Posts Tagged ‘sears building materials’

It’s a Mystery

February 14th, 2014 Sears Homes 3 comments

Take a guess what this item is (shown below).


Looks kind of hairy and gross, doesn't it?


Does this help?

I'll give you a hint. It was found inside a 1920s home.


This should help you figure it out.

This should help you figure it out.


This pretty well gives it away.

This pretty well gives it away.


In fact, its a chunk of plaster that was cut out of a wall.

In fact, it's a chunk of plaster that was cut out of a wall to add a new outlet.


Up until sheetrock became widely accepted, a home’s interior walls were finished with plaster. Today, the word “plaster” is used loosely to describe any gypsum-based wall covering, but in fact, plaster is fairly unusual in post-WW2 homes and quite rare in post-1980s homes.

If you look at an old Sears catalog, you’ll find that while kit houses did not include plaster (due to shipping weight), your 12,000-piece kit house did come with good quality lath. In fact, the “Chelsea” (a 2,000-square-foot foursquare) came with 840 square yards of wooden lath. Sears estimated that a plasterer would charge you $200, which included nailing up all those thin strips of lath and applying three coats of plaster (1916).

Often, people talk about “old-fashioned horse-hair plaster,” but the binding agent in old plaster walls was more commonly cattle hair.

Plastering is fast becoming a lost art, and things have changed a bit in the last many decades. Today, a wire mesh is used in place of wooden lath. And I’m not sure what the contemporary binding agent is, but I seriously doubt it involves shaving dead cattle. However, you can still find good recipes online for making historically appropriate plaster to restore or repair the walls in your old house.

Old plaster walls ahve three coats: The scratch coat, the brown coat and the finish coat.

The scratch coat gets its name from the fact that it is scored so that the surface has a rough texture. This rough texture gives the brown coat (which contains a lot of sand) something to grip.

It’s the sand in the brown coat that helps the finish coat (which is about 1/8″) bond tightly to the walls.

According to the smart people, the scratch coat and brown coat are about 3/8″ thick, but the image shown above (from the 1920s house) tells a slightly different story. Making and applying plaster was a little bit like baking a cake: A lot depended on the cook, and his preferences and practices.

Plus, sometimes the “cook” was sober as a judge and sometimes the “cook” was so plastered (perhaps the source of the term?) that he couldn’t walk a straight line. Weather, humidity and quality of ingredients were other variables that affected the final product as well.

As always, if you have any thoughts to share, please leave a comment below!

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.



This promotion, which appeared in a 1916 Sears Building Materials catalog, gives a pretty good explanation of how plaster was applied. I can't imagine how long it took to nail up all those lath boards (which were typically 1-inch wide). And the smudge pots were used to keep the temperature and humidity at a certain level while the plaster dried. Making and applying plaster was a slow, arduous process with many variables (1916 Sears Building Materials).


By 1916,

By 1916, "Sheet Plaster" had already gained a toe-hold in the market, but it wasn't until after WW2 that it really became popular. And yet even in modern custom-built homes, plaster walls are considered an upgrade (and they're mighty expensive, too). My 1962-built ranch has sheetrock walls and plaster ceilings, which seems an odd combination (photo is from 1916 Sears Building Materials).



As shown in this 1916 Building Materials catalog, "Sheet Plaster" was much easier to install.


To read a *fascinating* article about the benefits of old plaster walls (and how it was made), click here.

Bob Vila drives me to hard liquor, but his writers did put together a nice piece on plaster. You can read it here.

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It’s People Like John P. Waters That Confuse Us Historians 100 Years Later.

April 7th, 2013 Sears Homes 6 comments

Until I started scanning a 1914 Sears Modern Homes catalog, I’d never heard of Sears Modern Home 264P165.

Prior to 1918, Sears Homes were given names rather than numbers, so we know that this unusual-looking home never made it to the 1918 catalog. In fact, it’s not in my 1912 catalog or my 1916 catalog, so it was short lived (to say the least).

And yet, by 1914, this house had been sold in New Braunfels, TX and Lansdowne, MD and New Orleans, Louisiana.

And it might have been sold to John P. Waters of Massena, Iowa.


Reading these testimonials can be a little tricky, and this testimonial written by John of Massena is also a little vague. Did he buy millwork?  Or did he buy this house?  The way this testimonial is positioned, one would surely think he bought Modern Home 264P165, and yet if you read it carefully, it seems more likely that John just purchased some millwork from Sears Roebuck sometime around 1914.

Too many times to count, people will approach me and insist that they have a Sears kit home. Despite my best efforts, I’m often unable to match their “alleged Sears House” to the 370 designs that Sears offered in the early 1900s.

