Sears Mail-Order Home From 1925 Was a Prefab Pioneer

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Not the First, But the Biggest

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Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck sold over 70,000 houses in 447 different designs. They were not strictly prefabricated, but were precut packages that included the lumber, siding, windows and even the nails. While the look was traditional, in fact they were very modern, bringing the latest residential technologies to everyone. I recently visited one at the the Sanibel Museum on Sanibel Island in Florida.

According to Sears: "Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in home design.... Central heating not only improved the livability of homes with little insulation but it also improved fire safety, always a worry in an era where open flames threatened houses and whole cities, in the case of the Chicago Fire. "Indoor plumbing and homes wired for electricity were the first steps to modern kitchens and bathrooms. Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of its homebuyers and gave them the option to design their homes with modern convenience in mind." Image credit: Sears

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It Cost Just $2,211

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According to the Sanibel Museum website: "The house, a Sears & Roebuck Prefabrication, is a favorite with visitors. At a cost of $2,211, Martin Mayer ordered it delivered in 1925. The building came to the island in 30,000 pieces on a flatbed truck aboard a barge. It was the island event of the year." The Sears Modern Homes program was designed so people could build homes far from lumber yards and experienced building trades. Sanibel Island certainly was that. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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Living Room

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The Sears prefab was, by any standard, a completely livable house. Not particularly architecturally exciting, however; as Colin Davies writes in The Prefabricated Home: "Sears Roebuck never claimed to make any contribution to the progress of modern architecture. Its houses were indistinguishable from their ordinary site built neighbours and its pattern books included all the popular, traditional styles." Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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Dining Room

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Again, the dining room appears quite comfortable, with nice built-ins, which may also come from Sears. Sears explains the benefits of their process: "Sears was not an innovator in home design or construction techniques; however, Modern Home designs did offer distinct advantages over other construction methods. The ability to mass-produce the materials used in Sears homes lessened manufacturing costs, which lowered purchase costs for customers. "Not only did precut and fitted materials shrink construction time up to 40 percent but Sears's use of "balloon style" framing, drywall, and asphalt shingles greatly eased construction for homebuyers." Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Bath

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But if the designs were not modern, the technology was: the toilet, tub and sink in this bathroom are not dissimilar to what we might find today. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Kitchen

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But it is the kitchen in the Sears home that impressed me the most. It is a well laid out galley kitchen that seems quite modern, outside of the separate placement of the stove -- although the design probably predates the development of a stove that could be built-in. Otherwise, it appears to have learned much from Christine Frederick's "efficient kitchen" designed for a servant-less home. It even has an eating nook, a novel concept at the time. See more on the development of modern kitchens in: Counter Space: How The Modern Kitchen Evolved. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Kitchen

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The stoves were often placed in a sort of annex like this, so that windows and doors could be opened to let out the heat, and so that fires could be controlled more easily. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Kitchen

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I am amazed by the concept of iceboxes in a place like this. The ice was shipped by train from New York State and then by boat to Sanibel. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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The Bedrooms

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I did not photograph the bedroom in the Morning Glories, but it was pretty much like this one in a neighbouring house built around 1905 and also part of the museum -- mosquito nets were a must. Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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An Early Crockpot

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Also in the neighbouring house was a Toledo Cooker, an early crockpot. It had a big cement disk that you heated up in your stove and then stuck in the bottom of an insulated box. According to an ad: "Meats-even the cheapest cuts-have a new delicacy and richness, because they are cooked in their own juices....The scientifically arranged insulation prevents heat loss through compartment walls." Image credit: Lloyd Alter

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Sears Homes Are Still Hot

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Today there are books and websites devoted to Sears homes, particularly the higher end Honor Bilt models. I don't know how many are in museums and maintained in their original state, but theSanibel Historical Museum and Village has done a wonderful job with the Morning Glories house. The last word goes to the Sears Archives: "The American landscape is dotted by Sears Modern Homes. Few of the original buyers and builders remain to tell the excitement they felt when traveling to greet their new house at the train station. The remaining homes, however, stand as testaments today to that bygone era and to the pride of home built by more than 100,000 Sears customers and fostered by the Modern Homes program." Sears made well-built, well equipped houses available at low cost and with little waste. They were truly pioneers of prefab. Image credit: Sears Archives