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One Very, Very Happy Thanksgiving 94 Years Ago

November 22nd, 2012 Sears Homes 2 comments

Thanksgiving Day - 1918 - must have been a day of great rejoicing for millions of Americans.

World War One, known then as “The Great War” was over, officially ending on November 11, 1918. Many soldiers made it back home in time for Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, I saw the movie “The Red Dawn” (2012 version). The best line in the movie was this: “We inherited our freedom. Now it’s time for us to fight for it.”

The soldiers who served in The Great War fought for our freedom. And the price they paid was horrendous. It’s considered by some historians to be the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. Death tolls were staggering.

In a single battle, “The Battle of the Somme,” more than 1.2 million soldiers died. One battle: 1,200,000 dead. Can you imagine picking up the morning paper and seeing the headline, “1.2 million dead in fierce fighting overseas”?

Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George described The Battle of the Somme as, “The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.”

When the war ended, more than eight million soldiers were dead and 20 million were wounded.

Only four percent of the war deaths were attributed to poison gas, but the suffering inflicted by chemical warfare was unspeakable. Perhaps the most famous description of these horrors was spoken by Vera Brittain, a volunteer nurse who sat at the bedside of the sick and dying soldiers.

She wrote, “I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case–to say nothing of 10 cases–of mustard gas in its early stages–could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters…always fighting for breath…saying that their throats are closing…” (from her book, Testament of Youth).

The term “basket case” came from The Great War. Due to the increased proficiency of bomb-making, soldiers sometimes became quadruple amputees. These poor souls were carried off the battlefield in a wicker basket, and their mental state was often worse than their physical state. Ever since learning that fact, I’ve never again used the term “basket case.”

And yet the #1 cause of death was the Spanish Influenza. More than half of the American soldiers who died in The Great War died of influenza.

President Wilson promised us that it was “The War to End All Wars.” He was wrong.

General “Black Jack” Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Neither he, nor Ferdinand Foch of France (Allied Supreme Commander) were satisfied with the armistice agreement, which allowed Germany to just lay down their weapons.

Foch said this about the treaty:  “This isn’t peace; it is a cease-fire for 20 years.”

He was right. Twenty years later, Germany rose again and waged war against France and England.

But on Thanksgiving Day in 1918, it must have seemed like happy days had returned to the world. American dough-boys returned to their families and it was a chance for a fresh start. Due to all resources having been devoted to the war effort, housing analysts estimated that 1-2 million new housing units were needed immediately for returning soldiers.

And Sears Roebuck had just the house for them. It was after World War One that sales of kit homes skyrocketed.

And it was one year before World War Two that Sears closed their Modern Homes department once and for all.

To read more about Sears Homes, click here.

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Last year, I was systematically reading through "The Daily Press" (Newport News, VA) when I happened upon this editorial drawing. It was dated November 29, 1918. The picture above is rife with meaning. Father welcomes home two of his three sons, while Mother thinks about the boy who will not be coming home. In the window, a shaded figure is marching heavenward, perhaps pausing at the old home-place to see his earthly family one more time. On the wall, a banner is displayed with three stars, presumably two are blue (for the two boys that have just returned home) and a gold star for the young man who died in the war. The table is piled high with post-war treats, such as sugar (in short supply during the war) and milk (also hard to find in the urban areas) and bread (flour was in very short supply). The war is over and the hard times are now in the past. It's a powerful image, and one that was an accurate representation of life in that first post-war Thanksgiving. The title overhead reads, "Glory, glory, hallelujah."

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Soldier

A close-up of Mother as she gazes longingly out the window. Perhaps she was striving to be grateful for the two boys that returned home. Pre-Sullivan, it was not unusual for all the sons in the family to go off to war. The five Sullivan brothers served on the USS Juneau during World War II and all five boys died when the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese sub.

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It was this type of overcrowding that enabled the Spanish Influenza to spread so fast among the soldiers. It's estimated that - worldwide - about 50 million died from this highly contagious flu. The USS Lincoln was a passenger ship that was seized by the United States Government and turned into a Navy transport during World War One.

