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This One’s Asking For Advice on Old Cook Stoves…

March 13th, 2015 Sears Homes 1 comment

A delightful anecdote from 1921 tells us that, when the Penniman houses were shipped to Norfolk, some of the workers went into one of the houses - as it made the slow 36-mile trek across the water - and made a full breakfast, using the oil cook stove in the kitchen.

That’s the kind of story that really makes history come alive.

The article, which appeared in the Peninsula Enterprise says,

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and cooked some bacon and eggs and heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk (December 24, 1921).

More than being an interesting tidbit, it also illuminates this detail: Every kitchen in every Penniman house, built by a three-party contract between DuPont, Hancock-Pettyjohn and the US Government, came with an oil-fired cook stove.

Including an appliance in each house would have substantially increased the per-unit cost. Which is probably one reason why they did this. The houses were built on a popular-WW1 program known as “The Cost Plus Plan.”

When America entered WW1, we were in such a mad rush to get these munition plants up and running that there wasn’t time to seek bids and wait for bids and open bids and investigate potential contractors, so DuPont was charged with finding a trust-worthy contractor and the government agreed to pay all expenses of construction plus 8-1/2%. The downside of the Cost-Plus Plan is that the more money the house cost, the more money the contractor pocketed. Put another way, it took away incentives for the contractor to be efficient.

But I think there was more to this than just padding the price of a house.

This was a munitions plant where there were lots of opportunities for lots of things to go boom.

And when this contract for 200 houses was signed on December 31, 1917, the realities of the danger of TNT would be very fresh in everyone’s mind.

Three weeks earlier, December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French freighter, had just left Halifax heading for Bordeaux, France, where it would deliver 5,000,000 pounds of war-time explosives. It was about 8:45 am when the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship, the Imo. Despite the slow speed (about 2 knots), there was a resulting fire on the Mont Blanc. Sailors tried desperately to extinguish the growing fire, but eventually abandoned ship. About 20 minutes later, the drifting vessel returned to the wharf, and moments later, there was an explosion on the Mont Blanc.

According to the book, Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, the resulting blast shattered windows 60 miles away, and more than 1,000 people lost their sight due to flying glass. A tsunami eliminated a nearby community.

All in all, more than 1,900 people died. During WW2, scientists working on the Manhattan Project studied Halifax because the magnitude of the explosion emulated an atomic bomb in so many ways.

Not that anyone at DuPont would have needed any such reminders. The engineers and architects employed by the company would have been well aware of the grave risks of a single errant spark.

Which also explains why each house had steam radiant heat, supplied by a central heating system. No risk of sparks from an independent residential coal-fired heating system.

Which also explains why each house did not have a coal-fired or wood-burning cook stove: The risk of embers and fire would have been too great.

Which leads me to my question: It appears that - maybe - these late 1910s oil (kerosene) cook stoves didn’t require a chimney or any venting. As my friend Milton said, they appear to be similar to kerosene space heaters (which were hugely popular in the 1980s). There’s a reservoir of kerosene, fed by gravity to a burner with a large wick. The unit produces small amounts of carbon monoxide, but not enough to cause CO poisoning.

If that’s true, why did every house in Penniman have a brick chimney?

Heat was supplied by a central heating plant. And I suspect (although I’m not sure) that the oil-fired cook stoves didn’t require venting.

Was it more evidence of the inefficiencies of the “Cost-Plus Plan”? Every house gets a chimney, whether or not it needs it? Or did the oil cook-stove need venting?

Thanks for any insights.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

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These blue cylinders were called Chimneys but they were

These blue cylinders were called "Chimneys" but they were the burner mechanism for the stove.

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H

Lighting these puppies didn't look simple.

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fef

That does look pretty hot.

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This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldnt have been easy. Electric stoves didnt really catch on until the late 1920s.

This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldn't have been easy. Electric stoves didn't get a foothold in the household appliance market until the 1930s.

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ffffe

The last line is the best. Wow.

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Bacon. Its whats for breakfast. In a barge house.

Bacon. It's what's for breakfast. In a barge house. Virginia Pilot, December 1921.

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A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960.

A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960. All of these homes had chimneys, accessible from an interior kitchen wall. The question is - why?

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Read more about Penniman here.

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“I Bet a Man a Hat Today…”

March 2nd, 2015 Sears Homes No comments

For four years, I’ve been researching Penniman, and still, the most wonderful surprises keep popping up.

Last week, fellow history buff Mike Powell discovered a wonderful article in the Peninsula Enterprise (Accomac, Virginia) about moving houses from Penniman to Norfolk. It was dated December 24, 1921.

Emboldened by this enchanting discovery, I dragged my buddy Milton Crum down to the Newport News Public Library to see if we could find anything more in the local papers about these houses being moved. At this point, all we’d seen was the blip in the Virginian Pilot (with photo) from December 5th, 1921 (see below).

Lo and behold, Milton discovered an indepth article in the Newport News Times-Herald (November 23, 1921), which included a lot of specific information on the mechanics of moving a house - by barge - in 1921.

The article, titled “Plan to Move 31 Houses to City From Yorktown,” said,

W. T. and Guy Hastings purchased 31 more residences built by the government…The purchase of the 31 houses is the result of the success met in moving five, which were bought from the government some weeks ago.

“I bet a man a hat today,” said Mr. Hastings, “that I could have all 36 houses at Norfolk within five months, and I belive that I am going to win the bet. The work of moving them down to the water has been carried on by five men but today, I sent ten more men up the river and we shall move faster now.”

The article goes on to say that they started with a tractor, and using wooden logs and cast-iron pipe, they moved the houses down to the waterfront. Later, they used a steam derrick and made better progress. From this account, I also learned that the houses were “scattered about at Penniman,” and the average distance from house to riverfront was about four blocks.

