Saturday, September 4, 2021

East Versus (Mid)West

As I was exploring the topic of how many Sears homes were built between 1940 - 1942, my research took me from the East Coast to the Midwest as I read newspaper ads and articles from a number of cities. As these led me to examples of homes that were built during this time period, it became evident that there was a significant difference in the kinds of homes that Sears Roebuck was marketing and selling depending on where one lived in the country. It was as if there were two distinct versions of the "Modern Homes" program in operation during those years. 

On the East Coast, Sears had embarked on a bold new initiative to move away from just selling homes to individuals to playing the role of developer, selling entire neighborhoods of homes built from plans and materials from Sears. In the Midwest, sales of Sears homes continued to follow the tried-and-true pattern of individual home sales. But it wasn't just the method of selling homes that differed. Depending on where you lived, the home models that Sears was promoting varied too! There was very much a split between what was being sold and marketed on the East Coast versus the Midwest. Let's take a look!

When I first started researching this time period of the Sears "Modern Homes" program, I was primarily focused on "how many Sears homes were sold between 1940 and 1942?" I had seen enough news articles talking about the number of homes sold, examples of model homes and some actual totals from some communities to lead me to believe that there were a lot more homes sold during this time period than previously thought. My research confirmed that sales of "Modern Homes" had recovered from the depths of the Great Depression. Like the US economy, the sales of "Modern Homes" were really starting to take off again. 

As I started getting down to the level of looking at individual home sales, where I had enough information to connect actual houses to Sears, a new pattern emerged that highlighted a split between Sears "Modern Homes" operation on the East Coast versus the Midwest states. On one hand, that wasn't totally surprising. By 1940, the "Modern Homes" operations were split between Sears' massive building materials facility at Port Newark, New Jersey, that supplied materials for new homes on the East Coast, and the Sears-owned and operated Norwood Sash and Door company in the Cincinnati-area enclave of Norwood, Ohio, which supplied the materials for homes built in the Midwest. 

Ad from February 1940 "Cincinnati Enquirer"
Courtesy of

In the earlier years of the program, the Midwest operations had been based out of the Sears headquarters in Chicago, Illinois with materials supplied from a mill at Cairo, Illinois and from Norwood Sash and Door. But in the mid-1930s, the "Modern Homes" offices were moved to Norwood. Likewise, while Philadelphia had been the hub of the East Coast "Modern Homes" operations since the early 1920s, during the post Depression years, Port Newark took over that role. In part, this reflected Sears exit from the business of financing new homes in 1934. Those mortgages had been issued by the Sears offices in Chicago and Philadelphia and as Sears stopped issuing new mortgages, the operations of "Modern Homes" contracted to just that of a designer of plans and supplier of materials for new homes.

Ad from Daily News (New York City) from July 1932
Courtesy of

While we don't know the exact territory covered by the two operations, it appears that Norwood serviced the portion of the US from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania westward to eastern Iowa, extending north to Michigan and Wisconsin and south into Northern Kentucky and West Virginia. Port Newark covered the East Coast states from Maine south through New York and New Jersey and including eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. It's unclear whether this included states further south including Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. While Sears had previously sold homes in those states and had sales offices in Baltimore and Washington DC in the early 1930s, I haven't yet found evidence that they were selling homes in these area in the late 1930s/early 1940s. 

Despite the previous demarcation between the two areas of the country in terms of financing and the supply of materials for new homes, Sears had always presented a unified face to its "Modern Homes" program. It wasn't uncommon to see the same ad content appearing in multiple newspaper across the regions where "Modern Homes" were sold, the only difference being references to local sales offices or perhaps a local testimonial. In one case, a model house that was built in Lansing, Michigan, was presented as if it had been constructed locally in any number of communities. Likewise, the "Modern Homes" catalog sometimes referenced specific Sears offices but inside, the list of models was almost uniform, no matter where the catalog was mailed. 

Front cover of Sears "Modern Homes" catalog (1940)

The last "Modern Homes" catalog was issued in 1940 (likely becoming available in late 1939) featuring a number of tried-and-true models as well as a number of new models that had been introduced in late 1938. But in the spring of 1940, advertisements for "Modern Homes" in states like New Jersey, New York and eastern Pennsylvania started to feature a brand new group of home designs that had never appeared in the "Modern Homes" catalog. A number of these ads highlighted that these new designs were based on plans from Randolph Evans, a New York City-based architect. 

Ad from April 1940 "Morning Call" - Allentown, Pennsylvania

We don't know exactly how many individual home sales Sears had in general or of these new designs but an enterprising sales manager in Middlesex County, New Jersey made it a habit of reporting his new home sales in the local newspapers. From those articles, from 1940 - 1942, I've been able to identify over 30 homes sold, most of which I've been able to locate. The most common example that I've seen in the group is the "Falmouth", one of the Evans designs. Most of the remainder of the homes are either also likely Evans designs or custom designs. There were a handful of examples of homes from the 1940 "Modern Homes" catalog including the "Carver", "Lewiston" and "Medford". While one county's worth of house sales isn't a definitive answer on the kinds of homes being sold, it's telling that most of the advertising from states covered by the Port Newark office featured Evans designs or custom designs. Only a handful of ads featured models from the 1940 catalog. 

Sears "Falmouth" model
Portion of an ad from March 1941
 "Morning Call" - Allentown, Pennsylvania

Not long after the Evans home designs were featured in ads for individual home sales, they started appearing in ads touting Sears latest innovation in "Modern Homes" - the Sears "Home Club Colonies" (also sometimes referred to as "Club Plan Colonies"). In the spring of 1940, Sears announced their first "Home Club" development in Cranford, New Jersey. Previously, Sears had only sold their homes directly to individuals or builders and developers. Now, Sears had decided to take on the role of developer itself. 

Article from July 1940 "Morning Call" - Paterson, New Jersey

In most of the "Home Clubs" that were eventually developed, Sears acquired the property, secured the necessary approvals to subdivide and develop the property and then installed the infrastructure to support the new development. Sears then marketed the "Home Club" to prospective home buyers, typically offering a dozen different home plans from the portfolio of home designs that Randolph Evans had created for Sears. The homes were then built by Sears-selected contractors using plans and materials from Sears.  Sears had big plans for the "Home Club" developments. In August 1940, it was stated that they expected to sell 2,000 - 3,000 homes through these developments.  

Ad from May 1941 "Courier-News" - Bridgewater, New Jersey

To minimize costs and maximize efficiency, Sears required a set number of committed purchasers for homes before they would start construction on a "home club". This approach worked well at Cranford where Sears eventually sold 171 homes and demand allowed Sears to quickly meet the commitment for each phase of development. But in some of the other home clubs, demand wasn't as strong and it took longer to meet the numbers that Sears had set. At least one "Home Club" - "Briarcliff" in New York - never had enough commitments to reach the targeted number to start construction and wartime restrictions on building materials forced the development to be cancelled before it ever got started. What all these developments had in common was their reliance on the Randolph Evans home designs. You won't find a house from the "Modern Homes" catalog amongst them. 

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, "business as usual" was the name of the game. While Randolph Evans designs dominated the advertising and construction on the East Coast, there was nary a mention of those new designs in the ads for "Modern Homes" in Midwestern states. Likewise, with the sole exception of a 30 home development in Elyria, Ohio in late 1941/early 1942, as far as we know, the "Home Club" developments never made it into the territory served by Norwood Sash and Door. