Thursday, October 22, 2020

How Many Sears Houses? 1940 - 1942

"Sears Modern Homes" catalog (1940)

Back in 2013, my fellow kit house researcher Lara, who blogs at Sears Homes of Chicagoland, made a comprehensive effort to answer the eternal question of "How Many Sears Homes Were Built?" One would think that this would be a relatively easy question to answer - Ask Sears Roebuck! But even Sears doesn't know exactly how many houses they sold through their "Modern Homes" program. Because Sears purged the paperwork associated with the "Modern Homes" program, the records that would have answered that question definitively have been lost to time. The answer given by the Sears Archives is around 70,000 - 75,000 homes. After quite a bit of research and best guesses to fill in blanks, Lara came up with a total of between 63,000 and 65,000 homes. I think Lara's research is pretty spot on. But one area where there was very little information was the time period from 1940 -1942 when Laura estimated that Sears sold around 700 homes. I think that number is low and I'll run through the numbers to explain why I think that's the case.

Today, I want to focus on the numbers from the time period of 1940 - when the last "Modern Homes" catalog was issued - to early 1942, when the last references to "Modern Homes" appeared in newspapers. When Lara put together her numbers, she noted that there was no official sales data available for the time period from 1940 to 1942. That's still the case today. I haven't seen any official reports from Sears that give me any idea how many homes were sold. But today we have access to more contemporaneous sources of information that gives us a more detailed view of what was happening with the "Modern Homes" program. 

Before I dive into the numbers, I want to provide a quick overview of the "Modern Homes" program during this time period. While you'll often read that the "Modern Homes" program ended in 1940 with the issuance of the final "Modern Homes" catalog, we now know that's not the case at all. In fact, Sears was expanding its line of home sales by expanding into the role of developer of neighborhoods of Sears homes. Let's take a look at the "Modern Homes" business model during these years. 

Sears - Unknown Model (1940)
South River, New Jersey
Individual Homes: The sale of homes to individuals to build themselves or to contract for construction had been the bread and butter for the first 32 years of the Sears "Modern Homes" program. While Sears issued its last "Modern Homes" catalog in 1940, Sears continued to market and sell houses to individuals through their network of sales offices that were typically located in or near their retail stores and through salesmen working on behalf of Sears Roebuck. The houses that were sold were a mix of homes based on plans from the last "Modern Homes" catalog and new models that never appeared in the catalog. The latter were based on plans by New York City-based architect Randolph Evans and designed to be smaller, lower cost homes affordable to a broader audience of homebuyers. Newspaper ads and articles show that Sears not only maintained their existing network of "Modern Homes" sales offices, they even opened new sales offices during this time period. 

Model Homes: Over the years, Sears Roebuck built a number of model homes in different locations in the areas where home sales were most active. Typically, Sears would work with a prospective homeowner to build the home and then open it for a couple of weeks to allow the public to tour the new home. Once those tours ended, the homeowner would take possession of their new house (presumably spiffed up after having seen hundreds or even thousands of visitors!) Some builders also took the same approach to help build interest in a new development. 

Small Scale Development: While most people think of Sears houses being put up by industrious DIY-ers, quite a few Sears homes were sold to builders and developers and companies seeking to provide housing for employees. Some used them for model homes for new developments while others created small neighborhoods of Sears houses. In this category were smaller collections of Sears houses that were built by a single builder or developer.

Bergenfield, New Jersey Home Club
Home Club Developments: The largest numbers of documented homes from this time period were built in what Sears called their "Home Club" developments. This was a new venture that Sears started in late 1939 to take on the role of developer to sell their homes at a larger scale. Sears purchased the land, platted the property and then installed the infrastructure for the new developments. In order to reduce costs and maximize the efficiency of the construction process, Sears would develop the properties in phases and would only start construction after they had a certain number of buyers committed to purchase one of their houses. Sears would typically contract with a local builder who would construct the houses based on plans designed for Sears by Randolph Evans using pre-cut materials from Sears. These developments were designed to meet FHA standards which would help buyers seeking financing, which Sears no longer provided itself. 