And it’s within this article that we learned that the government built 275 houses at Penniman.

The article found by Mike Powell in the Peninsula Enterprise offered some interesting insights, too.

W. T. Hastings of Norfolk has just moved eight houses across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, a distance of about 24 miles. During the war, the government built a war city at Penniman. All of these houses are of the very best material and are so well constructed that they could not be demolished without wrecking them beyond repair.

It goes on to say that Hastings had originally intended to disassemble the houses and rebuild them elsewhere.

[Hastings] found that the houses had been built on the cost-plus plan, and there were so many nails in them it would mean almost total destruction to tear them down.

My favorite piece of this article contains this little tidbit:

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and decided to cook some bacon and eggs. They also heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk.

Today, almost 100 years later, I’ve found more than 60 of these houses in Norfolk, about two dozen in Williamsburg (most of which have been torn down) and that’s it. I know there are more, but finding them is proving quite difficult. The good news is, there’s one for sale right now in Williamsburg, and it’s a mere $900,000.

Inch by inch, I’m working on completing my manuscript on Penniman. It’s slow going, but there is some progress every day.

Join the fun! If you’ve found any amazing articles about Penniman, please drop me a note at Rosemary.ringer@gmail.com!

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Penniman was a

Penniman was quite a place. At its peak, there were 15,000 people living and working within its borders. That's the York River in the background. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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House

Built as a shell-loading plant for WW1, Penniman was short lived. Three years after DuPont agents first started buying up farm land on the York River, it was all over and Penniman was sold off. More than 60 of the two-story houses built at Penniman ended up in Norfolk. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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At Penniman, workers filled 155mm and 75mm shells with TNT and Amatol.

At Penniman, workers filled 155mm and 75mm shells with TNT and Amatol. You'll notice that some of these buildings have two-story chutes leading to the ground. Alice Hamilton was a female physician and researcher who studied the problem of TNT poisoning in WW1 in America, and she wrote a book titled, "The Dangerous Trades." In that book she talks about touring a plant like Penniman and was told that she should keep alert to sparks from static electricity, and if she saw one, "Dash for that door and slide down and when you hit the ground, don't look behind you and keep right on running." Milton calls these, "Get the heck out doors." Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Penniman

The houses were built near the York River (at top of page). Our Ethels are by the water tower (far left). Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Hse

Here's a close-up of The Haskell, which was built at Dupont Munitions Plants in Penniman, Hopewell (Virginia), Old Hickory, Tennessee, Carney's Point, New Jersey and more. Many Penniman Haskells ended up in Norfolk.

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In fact, Mr. W. T. Hastings moved into one of the houses that he shipped in from Penniman. This photo was taken about 1937.

In fact, Mr. W. T. Hastings moved into one of the houses that he shipped in from Penniman, and gifted several of the houses to family members. This photo was taken about 1937. He's missing his hat. I hope he didn't lose that bet.

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Three Haskells were moved to Ocean View, to 13th View Street in Norfolk.

Three Haskells were moved to Ocean View, to 13th View Street in Norfolk.

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Heres a glimpse of the three Haskells about 1969.

Here's a glimpse of the three Haskells about 1969 (Norfolk Tax Assessor's Office).

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Here are some of Mr. Hastings homes floating down the Chesapeake Bay. This is from the Virginian Pilot (December 5, 1921).

Here are Mr. Hastings' homes floating down the Chesapeake Bay. This is from the "Virginian Pilot" (December 5, 1921).

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According to these newspaper articles, the houses moved by Hastings were up to four blocks in from the York River.

According to these newspaper articles, the houses moved by Hastings were up to four blocks in from the York River. This map shows - in detail - the location of the residences in Penniman. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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One of the choicest tidbits in these articles is the story that the workers cooked a nice breakfast on the oil stove in the Penniman house. Why did the engineers/architects decide on oil cook stoves for their little houses? Without exception, every house that DuPont erected in a WW1 munitions plant had a centralized steam heating plant (for obvious reasons), but why an oil cook stove? Ive read that the oil cook stove was very efficient. Was this a way to make sure there were no embers flying out the chimney? Matches were prohibited on the reservation. If you were caught with matches on your body, you were given one warning. The second time, you were fired. Were oil stoves matchless?

One of the choicest tidbits in these articles is the story that the workers cooked a nice breakfast on the oil stove in the Penniman house. Why did the engineers/architects decide on oil cook stoves for their little houses? Without exception, every house that DuPont erected in a WW1 munitions plant had a centralized steam heating plant (for obvious reasons), but why an oil cook stove? I've read that the oil cook stove was very efficient. Was this a way to make sure there were no embers flying out the chimney? I wish I knew.

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To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Mr. Jones, Where Are Your Lovely Photos?

February 23rd, 2015 Sears Homes No comments

In that process of rummaging through my notes on Penniman, I was reminded that I’d been looking for photos taken by Drewry Jones of Williamsburg. Despite lots of poking around, I never have been able to locate those photos (originals or reproductions), or anyone who has even heard of Mr. Jones’ collection of photos.

The photos appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch in an indepth article on Virginia’s Own Ghost City: Penniman (June 1938). The article featured a wide photo of Penniman’s village (with all those little houses).

Despite two trips to Hagley Museum and Library (in Wilmington, Delaware) and several billion trips to area museums and libraries, I’ve never seen anything like those photos. They were truly unique in that they captured a great view of Penniman’s residential village.

Augustus Drewery (sometimes spelled “Drewry”) danced off this mortal coil on April 8, 1977. His obituary was published in the Newport News Daily Press on April 10, 1977, and named two nephews as his lone survivors.

I’ve sent two letters to Mr. Jones’ only surviving nephew (”Dr. John M. Pitman” of Williamsburg) and haven’t heard a peep. That was 18 months ago.

