Friday, January 26, 2018

Revisiting the History of the Final Years of Sears Roebuck's Modern Homes Program


If you've done any reading on the history of Sears Roebuck's Modern Homes program, one of the common "facts" that you'll encounter is that the Modern Homes program ended with the issuance of the last "Modern Homes" catalog in 1940. I read this version of events so many times in books by authors who knew far more than I did about the Modern Homes program that I simply accepted it as fact. At the time, those statements made sense to me. The absence of any catalogs after 1940 must have been a sign that Sears had closed up shop on the Modern Homes program, a victim of slow sales and the hangover of the financial losses incurred from defaulted mortgages during the Great Depression. But over time, as I continued to research the Modern Homes program and followed the research of my fellow kit house bloggers, I came to realize that this ending to the story simply wasn't right. The information from a wide range of contemporary sources told a very different story about the last years of the Modern Homes program.

Like many historical narratives, the story of the end of the Modern Homes program was established with the first book that focused solely on Sears Roebuck's Modern Homes program - "Houses by Mail" - which was published in 1986. In the telling by the authors of "Houses by Mail", after years of slow sales during the worst years of the Great Depression and despite the aspirations of the Modern Homes department for a brighter future, the Modern Homes program failed to revive itself and ended with a whimper in 1940.

The version of events told by "Houses by Mail" appears to rely on information shared in the comprehensive history of the first fifty plus years of Sears Roebuck company found in "Catalogues and Counters" which was first published in 1950. While "Catalogues and Counters" includes some rich detail on the "Modern Homes" program, the details it provides on the activities of the program in the late 1930s are scant. If one relies on the history as told by "Catalogues and Counters", the Modern Homes program never really returned to life after it was shuttered for a short time in 1934.

Once established, the narrative established by "Houses by Mail" was largely repeated in other books on catalog and kit homes with some variations on the theme. Some authors made reference to a 1939 article in "BusinessWeek" magazine that shared some of the same outline as "Catalogues and Counters" but with a recognition that the Modern Homes business hadn't gone defunct after 1934. While acknowledging the release of a revamped "Modern Homes" catalog in 1939, the article included an admonition that the top of the corporate ladder at Sears Roebuck had no interest in a revival of the Modern Homes program. From those remarks, some authors appeared to have deduced that the Modern Homes activities ceased after the final catalog was issued in 1940.

Ad from 1941
Image courtesy of FultonHistory.com
Whichever version was told, it was soon firmly established as a public narrative that Sears Roebuck stopped selling homes in 1940. In fact, prospective kit house hunters were directed to disregard claims of Sears homes built after 1940 as they simply could not be the real thing. I took this narrative to heart. But a funny thing happened along the way. Despite being told repeatedly that Sears stopped selling homes in 1940, I kept coming across evidence to the contrary. In newspaper articles from various locations across the country, I kept finding references to Sears and Modern Homes as late as 1942.

I wasn't the only one who was finding this evidence. Back in late 2012, Lara Solonickne, who blogs at Sears Homes of Chicagoland, put together a pretty comprehensive outline of the post 1940 activities of the "Modern Homes" program in a post titled "Yes, Virginia, Sears Homes Were Built After 1940". She outlined the various different ways that Sears continued to sell homes beyond mail order catalog. This included a number of Sears sponsored "Home Club" developments in various states where customers could purchase from a select number of home plans from Sears and the houses were built using materials supplied by Sears. Lara also noted how Sears continued to maintain Modern Homes sales offices and sell to individual homeowners just as they had since the program had started in 1908. It was Lara's initial post that led me to look more closely for evidence of post 1940 Sears homes activities and the more I looked, the more I found.

Ad from May 1941
Image courtesy of Newspapers.com
In a subsequent post in 2016 titled "Why Did Sears Stop Selling Houses?", Lara explained that it was war-time restrictions on the sale of materials used in the construction of homes that finally put a stop to the Modern Homes program sometime in 1942. But until that happened, there's little evidence that Sears had any intention of pulling the plug on their Modern Homes program. Nor is there any evidence that lagging sales were leading Sears to look at closing down their Modern Homes program. I've been working with other kit house researchers to compile a list of known Sears developments, references to sales offices and examples of individual homes built during the time period from 1939 - 1942. All evidence points to a fairly robust line of business for Sears, not just in their "Home Club" developments but in the sale of homes to individual homeowners, examples of which we've been able to find through newspaper articles in a number of communities.

