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What Do George Bailey and Sears Roebuck Have in Common?

July 19th, 2013 Sears Homes 1 comment

One of my favorite movies is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many folks think it’s a movie about one man’s life making a difference in this world, but I saw it a different way. I saw it as a movie that explained why homeownership is so important.

In the first years of the 20th Century, magazines and newspapers of the day declared that Americans had a patriotic duty to be homeowners. It was well-understood that home ownership was a boon to individuals and their families, but the “patriotic” angle made the point that homeownership also benefited neighborhoods and communities, and by extension, it benefited cities and even the country, as a whole.

To put a contemporary spin on this, what better modern-day model do we have than Detroit? How much of Detroit is now rental (non-owner occupied)? Despite 30 minutes of searching, I wasn’t able to find an answer, but I’d guess it’s a lot. (Heck, how much of Detroit’s housing is just not occupied by anyone?)

The early Sears Modern Homes catalogs made this point in a variety of ways, but in short it said this: Homeowners have a vested interest in their community and communities with a large percentage of homeowners will enjoy a greater proportion of prosperity, stability and peace.

In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey sees what Bedford Falls, would have looked like if he’d never been born. Without George’s positive influence and his ever-fledgling Building and Loan, the modern subdivision of Bailey Park would never have been developed and many residents would have remained renters, rather than homeowners.

Without the Bailey Building and Loan, George finds that Bedford Falls is full of substandard rental properties.

And because there are so many rental properties, there is less stability in the family, and in a broader context, there is less stability in the community as well.

Look at Bert (the cop) and Ernie (the cab driver).

In this alternate “George-less” world, Ernie does not live with his family in their own “nice little home in Bailey Park,” but instead, he lives is a decrepit shack in Pottersville and it’s implied that this hardship is largely to blame for the fact that Ernie’s wife “ran off three years ago and took the kid.”

The streets of this alternate-Bedford Falls (now named Pottersville) are lined with liquor stores, night clubs, pawnbrokers, striptease shows and pool halls. Gaudy neon signs flash “girls, girls, girls” and illumine the night-time corridors of Main Street. Citizens are neither calm nor law-abiding and brusque policemen struggle to keep peace and order.

George’s revelation that he really had a “wonderful life” stemmed in part from the realization that his meager efforts to give people the chance to become homeowners gave them a feeling of accomplishment, prosperity, security and pride. By extension, the whole community benefited in important, significant and enduring ways.

I’m of the opinion that Sears was, to small communities in the Midwest, what George Bailey was to Bedford Falls.

Sears empowered and enabled tens of thousands of working-class and immigrant families to build their own home. What would countless Midwestern towns have become without Sears homes?

How many towns in the Midwest were spared the fate of becoming a Pottersville, thanks to these little kit homes? Probably many.

Sears Modern Homes made a significant difference in many communities throughout the Midwest.

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In the movie, Its a Wonderful Life, the real heroes are the people who kept this little Building and Loan afloat, enabling countless residents to become homeowners.

In the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," the real heroes are the people who kept this little Building and Loan afloat, enabling countless residents to become homeowners.

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In the end, George realized he had a wonderful life because he had touched so many peoples lives, enabling them to become homeowners. He saw that his town would have collapsed into blight had it not been for Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.

George realized he had a wonderful life because he had touched so many people's lives, enabling them to become homeowners. The angel ("Clarence") showed George that Bedford Falls would have collapsed into blight had it not been for Bailey Brother's Building and Loan.

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The value of homeownenrship was also touted in

The value of homeownership was also touted in the front pages of the Sears Modern Homes catalog (1921).

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Father is throwing out rent receipts - because theyre worthless - whilst dreaming of his very own home.

Father is throwing out rent receipts - because they're worthless - whilst dreaming of his very own home.

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Meanwhile, Father and Mother are dreaming of owning their very own Sears Hathaway.

Meanwhile, Father and Mother are dreaming of owning their very own Sears Hathaway. Even the little girl is lost in bliss! Is there a Hathaway in Lima, Ohio? It'd be fun to know!

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A real live Hathaway in Hampton, Virginia (Old Wythe section).

A real live Hathaway in Hampton, Virginia (Old Wythe section).

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To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

Learn more about the biggest and best Sears Home by clicking 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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The Sears Silverdale in Headache, Illinois

August 27th, 2012 Sears Homes No comments

Well, that’s what my husband calls it. In fact, it’s Hettick, Illinois, a small town in central Illinois, about 60 miles north of St. Louis, Missouri.

When I told Hubby about the find, the West Virginia filters on his hearing translated Hettick into “Headache.”

The Silverdale is an interesting house, because it looks like every early 20th Century farmhouse on every rural route in the Midwest. In my travels, I’ve probably seen dozens of them, but discounted most of them, because it’s so hard to positively identify them.

Thanks to the gracious folks who own this house in Hettick, I got a tour of the inside and because of that, I’m able to say with 99% confidence that this is a Sears Silverdale.

This house in Hettick has several things distinguishing it as a Silverdale:

1)  Pre-remodeling, it was a perfect match to the Silverdale floorplan.

2) It’s in Hettick, IL, and on a line between Cairo Illinois (where the homes were milled) and Chicago (where Sears was located). In other words, it’s in the heart of Sears House-Land.

3) Inside, this house has Sears hardware. This is a biggie.

Do you have a Silverdale in your town? Please send me a photo!

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The Silverdale as seen in the 1921 catalog.

The Silverdale as seen in the 1921 catalog.

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1916 catalog

The Silverdale also appeared in the 1916 catalog.

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The Headache House (well, Hettick, actually).

The Headache House (well, Hettick, actually).

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Another view

Another view of the Silverdale in Hettick.