The rest of Mr. Jones’ obit reads,

Augustus Drewery Jones of Williamsburg died Friday in a Williamsburg Community Hospital after a long illness.

A lifelong resident of Williamsburg, Mr. Jones was a graduate of the College of William and Mary. After a long career with the Peninsula Bank and Trust Company, he was appointed state treasurer of Williamsburg-James City County and retired from office in 1959.

He was past chairman of the board of deacons and ruling elder of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, a member of the Association for the Preservation of Antiquities, the Pulaski Club, Sons of American Revolution, Williamsburg Rotary Club, and a former member of the Williamsburg Rotary Club.

Mr. Jones loved Penniman. In fact, in the early 1920s, he had one of the old Penniman houses moved to a lot on South England Street, and he lived there until his death. In fact, that house is currently for sale! Click here to see pictures!

And he owned photo(s) of Penniman - that he shared with the Richmond Times Dispatch - which were taken from an angle that I’ve not seen anywhere else.

Drewry Jones was fairly well-connected, as an alumn of William and Mary College, a banker with the Peninsular Bank and Trust Company and state treasurer of James City County. Someone somewhere must know this fellow.

I’d be so grateful if anyone could help me find out what became of Mr. Jones’ collection of photos.

For the intrepid researchers here, below is a list of where I have already checked for these photos.

1)     Valentine Museum

2)     York County Museum

3)     William and Mary Swem Library

4)     Virginia Historical Society

5)     Preservation Virginia

6)     Colonial Williamsburg ’s “Rockefeller Library”

7)     York County Library

8)     Waterman’s Museum ( Yorktown )

9)     Virginia Department of Historic Resources

10)   Library of Virginia

11)   Newport News War Museum

12)  Richmond Times Dispatch

So where are Mr. Jones’ photos?

There are a handful of Penniman houses in Williamsburg. Click here to learn more.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

See the interior of Mr. Jones’ home by clicking here.

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PHotos

Here's a grainy reproduction of Mr. Jones' photo, as seen in the Richmond newspaper (June 2, 1938).

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house

Here's the original newspaper reference to "a print belongin gDrewry Jones of Williamsburg" (RTD, June 2, 1938).

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house

If you squnit your eyes a lot and look closely at this photo of Penniman (1918), you can see two of the DuPont "Georgias" in the photo. As one historian said, "Penniman was not erased, it was dispersed." Many of these houses were moved to nearby cities. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

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Georgia

Drewry's house was a DuPont design, The Georgia."

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House

Drewery loved Penniman. He purchased this house from DuPont's 37th munitions plant on the York River, and had it moved to Williamsburg. Drewery lived in this house on South England for many years.

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Drewr

After Mark Hardin first spotted this house, we traveled out to Williamsburg to see it "in the flesh." It's had some pretty substantial additions added onto it in the intervening 90 years.

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Heres a Georgia that started life at Penniman, and landed (with 64 other Penniman houses) in Norfolk, Virginia. The houses were shipped by barge from Penniman to the Riverfront neighborhood in Norfolk (Glenroie Avenue and Major Avenue).

Here's a Georgia that started life at Penniman, and landed (with 64 other Penniman houses) in Norfolk, Virginia. The houses were shipped by barge from Penniman to the Riverfront neighborhood in Norfolk (Glenroie Avenue and Major Avenue). Notice the windows flanking the front door.

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The Georgia was designed by DuPonts architects, and was *probably* built with building materials from North American Construction Company (also known as Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes). The houses were built by Hancock-Pettijohn. Shown below is a chit found at the old Penniman site, maybe used for checking tools out of the tool shed.

The Georgia was designed by DuPont's architects, and was *probably* built with building materials from North American Construction Company (also known as Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes). The houses were built by Hancock-Pettijohn. Shown below is a chit found at the old Penniman site, maybe used for checking tools out of the tool shed.

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The only other tidbit I have is that on March 17, 1918, this item appeared in the Virginia Gazette.

The only other tidbit I have is that on March 17, 1918, this item appeared in the Virginia Gazette. Seems Mr. Jones resigned from C&P (as manager) on March 1, 1918.

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And on January 15, 1926

And as of January 15, 1926, Mrs. Drewry Jones was chair of The Little Theater League.

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To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Sears Catalog House, or Something Like it (Part II)

July 27th, 2014 Sears Homes 6 comments

In my most recent blog, I talked about the fact that Hopewell’s “Collection of Sears Homes” (and I use that term loosely) was in the local news again.

At the end of that blog, I offered to help Hopewell sort through their historical chaff and find the wheat.

The fact is, at this point I’d be willing to donate my services (gratis), to help this small town (just outside of Richmond) get their Sears-home story straight. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this enticing offer may not be accepted.

A few years ago, I wrote a couple of letters and emails (yes, both) to some folks in Hopewell, making this same offer. I never heard a peep. Not a “Thanks, but no,” not a “we’re not interested,” or even a “Go to hell, Rosemary Thornton.”

Honestly, I would have preferred to hear something, rather than nothing.

In case anyone from Hopewell is reading this, I can tell you, I know a little something about Sears Homes. Here’s a short bio I use with the media:

Rose is the author of several books on early 20th Century kit homes. Rose and her work have been featured on PBS History Detectives, A&E’s Biography, CBS Sunday Morning News, MSNBC, NPR’s All Things Considered and BBC Radio. In print media, her story has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, L. A. Times, Dallas Morning News, Christian Science Monitor and more.

Sounds darn good, doesn’t it?

So what can I do to help Hopewell correct their boo-boos?

I don’t know.

In the meantime, below is the “re-do” of a blog that was a personal favorite of mine. The idea was the brainstorm of Rachel Shoemaker, who loves both music and kit homes, and found a delightful way to blend the two topics.

You can read Rachel’s wonderful blog here.

Here’s the ditty that will  help you learn more about correctly identifying houses.