While the "mass construction" approach likely held down costs, in some cases, it appears to have unnecessarily delayed the construction process and left customers waiting as Sears tried to corral enough prospective buyers. Undoubtedly, Sears likely lost sales to customers who couldn't, for whatever reason, wait for the preset number of homes to be committed. Some "Home Club" developments were more successful than others. From a historical viewpoint, the "Home Club" approach was later replicated by others at a larger scale post World War 2 in the massive subdivision developments like Levittown. 

Now that we've explored how Sears was selling homes, let's look at the numbers. 

Individual homes: Accounting for the number of individual homes sold during this time period is the most challenging. However, from some newspaper articles, it's clear that in at least some parts of the country, Sears appeared to be doing a robust amount of business. One caveat - Sears was not above inflating their sales numbers so we need to keep that in mind as we review these numbers. Some examples (paraphrasing details) from newspaper articles during that time period:
  • Passaic and Bergen Counties, New Jersey: July 1940 - 25 homes under construction
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: September 1940 - 200 homes have been built or are now under construction in Pittsburgh district (western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia)
  • Moline, Illinois: January, 1941 - Over 100 homes were built in the past year in the district from Rockford to Rock Island, Illinois.
  • Indianapolis, Indiana: February 1941 - Over 125 homes sold and serviced in the past year around Indianapolis.
  • Lansing, Michigan: March 1941- In the past 5 months, 5 houses had been built and 4 more were under construction.
  • Utica, New York: March 1941 - 10 homes recently built or under construction in various locations around Utica. 
  • Bergen County, New Jersey: April 1941 - 50 individual homes sold.
  • Middlesex County, New Jersey: One enterprising regional manager for Sears appeared to have a practice of reporting all his home sales in the local newspaper. That helped me locate quite a few post 1940 examples. These homes were a mix of known models like the "Medford", designs I had seen elsewhere and designs that appeared unique to that home. In 1940, he announced the construction of 6 homes from Sears with another 15 in 1941 and at least one more in 1942. 
  • Columbus, Ohio: July 1941 - 5 houses build recently. 
Based on these numbers, I think it's realistic to estimate that at least 1,000 homes per year were built in 1940 and 1941. I had initially estimated a lower number of 750 homes per year. But Lara estimated that 1,200 homes were built in 1939 and I think it's likely that something close to that number were built through 1941 (accounting for "home club" sales separately). The number of homes would have fallen dramatically in 1942 as limitations on building supplies would have constrained new construction to designated areas near wartime industry (which also led Sears to exit the home sales business). Lara's estimate of 150 for 1942 sounds about right and most of those would have been in the "home club" developments. Note: Lara shared that the decline in home sales started in the fall of 1941 as demand for lumber exceeded the capacity of mills to provide it. 

Model homes:
 Because they were intended to drum up business for Sears, the model homes were often featured prominently in local newspapers. What's interesting is how many of these houses that were 
Sears Lewiston (1941)
Indianapolis, Indiana
built in late 1940 and into 1941 were models from the final 1940 catalog. Examples include:
  • Carmel, Indiana: Carver (1941)
  • Indianapolis, Indiana: Amherst, Concord, Newcastle (1940); Lewiston (1941)
  • Lansing, Michigan: Parkside (1941)
  • Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Falmouth (1941)
I wanted to highlight these homes because they demonstrate that Sears was still actively promoting and selling homes. But they represent such a small number of the overall total that those are reflected in the totals for the individual home sales. 