When I ask these folks, “What makes you think it’s a Sears House?” they often have the same story: “My grandfather said his dad ordered it from Sears.”

Now I’ll know to ask these people, “Was your great-grandfather’s name John P. Waters?”

Because in the early 1900s, it was not unusual for people like John P. Waters to order lumber from Sears.

JUST lumber.

In 1895, Sears started offering building materials (lumber, millwork, windows, doors, sheathing, etc) through a specialty catalog. That was 13 years before the “Sears Modern Homes” program was even a glimmer in Richard Sears’ eye.

And it was in 1895 that the stories probably began:  “See that house on the corner? Old John bought every stick of lumber for his house from Sears.”

Forty years later it’s, “Grandpa John ordered his house from Sears!”

And after a full century has elapsed, someone sends me an email that says, “My great grandfather John built a Sears House!”

Maybe he did.

Or maybe he pulled a “John P. Waters” and just ordered the building materials from Sears.

To learn how to “read” lumber markings on old kit homes, click here.

To read about the wonderful kit homes of Charlottesville, click here.

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Sears Home

This house apparently was offered for only a couple years. And yet, there's one in Braunfels, Texas, Lansdown, Maryland and New Orleans, Louisiana (1914).


tricky testimonial

John P. Waters testimonial was for lumber, PROBABLY, and yet it appears on the page next to the picture of the 264P165.


house house

The 264P165 was a very unique house, which makes it easy to identify.


house house house

Here are the cities where three 264P165s were built.


house house hosue

Whoa, check out this floorplan! Look at the bathroom! I suppose the occupants were profoundly grateful that this 1914-era kit home even *had* a bathroom, as many of these early 20th Century kit homes did not have "indoor plumbing." And check out the "living hall." It has a fireplace!


house details

Have you seen this house? The details around the front porch should make it easy to identify, especially if you're in New Braunfels TX, Lansdowne MD or New Orleans.


An additional note: Apparently, Lansdowne is next door to Baltimore!

Have you seen a 264P165? Please leave a comment for Rose!

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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Endless Entertainment - From an Old Vintage Catalog

June 24th, 2011 Sears Homes 3 comments

The cover of the 1921 Sears Building Materials catalog has proven to be a source of endless entertainment for me. But then again, I’m pretty easily entertained. I’ve started scanning catalogs and ephemera so that it may be preserved and shared with a larger audience. And this website’s traffic is growing every day. In May, this site had more than 22,000 visitors.

Read the captions below to see what *I* see when I look at this 1921 catalog’s cover.

Pretty darn interesting!

The cover

The cover of the 1921 catalog is so interesting for so many reasons.



We have the people showing up to look at the new house under construction.



Like the opening scenes of a low-budget horror flick, they have no idea that a massive elephant has surreptitiously blended into the landscaping behind them, and waits to pounce. Red arrow above is centered atop the forehead of the threatening beast.



"We just came from looking at those crappy little houses behind us," the man might be saying. "Over yonder is one of those little Sears kit homes." Pictured through this window is the Sears Ashmore, a classic Arts & Crafts bungalow.



"That's right," says the woman who wears a hat with a flared brim and oversized bow." The kitchen in that crummy Elsmore right behind me was abysmal."



The second man speaks up and says, "And that Verona was so blase! Who'd want to buy a cookie-cutter kit home when you can have something nice that you've designed yourself!"



"Yes," the man with the blueprints says, "We looked at those three little boxes behind us, but we want to talk to you about this nice house that you're building here!"



But oh no! These people shouldn't be turning to this fellow for help and guidance! He doesn't even know how to build a carpenter's tool box! How could he possibly build an entire home!



The house isn't even roughed in yet, and the door isn't set, and yet he's putting in the lath board! Plus, there are several puddles with a strange yellow substance throughout the house. Icky!



And some of that yellow stuff is on the carpenter, too!



And perhaps most interesting, the house featured on the cover is clearly not a Sears kit home. Sears never ever offered a house with these arched windows. So the homebuyers have turned their back on the three Sears Homes (behind them), and are talking to this fellow about a custom-built house. Pretty darn interesting. And this image shows a better view of that angry elephant in the background.


And yet, the back page of the catalog features an advertisement for Seroco Paint (first syllable of Sears, Roebuck and Company), and in that graphic, there are several Sears Homes featured.

And yet, the back page of the catalog features an advertisement for Seroco Paint (first syllable of Sears, Roebuck and Company), and in that graphic, there are several Sears Homes featured. Top is the Sears Sherburne, and along the bottom are the Sears Roanoke (two left) and the Sears Matoka (two on the right).

To read another article on Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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