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Ses

Here's a screen-shot of the Sesame Street ditty that tell us, "One of these things is not like the other." Its intent is to teach youngsters how to spot differences in similar items. Learning how to distinguish subtle differences in physical objects can be tough. Ever more so if you live in the small towns around Richmond (apparently).

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houses

Let's try it with houses now.

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One of the houses above is different from the others.

If you guessed the brick house with the metal casement windows, you’re right!

For some time, Hopewell was promoting a brochure (showcasing a driving tour of alleged kit homes in Crescent Hills neighborhood) that identified this brick house as a Sears Dover.

But oh noes!! That’s not a Sears Dover!

The other three houses (the three that look just alike) are the Sears Dover.

More recently, Hopewell has modified this statement and now claims that this brick house is a Sears Maplewood.

Let’s see how that works.

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Blue

Oh noes - AGAIN! One of these homes just doesn't belong! Which one is it? If you guessed the brick house, you're right! The other three homes are the Sears Maplewood.

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houses

There's also the fact that the Sears Maplewood and Dover were never ever offered with metal casement windows. There's also the fact that this house was probably built after WW2. But hey, why let something like "historical fact" get in the way of a good story!

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maple

Here's a Sears Maplewood (1930 catalog).

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house

If you really think that the brick house above looks like a Sears Dover, I highly recommend the Sesame Street "Not like the other" series. It's helped many a lost soul find their way through the thickets of misidentified kit homes.

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house

Meanwhile, in Hopewell, they have a cache of rare and unusual Aladdin Homes (like the one above) and what is being done to promote those houses? Nothing. Unbelievable.

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To learn more about how to distinguish differences in certain objects, click here.

Thanks to Rebecca Hunter for the use of her photograph above (the blue Maplewood). You can visit Rebecca’s website here.

Visit Rachel’s website here.

Read about the bonanza of kit homes we found in Richmond!

If you’re from Hopewell, and you’d like to take up Rose on her offer, please leave a comment below.

If you’re not from Hopewell and you THINK they should take up Rose on her offer, please leave a comment below.

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Sears Catalog House or Something Like It (Hopewell, VA)

July 25th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

Last week, Hopewell was in the local news again, touting their Sears Homes. I’m not going to post a link to the article that appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch, because it was rife with errors.

I’m somewhat incredulous that a paper as prestigious as the Richmond Times Dispatch didn’t do some fact-checking before publishing this story.

The recording and publishing of history is such a sacred trust, and writers have a solemn charge to get the facts right, before sending this information into perpetuity.

And there’s this: I’ve been sought out and interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, BBC Radio, All Things Considered (PBS)  and more. I’ve been featured on PBS History Detectives, CBS Sunday Morning News, A&E’s Biography, and MSNBC.

It’s disheartening to know that a newspaper so close to home ran this article without seeking me out for a quote, or even asking me to help with the fact checking (which I would have gladly done).

Hopewell and I have a history.

When I visited Hopewell in 2003 (to give a talk), I was shown a small brochure touting 44 Sears Homes in Crescent Hills.

As mentioned in several other blogs (click here), Hopewell is mighty mixed up about what is, and what is not a kit house.

Of those 44 purported “Sears Homes” in Crescent Hills, only eight are the real deal, and frankly, it may not be eight. Some of those eight could well be plan book homes.

On that “list of 44,” this house (see below) was featured.

To read more about Hopewell, click here.

Many thanks to Rachel Shoemaker who successfully identified this house!

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Nice House

The brochure promoting the Hopewell Sears Homes stated that this was a Sears "Newbury." Ooh, nice try and thanks for playing. We have some lovely parting gifts for you.

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Ruh

The Hopewell brochure states that it looks JUST LIKE a Newbury, except for the "sloping roof, full width dormer, extra windows and round columns." Good grief, if that's our criteria I could say that my dog Teddy looks like just like a Sears Magnolia.

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House

Except for the absence of a hip roof, full width windows, round columns and cypress wood, these two dwelling places are stunningly similar. You'll note that the subject on the right also does not have ears or fur, but both of these items could have easily been removed during an earlier remodeling.

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Newbury

Sears Newbury, from the 1936 catalog.

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compare

Wow, look at this! The house on the left is in Illinois and it actually LOOKS like a Newbury!

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compare

Ruh Roh. These don't look anything alike!

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Monticello

Thanks to Rachel Shoemaker, we now know that this house in Hopewell came from "Standard Homes Plans" (1923, 1928 and 1929). You may notice that THIS looks a lot like the house in Hopewell!

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Montie

In fact, "The Monticello" is on the cover of the catalog! What a beauty!

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Wow

And lookie here. It is a very fine match!

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Big and fancy

Did anyone from Hopewell ever go into this house and compare the interior layout? If so, I hope the homeowner gave their seeing-eye dog a tasty biscuit. The floor plan for the Monticello is radically different from the Sears Newbury (shown directly below). And the Monticello is 50% bigger. These details matter.

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What

The Newbury is a modest, simple house (1936 Sears Modern Homes catalog).

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If you dont love this house, theres something wrong with you!

According to the text in the ad, if you don't love the Monticello, there's something seriously wrong with you!

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It’d really be swell if Hopewell would invite me back to do a thorough and proper survey. I would be more than happy to get the facts right and help them create a new brochure.

In fact, I really wish they’d give it a go. It’s time to make this right.

To learn more about Hopewell, click here.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Click here.

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Village For Sale. Cheap.

March 24th, 2014 Sears Homes 3 comments

Incredible researcher and smart cookie Mark Hardin has made another remarkable discovery. He found an advertisement (dated October 1922) in the Richmond Times Dispatch, offering the Village of Penniman for sale.

By this time, most of the contents of the WW1 munitions plant had been sold off (per the terms of a contract between DuPont and the U. S. Government [dated December 1917]). All proceeds went to the U. S. Government.