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To learn more about housing in early 20th Century America, 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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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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Old Hickory, Tennessee and Norfolk, Virginia (Update 2)

January 2nd, 2012 Sears Homes No comments

Since I moved to Norfolk in September 2006, the 16 identical bungalows on Ethel Avenue have been whispering my name, and imploring me to come close, and learn more about their unique origins. Problem was, I could never quite make out what they were saying.

For years, I pored through my vintage catalogs from Sears, Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, Lewis Manufacturing, Sterling Homes and even Pacific Ready Cut Homes, hoping to identify them as kit homes from a mail-order company.

I never could find a design that was anything close.

Someone in town said the houses were built at the 300th anniversary fair at Jamestown (1904) and moved from that site to their resting place in Riverview (Norfolk). That didn’t ring true, because these little bungalows were more typical of the 1910s. And somewhere, we heard that there had been a DuPont factory in Penniman, Virginia (about 30 minutes from Norfolk), and that the houses might have come from the factory at Penniman.

And then I started doing research on Hopewell, Virginia and learned that it had also been the site of a DuPont munitions factory. So I drove around Hopewell, trying to find our “Ethels” (as they came to be known).

There have been many interesting discoveries along the way. To read a full history of our* project, click here.

Pictures are a lot better than words, so here are a few pictures (below).

And if anyone knows where I  might find more of these “Dupont Designs” in Norfolk, please leave a comment below!

To read the first blog on this topic, click here.

To read a about Aunt Addie,  click here.

*David Spriggs and Mark Hardin have done most of the research on this subject. On this project, I’ve been the blog writer and photo taker!  :)

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On the left is a vintage picture of a Dupont Design (The Haskell) that was built in Old Hickory, TN. On the right is a house in Norfolk (on Major Avenue). We're now certain that these houses came from Penniman (site of a Dupont Munitions Factory) and floated by barge to this location. According to an article in the "Richmond News Leader" (June 1938) there are 51 of these homes in Norfolk, in varying designs. Thus far, we've found more than 45 of these homes.

Vintage photo of Old Hickory (site of a Dupont Munitions Plant) shows two of the eight housing styles found there. These are the same two housing styles found on Major Avenue in Norfolk, VA.

Vintage photo of Old Hickory (site of a Dupont Munitions Plant in Tennessee) shows two of the eight housing styles found there. These are the same two housing styles found on Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue in Norfolk, VA.

This little Dutch Colonial

This little Dutch Colonial was one of the "Dupont Designs" found in Old Hickory, TN. Note the narrow windows by the front door. We've now learned that this house style was named "The Georgia."

Dutchie

There are nine of these "Georgia" (Dupont' designs) on Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue in Norfolk. These Norfolk houses are a perfect match to the houses in Old Hickory, TN.

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Note the long, thin tall windows flanking the front door.

Two of the many Dutchies from DuPont found in Norfolk.

One of the many Georgias from DuPont found in Norfolk.

Cumberland

The Cumberland was one of 12 designs created by Dupont and found in both Norfolk and Old Hickory. There are two of these on Major Avenue (Norfolk).

And heres the real life example.

And here's one of two Cumberlands on Major Avenue. It is a perfect match to the Dupont Cumberland found in Old Hickory, TN.

The other Cumberland on Major Avenue

The other Cumberland on Major Avenue.

This is the two-story house (ensconced in the land of Ethels) in Riverview. Note the unusual attic window.

This is the two-story house (ensconced in the land of Ethels) in Norfolk. Note the tall thin attic window which is a perfect match to the Old Hickory house above. There are other architectural features which lead us to believe that this is also a "Dupont Design." This house was floated by barge to its location here in Norfolk. This is a big house to move!

Close-up of the attic window.

Close-up of the attic window found on all the two-storyy Dupont designs.