Notice in Richmond Indiana Palladium from February 1, 1942
Image courtesy of Cindy Catanzaro
What does appear to have changed after that final "Modern Homes" catalog was issued in 1940 is that Sears appears to have completely transitioned away from its reliance on mail order catalog orders to sell homes. There are some reasons why this may have happened. First, by this time, Sears had a well developed network of retail stores in all the areas where Sears was actively selling its Modern Homes. Many, if not all, of the Modern Homes sales offices were located in or near these retail stores. Sears no longer had to rely on its mail order catalogs to reach prospective customers. Those customers could simply walk into one of their retail stores to talk to a Modern Homes representative. Sears also employed a large number of salespeople who would meet directly with prospective customers as this ad demonstrates. Together, these allowed Sears to continue to sell homes without relying on the traditional route of the mail order catalogs.

Sears Modern Homes Ad - Dixon, Illinois - August 1941
Second, Sears was putting a greater emphasis on its "Home Club" developments. These developments were a natural progression of the Modern Homes approach. They combined the efficiency of the pre-cut construction method at the house level with the efficiency of mass construction techniques on a neighborhood level. The approach of building large numbers of homes en masse heralded the kinds of construction methods that would be employed after World War II at developments like Levittown.


Evidence for Sears multiple lines of sales of Modern Homes can be found in this newspaper advertisement from May 1941. Did you have land or a lot where you wanted to build a house? Sears could help with that. Even if you didn't own property, presumably Sears would assist you in finding an appropriate piece of property in the area where you wanted to live. You could also get information on one of several Sears "Home Club" developments planned or under development in the suburbs of New York City. This is hardly the sign of an organization that's looking to close up shop.


So how did so many folks get it so wrong about the final years of the "Modern Homes" program? Narrative plays a strong role in this and you can go back to the 1939 "BusinessWeek" article for an example of how the story was already going off track from what was really happening with "Modern Homes". That narrative was amplified by "Catalogues and Counters" and finally cemented in place in "Houses By Mail". Subsequent publications simply repeated this narrative as fact just as some other "facts" about the Modern Homes program have be retold over the years even after having been debunked.

I believe that one of the key reasons that early outlines like those found in "Catalogues and Counters" and later in "Houses By Mail" got it wrong is that while they were closer in time to when the events happened, the authors of those books had access to far fewer contemporaneous sources of materials than those of us writing today. "Catalogues and Counters" appeared to rely largely on the annual reports put out by Sears Roebuck. But those reports didn't include detailed information about the activities of the Modern Homes division in the late 1930s and early 1940s. "Houses By Mail" supplemented the story told by "Catalogues and Counters" with the information from the 1939 BusinessWeek article. But as we've shown, that also painted a less-than-accurate trajectory of the Modern Homes program. Because they relied on a small subset of sources, those authors came to conclusions that we've discovered today aren't backed up by the facts.

Ad for Sears Lewiston Model Home in Indianapolis, Indiana - May 1941
Image courtesy of Newspapers.com
Today, through online access to digitized newspapers and magazines, we can view ads and articles from hundreds of publications that were in print during the last several years of the Modern Homes program. From those, we can get a more detailed and more nuanced view of what was actually happening with the sales of homes by Sears Roebuck. We can see the activities of those last several years in a fair amount of detail including being able to document the number of homes sold through the large scale "Home Club" developments as well as examples of homes sold to individuals. The story that's told by all those ads and articles is of a program that was continuing to promote the dream of home ownership and the virtues of pre-cut homes from Sears Roebuck. Hopefully, by my revisiting and retelling of the story of the final years of Modern Homes, future publications on this topic will share a more historically accurate view with their readers.

Have more information to share about Sears homes from this time period? Let us know in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Andrew. It got me thinking more about the Sears Home Club Plans. I think they got into that way of selling to keep costs down, as you said. I also think the developments eliminated the uncertainty of their customers getting FHA financing for individual houses. The developments as a whole were already FHA approved.

    It's funny that many people have heard of Levittown but no one hears about Sears, who pioneered that way of selling homes a decade earlier.

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