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Floorplan 1921

Floorplan for the first floor.

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Second floor silverdale

Second floor of the Silverdale. Note, there's no livable space over the kitchen. Back in the day, the room over the kitchen was considered uninhabitable, due to heat and smells that wafted from the kitchen below.

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house hosue testimonial

There are more than a few Silverdales around.

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house house house

Mr. Egan and Wife seemed to be pretty happy with their Silverdale.

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Typical

Typical hinge found in Sears kit home. This was found in the Silverdale in Hettick.

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Silverdale

An old glass window (with diamond muntins) has survived the remodelings.

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To read about the Sears Homes in Carlinville, click here.

To learn more about why I was in Hettick, click here.

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Oh No! It’s Not a Sears Kit House!

May 24th, 2012 Sears Homes 2 comments

Last weekend in Raleigh, I gave a talk on Sears Homes. More than 200 people attended the talk and about 50 folks came prepared with photos of their own “Sears Home.”

About 75% of the time, I am not able to identify the house in their photo as a Sears Home. However, I’m usually able to identify the houses as a kit home from another company (such as Aladdin or Gordon Van Tine or Wardway).

Also - as is typical - some people were puzzled as to why their house wasn’t a match to any of the 370 designs that Sears offered. These folks had grown up hearing that “Grandfather bought the house from the Sears catalog and patiently waited for it to arrive at the train station,” and then went to work building his “Sears House.”

So what’s going on?

Well…

You have to begin with a simple question.  What is a Sears house?

A Sears house is a kit home, wherein both blueprints and materials were purchased from the Sears Modern Homes catalog during their years of operation; 1908 - 1940.

Sears began selling building supplies in 1895, but they did not sell kit homes until 1908. Building supply catalogs from Sears offered almost everything you needed to build a house, but the first Sears Modern Homes catalog, offering the package deal, did not appear until 1908.

Sears did sell house designs - blueprints - in the early 1900s.

In fact, both Sears and Montgomery Wards promoted and sold an identical 4 x 6-inch booklet titled Practical Homebuilder with 115 different blueprints priced from $2.50 - $8.00, for houses that would cost $500 - $3500 to construct.  But these were not Sears Modern Homes or even a precursor to Sears Modern Homes.  Practical Homebuilder was created by Frederick Drake & Company and imprinted with the Sears or Wards name on the cover page and sold through their general merchandise catalogs.

I suspect that - in many cases - “Grandfather” purchased his blue prints from the Practical Homebuilder booklet (imprinted with the Sears Roebuck name and logo), and then ordered all his lumber from the Sears Building Materials Catalog, and then waited for his “Sears House” to arrive.

Again, to be a true “Sears House,” both blueprints and (at least some of the) building materials should have been purchased from the Sears Modern Homes catalog between 1908-1940. If any one of those three elements are missing: Blueprints, building materials or timing (1908-1940), it’s not a true Sears kit home.

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Rare

The 1910 Sears Modern Homes catalog is very rare and one of the hardest to find today.

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This image appeared on the back page of the very rare 1910 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

This image appeared on the back page of the 1910 Sears Modern Homes catalog. I've put a blue star on the houses that are either extensively customized Sears designs, or are not identifiable as a Sears Model at all. Of the 15 images shown here, nine of these houses do not appear to be "Sears Homes."

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This house presents a beautiful example.

This house presents a beautiful example of a house that is *not* a true Sears kit home. It is not one of the 370 models that Sears offered during their 32 years in the kit house business. In fact, it looks a lot more like the Aladdin "Virginia" than any thing Sears ever offered. And yet, the building materials came from Sears, and it's possible even the blueprints were ordered out of the Sears catalog.

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People

Mr. Turk was pretty pleased was pretty pleased with the transaction.

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more

I'm not sure what to think of that front door.

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To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s newest book, click here.

To learn about kit homes from Montgomery Ward, click here.

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All Things Alhambra, Part III

June 25th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

The Sears Alhambra was one of Sears’ most popular houses. In fact, I’d say it was one of their top ten best sellers. And, it was a pretty house with a distinctive Spanish flair and with a splash of mission style. If you take away the fancy accoutrements, you’ll see it’s little more than a classic American foursquare.

The first photo is from the 1921 Sears Building Materials catalog. It’s a letter from a happy, happy Alhambra homeowner. (Say that four times fast.)

Click here to read All Things Alhambra, part 2.

yep

This appeared on page 2 of the Sears Building Materials catalog (1921)

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Close-up of the letter written by A. C. Goodall.

Alhambra

The beautiful Alhambra - as seen in the 1921 Building Materials catalog.

Sears Alhambra in Portsmouth, Virginia (my home town)

Sears Alhambra in Portsmouth, Virginia (my home town)

Sears Alhambra as seen in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Sears Alhambra as seen in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Like its Virginia cousin, this Alhambra is also painted a light yellow. This pretty house is in Lexington, Virginia.

Like its Virginia cousin, this Alhambra is also painted a light yellow. This pretty house is in Lexington, Virginia.

Another vote for the beige pant job!  This perfect Alhambra is in Raleigh.

Another vote for the beige pant job! This perfect Alhambra is in Raleigh.

Stripped of its Alhambra-defining elements, this house in St. Louis looks rather pedestrian.

Stripped of its Alhambra-defining elements, this house in St. Louis looks rather pedestrian.

This Alhambra has also had some of its unique architectural elements stripped away, but you can still see its an Alhambra!

This Alhambra has also had some of its unique architectural elements stripped away, but you can still see it's an Alhambra!

Sears Alhambra in Gaffney

Sears Alhambra in Gaffney. My favorite color: Lavender!

To see more pictures of Sears Alhambras, visit All Things Alhambra, part 2.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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