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Sears, Roebuck & Company: The Most Innovative Company of Their Time?

Evidence for the case remains around us – You simply have to know where to look!

Introduction: While out walking recently, my companion pointed to the house shown below and said, “Did you know that house was sold by Sears Roebuck company out of their catalog?”.

Sears Roebuck company catalog houses

No, I did not but decided I would like to know more so looked into it. What I found out was that the one-time mighty Sears Company was extremely innovative in its day with such offerings as the “homes from a catalog” and other things.

I find it interesting the array of innovative solutions to challenges that people and in this case the Sears Company come up with. It is also interesting in the case of Sears to note that staying innovative cannot, should not be taken for granted. That the passage of time demands vigilance of the prudent.

Anyway, I thought it is a very interesting story and worth understanding and learning from so here is is!

Sears Modern Homes: What Was and Could Have Been!

Did you know that in the early part of the 20th century you could order a house from a catalog? You could! A Sears Catalog Modern Home. These full-size, single family homes were ordered out of Sears’ 4lb, 1400-page catalog, shipped as an all-inclusive kit by rail, and assembled by the new homeowner (and maybe a few friends or contractors too!). Between 1908 and 1942, an estimated 70,000-75,000 of these single-family homes were constructed, and many experts believe that up to 70% of them were still standing as recently as 2018!

Sears catalog houses

Sears catalog house

Sears catalog house

The Sears, Roebuck Company, just Sears to most of us now, was the Amazon of its day. Only through a combination of poor decisions and unfortunate timing did it not persevere and become what Amazon is today.

At the height of its powers, Sears was a dynamic and innovative company selling billions of dollars of consumer goods across the Unites States for over a century. Sears was known for innovative solutions to challenges facing them. In 1906: the company’s building materials department was struggling to sell inventory and push goods out of warehouses and into customers’ hands. Sears’ former china department manager, Frank W. Kushel, suggested bundling materials into kits to move unsold goods.

The result was Sears Modern Homes, a collection of somewhere between 370 and 447 customizable single-family home models that were sold as build-it-yourself kits. The home models you could choose from varied widely. Wanted a simple two-room cottage? It was an option. Looking for something fancier, like a three-story, five-bedroom home complete with columned porticos, dining nooks, and built-in cabinetry? You could order that too! Didn’t like any of the choices in the mammoth catalog? You could send in your own blueprints and Sears would assemble a kit to ship back to you. It was like a silver platter for a growing American middle class, in catalog form, as long as you had the labor and a little land to build your new home on.

Whether you chose an existing Modern Home plan or sent in your own plan, there were extensive options to customize your new home. Paint colors and hardware styles were up to you; the exterior finish included options like cedar shakes and bricks; you could even add rooms, windows, roof gables, or other significant features. The final kit included everything you needed down to nails, doorknobs, and paint, and of course pre-cut lumber and detailed instructions. Buyers weren’t expected to be carpenters or contractors, as long as they were willing to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves. While base kits didn’t include plumbing, electrical, or heating systems, those items were available as add-ons to each kit. All of this from a catalog! And then it would show up at your lot and, Sears told its customers, you could be living in your new home in 90 days or less, even if you chose to build it yourself with just a couple of helpers.

The ability to order a house and assemble it ostensibly by yourself (though many customers hired contractors or took a barn-raising friends-and-family approach), combined with affordable pricing, placed homeownership within the grasp of millions of middle- and working-class families who didn’t have that option before Sears Modern Homes showed up. As a result, Sears effectively popularized the idea of new homes for newlywed couples and, more broadly, single-family living. Between 1911 and 1933, Sears also offered mortgages with easy terms and no financial prerequisites for customers buying Modern Homes, making the company a one-stop shopping operation for aspiring homeowners. It’s no wonder that the company sold some 75,000 Modern Homes kits in 34 years!

Sears Roebuck and Company home catalog

What’s especially interesting about the success of these homes–this product line, if you will–is that while the Sears Catalog was innovative in that you could order pretty much anything you wanted out of it, the idea of a DIY kit home actually wasn’t innovative at all. Sears didn’t invent kit homes or design their models from scratch. What they did do was look at popular trends, borrow from them to come up with basic home models, and then provide a ton of customization for buyers. Sears recognized what people wanted from existing trends and applied it to a product in a way that meant more people would be interested in buying, and even more importantly, could actually afford to buy that product.