There’s still so much I don’t know about Penniman, but in this advertisement, I found something mentioned that took my breath away. It said, “Full particulars regarding the offerings…and other details of this auction will be found in the catalogs which may be obtained from Philadelphia District Ordnance Salvage Board, Frankford Arsenal.”

Catalogs?

Catalogs?!

Be still my heart.

If anyone has any idea where I might find these catalogs, please let me know.

To learn more about this amazing “Ghost City,” click here.

To read about how Norfolk got tangled up with Penniman, click here.

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Rich

Where are these catalogs now? (Richmond Times Dispatch, 10.28.1922)

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Quite a village

At its peak, there were 15,000 people in Penniman. This is just one small piece of a massive panorama showing the village of Penniman. That's the York River in the background. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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The building of Penniman began in Spring 1916.

The building of Penniman began in Spring 1916. Judging from the old photos, the laborers who built Penniman were overwhelmingly African-Americans. The laborers who toiled in the air-less bunkers, loading powdery, yellow TNT into 155-mm shells were mostly women. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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First

The first "salvage" ad that I've found appeared March 10, 1921 in the Virginia Gazette.

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Dispersed Penniman

The best salvage ad is this one (Richmond Times Dispatch, October 23, 1921). Lots of detail, including the costs of these various structures. (Thanks to Mike Powell for finding this ad!)

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One of the best Penniman quotes Ive seen is this from a 1983 article in the Newport News Times Herald:  Penniman was not erased; it was dispersed.

An article in the Newport News Times Herald said, "Penniman was not erased; it was dispersed" (September 5, 1983). Shown here is a DuPont design, "The Denver." There were many Denvers at Penniman, and several of them were moved to Williamsburg. Unfortunately, most of them have been torn down.

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This Denver came from Penniman.

This Denver, which now rests on Capital Landing Road, originally came from Penniman.

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picture two

Just last month, I had the good fortune to find this late 1910s catalog of Dupont designs. On the cover, it shows a Denver in a bucolic setting, with a DuPont plant in the background.

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If you have any idea where I might find these catalogs, please let me know.

To learn more about Penniman, click here.

To read about how I became involved with Penniman, click here.

Was your great-grandfather stationed at Penniman? Click here to find out.

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Our First Public Talk on Penniman!

February 6th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

Thursday night, David Spriggs and I gave our first talk on Penniman, Virginia’s Own Ghost Town.

While preparing our powerpoint presentation, I learned two things I had not known before:

1)  Sometime in 1917 or 1918, a German sub made its way to the York River, in a bid to blow up Penniman.

2)  Women who did the shell loading were known as “The Canary Girls,” because the exposure to the TNT and other chemicals turned their skin, hair and nails a bright, canary yellow. Many died as a result of this poisoning.

Below, you’ll find a VERY condensed version of our powerpoint presentation, which shows a mere 10 of the 100 historical photos we’ve unearthed during our research.


To read more about Penniman, click here.

One

While doing research for this book, I learned that many of these shell loaders died terrible deaths as a result of their exposure to the powerful chemicals and explosives. The information above comes from an extremely rare document, chronicling day-to-day life at Penniman.

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In

In the mid-1910s, a skin cream was developed - just for women shell loaders - to help them cope with the yellowing of their skin, nails and hair. Brunette women saw their hair turn green. Many women lost their hair completely. As one woman said, "No amount of washing would take that yellow away." Sadly, no one knows how many women died from this work, but it's said that their numbers were significant. Image is from Wikipedia.

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The Ch

A British officer credited DuPont with helping them win the war. At a time when chemistry was greatly needed, DuPont did a lot to gear up for the war, and obviously, made a huge difference.

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In addition to the dangers of things

In addition to the dangers of chemical poisoning and explosions at Penniman, Mr. Kelley states that the Germans were hoping to launch an attack on Penniman. Hiland Kelley was a superintendent at the plant.

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Penniman got it from all sides. Even the local hoity toity folks didnt want them there.

Penniman got it from all sides. Even the local hoity toity folks didn't want them there.

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It

From the Morecock Family Papers.

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I became interested in Penniman in 2010, when I tried to figure out the true source of 17 bungalows in Riverview (Norfolk) that had been barged in - from somewhere.

I became interested in Penniman in 2010, when I tried to figure out the true source of 17 bungalows in Riverview (Norfolk) that had been barged in - from somewhere. The image above shows one of our "Ethel Bungalows" in Penniman. The image below is from the 1948 City Assessor. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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house

We've counted 18 "Ethels" in this vintage photo of Penniman. There may be more out of frame. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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To continue reading about Penniman, click here.

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Penniman Remnants in Williamsburg

November 27th, 2013 Sears Homes 2 comments

“Penniman was not erased, it was dispersed” (R. Wythe Davis).

While organizing my 2,000+ pages of research notes on Penniman, I found the above quote. It was in amongst some materials shared with me by author and historian Will Molineux. It offers quite an insight on what happened at Penniman after its closing in 1919 (following the Armistice).

To really wrap your mind around history, it has to be set in context. And in the early 1900s, we were a very thrifty people.

Americans were very wise about salvaging and re-using anything that could be salvaged and re-used, and houses were not an exception. Immediately following The Great War, there was a profound shortage of building materials, making Penniman’s abundance of “almost new” lumber ever more appealing.

Newspaper articles reflect that several local developers and real estate men went into Penniman and purchased houses to move to other areas. Residents recalled that it was a common sight to see houses being moved down Williamsburg’s streets in the 1920s.

An article Richmond News Leader states that local businessmen E. T. Davis and city councilman John Warburton moved several houses out of Penniman. William and Mary College also purchased 5+ Penniman structures over a period of five years.

