. June 26th, 2013 at 12:59 | #1

    Oh my! This was awesome, thanks for the laughs. I love what you did with the images and the captions you gave them.

    So they went from “freak built” homes of the 1910’s to “thrift built” homes. ;) Ha.

  2. Dale Wolicki
    June 26th, 2013 at 23:22 | #2

    After the 1921 recession it was standard practice in the mail-order housing industry to print a large batch of catalogs that would last for two or three years, say 1940, but to slip sheet a price list into the catalog that stated something like “prices good until May 1, 1941″.

    All the pre-cut housing companies, including Sears, offered houses until the spring of 1942 when the Federal Government suspended all private construction so building materials could be directed to the war effort.

    Throughout the war the mail-order housing companies continued to send out their last catalogs with price list flyers that were stamped “Not Accepting Orders During Duration of the War” or similar text. Sears might have been giving out catalogs into 1943 or even 1944 just to keep potential customers interested.

    As Rose mentions, the Boards or Directors at Sears rejected the Housing Departments efforts to expand in late 1939, and in the spring of 1940 they sold off the pre-cut home factories at Norwood, Ohio and Cairo, Illinois.

    Evidence suggests Sears sold off the factories to avoid having to deal with new labor unions at Norwood and Cairo for fear that organization efforts might spread to other Sears operations.

    Norwood and Cairo continued to manufacture pre-cut homes but not exclusively for Sears, nor did Sears use Norwood or Cairo exclusively. In 1941 the old Sears mill at Cairo was manufacturing houses for Aladdin, and Sears was sending some housing orders to Lewis-Liberty Homes.

    By 1941 the Sears Homes Department was merely a sales office. Sears was more than willing to sell you a home, and they would help with financing too given the profitable 6% loan, but they were contracting out the order.

    In my 25 years of collecting pre-cut housing catalogs I have never seen a 1941 Sears Homes catalog but I’m not going to say it doesn’t exist!

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