So what happened? Why were Modern Homes discontinued?

Sounds like something that could have gone on for a lot longer than 34 years, right? Unfortunately, by the time 1942 rolled around, war preparations for the United States’ involvement in World War II were well underway. The result was a massive shortage of building materials, including lumber, and Sears simply could not get the stuff to assemble Modern Homes kits. The company even had to cancel the construction of an entire development in Briarcliff Manor, NY, when they could not get the raw materials for the 51 homes slated for the project.

The massive shortage of materials, combined with loan defaults, spelled the end of the Sears Modern Homes era. With circumstances beyond the company’s control, Sears terminated the product line for good.

They did, however, attempt to revive the idea of DIY homes in 1948, when Sears introduced Homart Homes. While Modern Homes came with stacks of pre-cut lumber and the customer was left to do all of the assembly, Homart Homes were advertised as “ready to erect” kits, meaning they came with some pre-assembled parts. While joists, sub-flooring, and trim shipped in pre-cut stacks, roof gables and stairways arrived already constructed, and walls came in sections with windows and doors already installed. The Homart Homes line was extremely limited in comparison to the 447-model Modern Homes line, only offering variations of five basic plans. Homart Homes were not nearly as popular as Modern Homes, and the line was ultimately pulled in 1951. Sears never sold kit homes again.

How do I know if a house is a Sears Modern home?

Today, while Sears Modern Homes don’t hold any special monetary value compared to their stick-built counterparts, they do have sentimental value for their owners and kit-home aficionados. A corporate house-cleaning at Sears resulted in the destruction of most company records related to Modern Homes in particular, so there are no comprehensive records of Modern Home buyers, locations, or even precisely how many homes were sold. And remember, Sears wasn’t the only company selling kit homes based on popular trends and borrowed floor plans. As a result, determining whether or not a home is a Sears home can be tricky without thorough inspection and research.

Homes built between 1908 and 1942 are the most likely candidates to be a catalog home, though it’s possible for a customer to have bought a kit without actually finishing the assembly of the home for several years after. Original blueprints for the home, and an accompanying letter from Sears, are the most clear-cut identifiers of a Sears Modern Home. Public records such as deeds, or mortgage records naming Sears as the lender, are strong clues. Building permits may also offer clues, though these are less definite proof since Sears used materials from companies that supplied materials to other projects as well. If you’re able to look around a home’s interior (or even better, inside the walls!), identifying certain stamps on the lumber, marking on original bathtubs, or even specific materials can point towards the home being a Modern Home–though, like building permits, these may be definitive clues on their own.

And of course, if you can match a home to a catalog offering, that’s a clue as well! Don’t use this as the only offer of proof, though; remember that Sears borrowed from popular trends and wasn’t the only kit-home manufacturer at the time.

And now Sears has filed for bankruptcy–a huge contrast to the company’s Modern Homes success.

The Sears Catalog was the Amazon of its day, offering over 100,000 items right at your fingertips. The offerings were wide-ranging too, from Craftsman tools to appliances to houses. The popularity of the Sears kit homes was remarkable and changed the landscape of homeownership in the United States. It also literally changed the landscape toward something more like the suburbs we know today, as people were able to move out of crowded urban housing into single-family homes that they assembled themselves.

The fall of the Sears Modern Homes line resonates with the circumstances of the past year, though. Circumstances beyond a company’s control–war preparations causing material shortages in 1942, a pandemic bringing a total halt to live events in 2020–can cause problems without clear solutions. They can demand pivots from business leaders that are incredibly difficult to implement. Sometimes, as was the case with Modern Homes, that means dropping a product line only to revive it later. Other times, as we have seen in the past year, it means offering the same product in a different way, like producing events into the virtual world. Business leaders are forced to make choices about their products and organizations in response to those circumstances.

As Sears showed, pivots like that can bring decades of future business success. While Sears was a large company in 1942 (undoubtedly boosting the company’s ability to work through a materials shortage during WWII), they continued to grow through the end of the 20th century and beyond.

Ultimately, the company has not survived the test of time, but the Modern Homes phenomena and Sears’ success beyond those years shows that planning for change and evolution in your business is a wise move.

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