In October 1921, the Virginia Gazette reported that developer W. A. Bozarth moved 17 houses from Penniman to Williamsburg, and placed many of them “on Capitol Landing Road.” Two months later, the Virginian Pilot reported that W. T. Hastings had purchased 40+ houses from Penniman to move into Norfolk, via barge. Sometime in 1923, George Hudson moved more than 20 Penniman bungalows to Norfolk (also by barge). The Richmond News Leader says that several Penniman houses landed in “Newport News and surrounding cities” (Richmond News Leader, June 22, 1938).

Mr. Davis was right: Penniman wasn’t erased, it was dispersed. And he’d be in a position to know. He was a Yorktown native, a Navy retiree, and served as Officer-in-Charge of Cheatham Annex for a time. And he was also the husband of Marguerite Bozarth Davis, who was born and raised in a Penniman house on Nelson Street (Williamsburg).

Sadly, most of these many Penniman houses landed in the path of Rockefeller’s 1930s redevelopment of Williamsburg.

However, Mark Hardin and I have located a handful of the survivors in Williamsburg.

It’s likely that there are more than we’ve found. Bear in mind, some of these structures were built as temporary homes, which means that they had tar-paper roofing, siding and temporary wooden foundations.

The exterior “walls” originally had horizontal planking (probably 1×4s), covered with Rubberoid (tar paper). It wouldn’t take a whole lot of work to transform that structure into a permanent one by adding clapboards and roofing shingles and setting it up on a substantial (masonry) foundation.

And Marguerite’s childhood home got a second story added, a few porches and solid brick walls. Absent Mr. Davis’ information, I wouldn’t have identified the Bozarth home as a Penniman house in a kajillion years.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

houses poorly built

This wonderful photo shows some of the ongoing construction at Penniman (1917 or 1918). Check out the foundations being laid for these buildings, known as "Six room apartments." The foundations are nothing more than wooden pilings with vertical framing members across the top. And if you look closely at the building to the right in this photo, you can see the horizontal planking on the walls. After zooming in on these photos, I'd say it looks like the wall studs are on 16" centers. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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The predominant DuPont design we found in Williamsburg is the Florence.

The predominant DuPont design we found in Williamsburg is the "Florence." A notable feature is the windows flanking the front door. Also note the three matching windows down the side (bedroom, bath, bedroom). Check out the description: "Interior finished in beaver-board." In other words, the interior did not have sheetrock, but a product akin to beaded paneling. It was a composite material, made of compressed wood pulp. Today, you'll occasionally find it installed in the attic of pre-WW2 houses.

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Heres a Florence that Mark discovered, just off Capitol Landing Road.

Here's a Florence that Mark discovered, just off Capitol Landing Road in Williamsburg. Seems likely that this was one of W. A. Bozarth's "17 houses" moved out of Penniman.

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If you zoom in,

If you zoom in, you can see those windows flanking the door. This house is a dandy, because it's in largely original condition. Even that simple shed roof on the front porch is original.

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And I dont know how he did it, but Mark also found this Florence on Capitol Landing Road.

Mark also found this Florence on Capitol Landing Road. The windows flanking the door are hidden by the screened-in porch, but if you look hard, you can see them. The dormer was probably added when the house was moved, and the Denver-esque porch columns (six total) were also an add-on. The windows in the dormer (nine lite) wouldn't have been hard to find, considering that Penniman houses were also being sold as "salvage" (in pieces and parts). If you look at the other Penniman houses, you'll see that they had 9/1 windows. Photo is copyright 2013 Megan Hardin and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.

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Another house is the Denver

Another popular DuPont model was "The Denver." This also had beaver-board interior walls.

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Denver Capitol

This DuPont Denver is located on Capitol Landing Road. Sadly, it's surrounded by commercial development which means many of Mr. Bozarth's Penniman homes are now sitting in a landfill somewhere.

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Denver

Fun comparison of the extant Denver with the original catalog picture.

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Mark found this vintage now torn down

Mark Hardin found this vintage picture of a Denver that was located at 811 Capitol Landing Road. We've no idea when it was torn down, but as Mark pointed out, those look like 1950s chairs on the front porch.

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houses moved

How was W. A. Bozarth related to Marguerite Bozarth Davis? The 1940 Census shows Marguarite, age 9, living with her grandfather, James Bozarth. According to R. Wythe Davis, their home on Nelson Street came from Penniman, although it sure doesn't look like a Penniman house today! This article (above) appeared in the "Virginia Gazette" in October 1921.

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Another design we found in Williamsburg is the

Another design we found still standing in Williamsburg is the Georgia. In Norfolk, we have several of these on Major and Glenroie Avenue (brought here by W. W. Hastings in 1921). There's only one remaining in Williamsburg.

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Drewery Jones

According to the 1940 Census, this DuPont "Georgia" was the home of Augustus Drewery Jones. Mr. Jones passed on in 1977. Mr. Jones is of special interest to me because in a 1938 "Richmond News Leader" article, he's given credit as being the owner of some fine vintage photos of Penniman, Virginia. Oh, how I'd love to see those originals! I've contacted his one surviving heir (a couple times) but haven't heard back. Someone must have those originals!

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Drewery Jones lived here

Drewery Jones, where are your photos? I'd be happy to find Mr. Garrett's photos, too!

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The pictures shown in the 1938 Richmond News Leader article came from Drewery Jones. I have 200+ pictures of Penniman (thanks to Hagley Museum and Library), but I dont have anything from this angle, showing all the pretty little houses.

The pictures shown in the 1938 "Richmond News Leader" came from Drewery Jones. I have 200+ pictures of Penniman (thanks to Hagley Museum and Library), but I don't have anything from this angle, showing all the pretty little houses.

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Mr. Jack Garrett took this photo of the ruins of Penniman.

Mr. Jack Garrett took this photo of the ruins of Penniman (as of 1938).

