“What does WLS stand for?” is a question I often ask lecture attendees.
After giving more than 200 lectures in 25 states, only two people have answered this question correctly.
I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with Sears and Roebuck.
Thanks to eBay, I’ve located and purchased all manner of Sears Modern Homes ephemera, and one of my treasures is this employee newsletter. In fact, it was the very first edition of the “WLS” employee newsletter! Published in early 1925, it featured an interesting story titled, “The House The Kelly’s Built,” which told the story of a next-door neighbor (Mr. Kelly) who’d hired “Jerry” (a 12-year-old boy) to help him build his newly purchased Sears kit home, The Clyde.
Jerry’s father (Mr. Thomas) was incredulous when he heard about this. After all, housebuilding is a difficult trade, for seasoned and experienced craftsman. When Jerry tries to explain that it’s a Sears kit house, with a 75-page instruction book, and numbered framing members (for easy assembly), his father chastises him for his impunity and reminds him that he is not to interrupt his elders.
It has a happy ending, as Mr. Kelly (the new Sears Homeowner) explains to Mr. Thomas (Jerry’s dad), that it is a very easy house to build, and when completed, it’ll be a real dandy of a home.
There are three important take-away lessons from this story.
1) Building a kit home (12,000 easy pieces) was considered to be a simple task by the people who lived in the early 20th Century.
2) It was acceptable (and even common practice) to hire 12-year-olds for hard work.
3) Mr. Thomas was a horse’s ass.
To read another fascinating story about a murder in Lake Mills, click here.
This short story appeared in the first edition of an employee newsletter issued for employees of Sears Roebuck. The name of the newsletter was "WLS."
Framing members were marked with a three-digit number and a letter (D is for 2x8s, C for 2x6s, B for 2x4s). This mark, together with a 75-page instruction book, made assembly easy for even the novice homebuilder.
The house that the Kellys are building (with young Jerry's help) is the Sears Clyde, a very modest bungalow. Because it is such a modest house, it often gets severely remuddled through the passing decades. Identifying these simple houses is very difficult.
The Clyde, as seen in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog.
At least 98.76% of the time, the bay window in a little bungalow such as this is used for the dining room. The Clyde is an odd exception. In this little house, that bay on the side is for a bedroom, and the bathroom is right behind it. This is a useful detail for identifying The Clyde, as you should expect to see a bathroom vent roof pipe behind the bay.
This little Clyde in Cairo, IL is not feeling very well, and yet - it is definitely a Sears Clyde. That lowered platform on the front porch is still in place, but obscured by this white sedan. The gable ornaments and porch details are gone, and someone thought it'd be a swell idea to do a "thatch effect roof" (shudder), but it's a Sears Clyde.
WLS stood for "World's Largest Store." The famous Chicago radio station, WLS, actually began as a promotional tool for Sears. The station signed on in 1924 with farm reports and weather information. Sears sold the radio station in the fall of 1928. Back in the day, call signs had meanings. Here in Norfolk, we had WGH which stood for "World's Greatest Harbor."
To read Part II, click here.
To learn more about how to identify a Sears home, click here.
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