Posts Tagged ‘ladies home journal’

“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.


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.


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.


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.


The Kismet, as shown in the 1919 catalog.

The Kismet, as shown in the 1919 catalog.



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.


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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The Monitor Top Refrigerator: Way Cool!

July 7th, 2011 Sears Homes 2 comments

In the 1930s, The “Monitor-top Refrigerator” quickly became one of General Electric’s most popular appliances. Its design was based on a sound principle and a highly efficient plan: The compressor sat atop the fridge, and heat extracted from the appliance cabinet naturally moved up and away from the refrigerator.

According to all reports, these were also unusually well-built appliances, with a life expectancy of 25 years - or more. Today, appliance aficionados are always on the look-out for these vintage refrigerators, because with a little work and a few new parts, they can be restored to their original condition and live on - indefinitely.

Heretofore, no one has created a reproduction Monitor Top refrigerator which is a surprise, especially considering how popular these used appliances have become. A thoroughly restored three-door Monitor Top fridge (fully restored) can fetch $10,000 or more. For more information and detail on these appliances, click here.

Incidentally, the monitor-top GE refrigerators got their name from the iron-clad Monitor Ship from The Civil War.

An image from a 1930 magazine, showing the GE Monitor Top

An image from a 1930 magazine, showing the GE Monitor Top

Full ad from a 1930 magazine

The ad reads, "One of the most amazing...and revolutionary triumphs of modern engineering. So remarkable, so unbelievably efficient that the GE refrigerator has established a record of trouble free service unequaled in the entire history of refrigeration..." Further down, it explains that the price was $205 for this modern marvel.

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A&P: The Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing?

January 28th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In the 1960s, A&P dominated the grocery store line-up here in Southeastern Virginia. Do any of them remain? I don’t know of any in Hampton Roads.

Below is an ad from the 1926 Ladies Home Journal for the “Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.” The “economy rules” line in the advertisement makes sense, but “The Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing”?

To my further shock, a Google search for the term “Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing” turned up zero results.

I’d love to know what that’s about. From my 21st Century perspective, I’d say that A&P was striving to be the antithesis of Walmart.

To see more vintage ads, click here.

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Interesting advertisement from a 1926 Ladies Home Journal

Interesting advertisement from a 1926 Ladies' Home Journal

Larger view of the same advertisment

Larger view of the same advertisement

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Healthy Bungalows

January 23rd, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

Dr. Joseph Lister - a 19th Century British physician - is largely responsible for the bungalow craze, but that’s one tidbit that I’ve never seen in my books on architectural history. The fact is, Joseph Lister and his germ theory dramatically changed the way Americans thought about their homes.

For so many years, mothers could only watch in helpless horror as their young children died from any one of a myriad of “common” diseases. And then in the late 1800s, Dr. Joseph Lister discovered that germs were culprit. Mothers and fathers, weary of burying their infants, had a new arch enemy: household dirt. As is explained in the 1908 book, Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’ Cook-Book:

Not many years ago disease was most often deemed the act of Providence as a chastening or visitation for moral evil. Many diseases are now known to be merely human ignorance and uncleanliness. The sins for which humanity suffers are violations of the laws of sanitation and hygiene, or simply the one great law of absolute sanitary cleanliness… Every symptom of preventable disease and communicable disease…should suggest the question: “Is the cause of this illness an unsanitary condition within my control?”

Now that the enemy had been identified, modern women attacked it with every tool in their arsenal. Keeping a house clean was far more than a matter of mere pride: The well-being, nay, the very life of one’s child might depend upon a home’s cleanliness. What mother wanted to sit at the bedside of their sick child, tenderly wiping his fevered brow and pondering the awful question: “Was the cause of this illness an unsanitary condition within my control?”

Because of Dr. Lister and his germ theory, the ostentatious, dust-bunny-collecting Queen Anne, with its ornate woodwork, fretwork and gingerbread fell from favor with a resounding thud.

Simplicity, harmony and durability are the keynotes of the modern tendency. The general intention seems to be to avoid everything that is superfluous; everything that has a tendency to catch and hold dust or dirt. Wooden bedsteads are being replaced by iron or brass; stuffed and upholstered furniture by articles of plain wood and leather. Bric-a-brac, flounces, valances and all other superfluous articles are much less fashionable (from Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’ Cook-Book).

Remember the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”? There’s a 1920s scene where George Baily and his girlfriend pause in front of the massive Second Empire house. It sits abandoned and empty, deteriorating day by day. This was not an uncommon fate for Victorian manses in post-germ theory America. Who knew what germs lay in wait within its hard-to-clean walls?

The February 1911 Ladies’ Home Journal was devoted to the new housing style: Bungalows. One headline said, “The Bungalow, because of its easy housekeeping possibilities is becoming more popular every year.

And all because of Dr. Lister.

(By the way, Dr. Lister did not invent the popular mouthwash but it was named after him and his discoveries.)

To learn more about the bungalows sold by Sears, click here.

Germ Theory

The Clorox man's claim to fame was superior germ-killing abilities. Note the adoring women praising him. Sadly, they're all wearing aprons. Well, maybe it's not so much sad as SCARY!

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