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Richmond News Leader 1938

In 1938, the "Richmond News Leader" gave some specifics about the dispersing of Penniman.

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This ad first appeared in April 1921 Virginia Gazette.

This ad first appeared in April 1921 Virginia Gazette. In the early 1920s, "Wrecking Company" was another word for "architectural salvage." At this point, the houses were being sold in pieces and parts, as well as whole.

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The house that started it all, The Ethel, has not been found anywhere but Norfolk, Virginia.

The house that started us down this long and winding research path: "The Ethel of Riverview." In DuPont literature, this house was known as "The DuPont," and DuPont, Washington (site of a DuPont plant) is full of DuPont "DuPonts," but you can see why we've stuck with the name, The Ethel. Heretofore, the Ethel has not been found anywhere but Norfolk, Virginia. Our Ethels were built at Penniman in Spring 1918 and moved by barge to Norfolk in 1923. Are there more Ethels out there? If so, I wish they'd contact me.

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Are there more Penniman remnants in Williamsburg that we have yet to discover?

I suspect that there are!

To see pictures of our Ethels in the 1940s, click here.

To read about the Penniman houses in Norfolk, click here.

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

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Not For The Squeamish…

October 1st, 2013 Sears Homes 3 comments

More than 30 years ago, I obtained my real estate license and became a bona fide Realtor in Portsmouth, Virginia. The very first house I listed was in Waterview (Portsmouth). Because I was so young (22 years old) and because I was such a neophyte, I spent a lot of time sitting in my client’s living room and holding  her hand - literally and figuratively.

My client was an elderly widow who lived alone in the vintage Spanish Revival home. As is often the case with elderly widows, her old house was in mostly original condition.

And this woman was also a long-time neighbor. Having grown up less than a block away, I had always admired this house. In the midst of a neighborhood full of brick Colonial Revivals, this Spanish-flavored house really stood out.

I remember - as a little girl - approaching the house on Halloween night, and pausing to admire the beautiful wrought-iron sconces that hung high on the home’s brick walls and the three tall arches that protected the spacious front porch. (Pausing for any reason, whilst trick or treating with my brother, was always a poor choice, as he was likely to dash to the front door ahead of me and tell the homeowner, “Please don’t give my little sister any candy. She just got out of the hospital late this afternoon and she promised our mother she wouldn’t accept any sweets.”)

In 1982, I listed the house for sale at $51,500. About 90 days later, it sold for $45,000 cash. An elderly gent purchased the house for use as rental property.

For years, every time I passed the house, I’d wave at it and whisper sweetly, “Hello my Pretty. You’re looking especially lovely today.”

And then one day in the late 1990s, as I drove past this house, I literally gasped.

Someone had decided to commit an act of lewd remuddling against this classic 1920s home.

I stopped the car and stared in horror. Workers were busy as little bees, placing roof trusses on the home’s flat roof. A couple masons were adding a few bricks here and there. And those sconces were unceremoniously ripped off and tossed into a dumpster.

I felt like screaming. I wanted to stop them. I almost cried. But there was nothing I could do.

After a few minutes, I started the car and continued on my way.

Last month, I discovered that my first MLS listing was actually a plan book house, offered in the 1927 Home Builder’s Catalog. “The Celilo” was offered in two floor plans (”A” and “B”). The house in Waterview was the “B” floorplan (with a 1/4 basement).

The pictures bespeak the horror far better than words.

And if any folks from Portsmouth know more about the dates when this lewd act occurred, please leave a comment below.

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The  cereliaus

The Celilo was a plan book house offered in the 1927 Home Builders Catalog.

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house house house

Incredibly, the Celilo in Portsmouth had a quarter basement.

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house house hosue

My "Celilo" was done in yellow brick, not stucoo (as shown above), but other than that, the house in the picture above was a spot-on match to the house in Portsmouth (pre-remuddling). Look at those wrought-iron sconces!

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house

Today, the Celilo looks pretty mundane (and that's the kindest thing I can say about it). The proportions of the house are just "off." Stacking a gable roof atop a Spanish Revival was not a good idea. And the damage done to the home's unique architectural style is irreparable.

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house spanish

Even putting those sconces back up didn't help.

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soncen

If you look closely, you can see where the brick workers filled in this notched roof with more bricks. And then they had to paint it gray to hide the mismatched bricks and mortar.

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If you sneak a peek

Today, the only remnant of this home's Spanish-flavored origins is the old wrought-iron porch light. I'm surprised someone didn't toss these in the dumpster, too.

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House street messed

Words elude me.

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To learn more about the plan book houses of Portsmouth, click here.

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“I Was The Petted Daughter of a Rich Man…”

November 21st, 2012 Sears Homes No comments

“Look at those prices!”

That’s probably the #1 comment I hear from people as they browse the pages of an old Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Why were Sears kit homes priced so incredibly low?

Well, they weren’t really. Like everything else in history, the prices of early 20th Century housing have to be looked at in context.

One context to consider is taxation. In 1918, only the very wealthy paid federal income tax. In fact, only 5% of Americans paid any income tax at all. If your employer paid you $15 a week, you took home $15 a week.

The other issue is inflation. Pervasive, savings-eroding inflation has not always been a way of life in America.

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the first step that moved us off the gold standard. It was a desperate attempt to re-inflate the sagging dollar. In 1933, Roosevelt issued Executive Order #6102, requiring Americans to deliver their gold to the Federal Reserve.

At the time, law required that Federal Reserve notes (aka “dollars”) had to be backed by 40% gold reserves held in the vaults at the Federal Reserve. That was our first disconnect from a true gold standard. The second came in 1971 when President Nixon permanently disconnected us from the gold standard.

After that, the Federal Reserve was free to print as much money as they felt was needed. And it was (not coincidentally) in the 1970s when inflation hit double digits.