Small scale developments:
 There are several documented small scale developments of Sears houses. One example is a 6 home development of models from the 1940 catalog built in Gardner, Massachusetts. These houses were marketed to the employees of the Florence Stove Company. Another small development was "Sweet Briar" of 5 homes in Baldwin, New York based on designs by Randolph Evans. I found another small development outside of Utica, New York that was marketed as a "Home Club" by the local Sears sales representative but appeared to be individual homes based on Randolph Evans designs. There were also a couple small developments outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that used catalog models from Sears. They were promoted as being the start of much larger developments but it appears that they didn't pan out (at least in terms of construction of Sears houses). These ones made it on our radar because they showed up in newspaper stories and advertisements (sometimes, it's hard to tell the two apart). I'm sure there are more examples of these out there that will get on our radar when they appear in the digitized newspapers. 

Again, it's hard to estimate the total number of homes sold in these smaller developments but a safe number appears to be 50 homes total over the 1940 - 1942 period. 

Home Club Developments: The Home Club developments by Sears got the most press and the most advertisements. Even with all that, it's been challenging at times to nail down how many homes - if any - were actually built in some Home Clubs. A number of the Home Clubs were well-documented and we can confidently tally those totals:
  • Cranford, New Jersey (Sunny Acres): 171 homes
  • Hellertown, Pennsylvania (Mountainview): 61 homes (379 planned)
     - Mountainview is often listed as a development done for Bethlehem Steel but the development was marketed as a "home club". 
  • Grandyle, New York: 50 homes
  • North Plainfield, New Jersey (Green Acres): 41 homes (125 planned)
  • Sidney, New York: Around 30 homes
  • Elyria, Ohio: 30 homes
In addition to the 383 homes listed above, there are several "home clubs" that were developed with an unknown number of homes. 
  • Bergenfield, New Jersey: At least 12 identified houses. Newspaper articles reported that 50 houses were to be built.
  • North Plainfield, New Jersey (Green Acres): A second phase of 42 homes was reported but not confirmed. 
  • Denville, New Jersey: A first phase of a "home club" was reported sold out. A second phase of 20 homes was planned but not confirmed if they were built. 
  • Floral Park, New Jersey (Milford or New Milford): Several built examples were identified from newspaper ads and photos but it's unclear how many homes were actually built. 
We also know of at least one "home club" development that was cancelled before it was built. That was the Briarcliff Manor development outside of Ossining, New York. Even though Sears managed to get commitments for 41 of the 51 proposed home sites, wartime restrictions on building materials kicked in before the development could start and Sears was forced to abandon it. I've also found multiple references to a "home club" development planned for White Plains, New York but I haven't found any evidence that it got off the ground. The same for a 200 home Sears development in Southbridge, Massachusetts. 

Based on all of the above, at the high end, we can estimate that around 450 homes were built in the various "home clubs" between 1940 and 1942. 

To recap, my estimates of Sears homes constructed between 1940 - 1942:
  • Individual/Model homes: 2,150 homes
  • Small scale development: 50 homes
  • Home Clubs: 450 homes
Grand Total: 2,650 homes (as compared to Lara's estimate of 700 homes)

In the big picture, the difference of a couple thousands homes isn't that big a deal (although it means more homes to find!) But it does help confirm what Lara, I and others have noted - that the "Modern Homes" program had rebounded from the Depression era losses that had made its future look bleak in 1934. By 1939, sales had really started to take off and with the expansion into the "Home Club" developments, Sears was likely selling over 1,000 homes per year before wartime restrictions shut down the home building industry in the United States. 

2 comments:

  1. I agree with everything you've said here.

    But one thing to note is that although in 1939-1941 residential construction was booming, things collapsed in the fall of 1941. Lumber mills were overrun with orders from the military and there was a national lumber shortage. Fall 1941 is when we saw Sears having to cancel some of their planned Home Club developments. This continued until spring 1942 when the War Production Board curtailed nonessential residential construction with the issuance of conservation order L-41.

    So from fall 1941 to the end of the Sears Modern Homes program, I would bet there were only a couple hundred houses built (e.g., Elyria Ohio, Kankakee Illinois), and those were for defense workers.

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  2. Thanks for the feedback Lara! It sounds like a more accurate year-by-year tally would reduce the 1941 totals to reflect that. I'll incorporate that into the next update.

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