Mail-Order Magic

Older homes from catalog companies are selling like hotcakes today. How can you tell if your new listing came "in the mail'?

June 1, 2004

An aura of romance surrounds America's mail-order homes. Sold by Sears Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward, and several other companies, these homes arrived by railroad in the form of precut lumber, windows, doors, staircases, roofing shingles, plumbing fixtures, and assembly instructions. During the first decades of the 20th century, these houses were a practical solution for buyers on a budget. Today, they're prized for their colorful history and quality craftsmanship. Even the most humble mail-order cottage is likely to command a higher selling price than you might expect.

More than 500,000 mail-order, or "kit,' homes traveled to far corners of the United States and Canada. They were constructed in villages near railway stations and also in remote rural areas. If your listings include houses built between 1908 and 1940, one or more may have originated from a mail-order catalog. However, you probably won't be able to recognize these homes at first glance.

Mail-order houses came in all shapes and sizes, from modest bungalows to imposing neoclassical designs. Buyers frequently ordered customized versions with floor plans reversed, windows changed, and porches or dormers added. Subsequent owners often remodeled, making the house look very different from the original catalog illustration. Fortunately, most catalog homes bear clues to their interesting past. Although no single piece of evidence is conclusive, your listing may have come in the mail if you find several of these important indicators:

  • Numbered Lumber. Kit houses were assembled from precut lumber. In many (although not all) cases, the pieces were stamped with numbers and letters that were keyed to the assembly instructions. Look for these marks on exposed rafters and joists in the attic, cellar, and unfinished crawl spaces.
  • Labeled Hardware. A typical mail-order house had 30,000 pieces—enough to fill two boxcars. The shipment included every detail, down to the hinges, doorknobs, and cabinet handles. If you can easily remove one of these items, examine the backside for the trademark of a kit home company. The most predominant companies were Sears, Aladdin Homes, Montgomery Ward, Lewis Homes, Sterling Homes, Harris Brothers, and Gordon Van-Tine.
  • Brand-Name Fixtures. Sinks, toilets, and light fixtures are usually replaced over time. However, if these appear to be original, check for brand names. A single sink from a catalog company could have been purchased at any time and doesn't necessarily mean that the entire house came in the mail. However, the same brand used throughout the house suggests a possible package deal.
  • Receipts and Records. Mail-order purchases left a long paper trail. Ask the current owners to check their files for original mortgage papers, sales receipts, itemized lists of building parts, building permits, blueprints, or instruction manuals. Homes from Sears came with a handsome, 75-page leather-bound instruction book embossed with the buyer's name.

Not all catalog homes were constructed from a kit. Sometimes buyers purchased only the plans and built the house using local materials. More frequently, builders simply imitated the styles and floor plans advertised in mail-order catalogs. In turn, catalog companies sold styles and floor plans that were already widely used. Catalog look-alikes do not have quite the historic value as an authentic kit home, but they are delightful in their own right. With pleasing details like wide oak moldings and walk-in pantries, these practical and affordable homes express the kind of old-fashioned charm many buyers seek.

Learn More

What Is a Sears Modern Home?
This extensive archive has many photos of historic Sears houses, plus articles and a discussion forum.

Aladdin Readi-Cut Houses
Several popular Aladdin mail-order homes are shown on this site from the Arts and Crafts Society.

Colonial Revival Architecture
From This Old House, a look at how colonial ideas were recreated in nineteenth century housing styles.

Reproduction Catalogs
Dover Publications and several other publishers have issued reproduction mail-order house catalogs, complete with floor plans, illustrations, and descriptive text. Selected pages from several Sears catalogs also are reproduced in Houses by Mail: A Guide To Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl (John Wiley & Son).


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