A stable (non-inflating) economy made it far easier for people to save up their dollars over a period of years and eventually purchase a home. (Inflation rewards those who borrow and penalizes those who save.) In the early 1900s, taking on debt of any kind was considered foolhardy, dangerous and even reckless.

There was no “rush to buy” because the price of housing (and the value of dollars) was fairly stable. Young couples took their time and often spent many, many years saving up to buy a home.

The third historical context that needs to be considered is simplicity. Take a look the Sears Kismet (shown below). This house has 520 square feet with two bedrooms that measure 8′ by 9′. I’m not sure, but I think a FEMA trailer is bigger than that.

The fourth issue is building codes (a subset of simplicity, really). It was estimated that a kit home cost 30-40% less than a comparable stick-built home. The average joe could order his dream home out of the Sears Roebuck catalog, and within 90 days, his 12,000-piece kit would be delivered to the train station. Many locales did require building permits, but it was nothing like the process is today.

The building permit was - above all - a way for the city/county to make sure that no opportunity for new taxes was overlooked.

Homeowners often installed their own plumbing, electrical, heating and mechanical systems.  And these systems were simple. Fuse boxes were 30-amp service, with one outlet in each room (if that!). Plumbing consisted of a sink in the kitchen and one bathroom. Maybe. Heating systems were often “pipleless” which was a nice way of saying it was a massive space heater in a center hallways.

Houses were much smaller and simpler, and building codes were quite lax.

Still want an $800 house?  :)

Dollar for dollar, the Katrina Cottages offered by Lowes were comparable. These were very basic, very small kit homes selling for $20,000 or so (depending on model). Interestingly, they’re no longer available.

The world has changed since Sears first offered these kit homes in 1908. Most folks today would not find The Kismet suitable. And how many people have the skills to build a 12,000-piece kit? And I don’t know of any city in America where you could build a small house without a whole lot of government intrusion and/or oversight.

But I digress.

The main point is, wages in the 1910s and 1920s were a fraction of today’s incomes. According to American Carpenter and Builder Magazine (December 1912), skilled carpenters in Chicago were earning 65 cents an hour and plumbers were making 75 cents an hour.

In the early days, Ladies’ Home Journal was a magazine devoted to helping women get into a home of their own. Each issue was filled with stories from people who had overcome financial adversities and bought or built their own house on tiny incomes.

Some stories had headings such as, “How a wife did it herself,” and “Bought her own home with nine children and $800 a year income.”  These stories paint a vivid word picture of how much toil and sacrifice pre-World War I families endured to have a home of their own.

The following story appeared in the October 1903 Ladies’ Home Journal and was the winning entry for the magazine’s series, “How some families have saved for their own homes.”

It’s a wonderful story that really demonstrates the sacrifice involved in purchasing a home at the turn of the last century. The wages mentioned in this piece lend some additional insight to the dollar values of the day, and help explain the low prices of homes offered in the Sears catalogs.

We planted a garden and my husband worked it himself. He [arose] every morning at about four and worked [in the garden] until time to go to the shop - about two hours.  We’d sell the vegetables at market, keeping only a minimum for ourselves.

We could not afford to buy a sewing machine, so I rented an old-fashioned hand machine at $3 a year and had to turn the wheel with one hand and guide the work with the other.  I would sew every night (taking in work for hire) never retiring earlier than one o’clock.  I got up at five every morning.

So much work came to me that [many] nights, I would sit up until daybreak, snatch an hour’s nap, then get up to cook breakfast  My husband would get up when I retired, work his garden, split the wood, build a fire in the kitchen stove, bring in enough water for the day (we had no well) and then set the coffee pot to boil. I did the washing and ironing and made my own soap.

Three years thus rolled away. My husband’s wages went up to $8 a week but we still practiced the most rigid economy and cut off some of our necessities. Our cow had a calf and when he was one year old, we killed him and sold the meat.

To clothe my little boy, I took my husband’s cast-off clothing, turned it wrong side out and cut out the best portions, making the boy’s clothes.

At the end of seven years, my husband’s wages had increased to $9 a week. After seven years of struggle and extreme economy, toil and labor, today finds us with a comfortable home, horses and cows.

As for myself, before my marriage I never knew the value of money as I was the petted daughter of a rich man.

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In the early 1900s, Ladies Home Journal was a housing magazine for women.

In the early 1900s, Ladies' Home Journal was a housing magazine for women.

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The magazines pages were filled with articles on how to buy a nice house.

The magazine's pages were filled with articles on how to build or buy a nice house.

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In the early 1900s, houses were cheap, but so were wages.

In the early 1900s, houses were cheap, but so were wages. In 1920, these women (sorting incoming orders for Montgomery Ward) probably didn't make $1,000 a year. In 1920, the average teacher's salary was $920 a year.

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Heating systems were very primitive compared to todays modern furnaces and boilers. The pipeless furnace was hugely popular. It would be set in the crawlspace or basement near the center point of the house. The living room would be tropical, while the folks upstairs could see their breath.

Heating systems were very primitive compared to today's modern furnaces and boilers. The "pipeless furnace" was hugely popular. It would be set in the crawlspace or basement near the center point of the house. The living room would be tropical, while the folks upstairs could see their breath.

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The Kismet, as shown in the 1919 catalog.

The Kismet, as shown in the 1919 catalog.

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Could

Pretty small house. Could you raise five kids in the house? Many folks did. There was the parent's bedroom and the kids' bedroom. If you were really fancy, you might get a three-bedroom house with a girls' bedroom and a boys' bedroom.

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This Kismet in Elmhurst, Illinois is a cutie, but its pretty small.

This Kismet in Elmhurst, Illinois is a cutie, but it's pretty small. And it's had a substantial addition added onto the back of the house.

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To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy your loved one the PERFECT Christmas gift, click here!

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