It all started with these little bungalows that weve named, The Ethels. There are 16 of these in Riverview (Ethel Avenue) and two in Highland Park (51st Street) in Norfolk.

It all started with these little bungalows that we've named, The Ethels. There are 16 of these in Riverview (Ethel Avenue) and two in Highland Park (51st Street) in Norfolk.

I spent many hours of my life, poring through old mail order catalogs, trying to identify these bungalows as kit homes.

I spent many hours of my life, poring through old mail order catalogs, trying to identify these bungalows as kit homes. And it turns out, they were built by Dupont for their employees at Penniman (Virginia). Dupont had a massive munitions plant there in Penniman, and after it was closed, the houses were shipped out to other cities, including Norfolk. That's where these "Ethels" came from.

And there are dozens of Ethels in Dupont, Washington, site of another Dupont Munitions plant.

And there are dozens of "Ethels" in Dupont, Washington, site of another Dupont Munitions plant. This Ethel is in Dupont, Washington (and shares the neighborhood with 100 identical twins).

Close-up of dormer

This dormer window on these "Ethels" is a pretty distinctive feature.

If you have any information about the houses in Old Hickory, please leave a comment below.

And there was an employee newsletter called, “The Projectile,” which featured a story on the building of these houses. That would also be an incredible resources. Thanks in advance for any and all help.

If you’d like to read earlier posts, start with Part I.

And then go to Part II.

Part III.

Part IV.

Part V.

Part VI.

Part VII.

Part VIII.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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“Coming Out of the Mud”

January 26th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

If you could spend a day in the early 1900s, you might have a little trouble understanding what people were saying! Some words had radically different meanings.

For instance, there’s the word “slacker.”  A slacker was any able-bodied young man who did not volunteer to serve in the military (and subsequently become part of the American Expeditionary Force).

Wanting to learn more about this time period in American history, I also studied World War 1. It wasn’t called WW1 until the late 1930s, when WW2 broke out. In the late 1910s, it was known as “The Great War.” It’s other name was also a political promise that we - the American people - were given sold to engender our support. We were told it was “The War to End All Wars.”

One of the most chilling definitions I learned was the true meaning of “basket-case.” During the The Great War, when a soldier lost his limbs in battle, a wicker basket was used to carry the limbless figure off the battlefield. One can only imagine the mental state of such a soldier. The fellow soldiers described him as “a real basketcase.”

“Smut” was another interesting term. It was a disease of the wheat crop, and in the early 1900s, smut damaged so much wheat that it caused a nation-wide shortage of wheat.

An article in the 1920 Stanolind Record (employee newsletter of Standard Oil) said that soon Carlinville residents would be “coming out of the mud.” (Carlinville’s “Standard Addition” neighborhood has 152 Sears Homes in a 12-block area. Carlinville is in central Illinois.)  For several months, I asked every smart person I knew what this meant. No one had a guess. Finally, I found a clipping that said a neighborhood had just “come out of the mud.” It showed freshly paved streets and sidewalks. “Coming out of the mud” meant the subdivision now had proper sidewalks and city streets.

yyrr

Vintage photo of Carlinville's Standard Addition before they "came out of the mud." This photo was taken sometime in 1919.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book on Sears Homes, click here.

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Trains, Planes and Oops

January 12th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

As any frequent visitor to this blog will note, I love old trains. Steam engines hold a special fascination for me. I could talk for days about old steam locomotives, but in short, they changed America and opened up the great expanses of wilderness to flat-lander tourists, and enabled average folks to go back “home” and see their relatives again.

Thanks wholly to the steam locomotive, trips across the country that took months in a praire schooner now took days. It was a radical transformation. And then in the first years of the 20th Century, planes made an appearance on our landscape. And incredibly, this bi-plane and this steam locomotive ran into each other.

The story on the inside of this 1920 Popular Magazine explains that no-one suffered any major injuries in the incident. Which is pretty amazing in and of itself! I wonder if that includes the cattle in the boxcar?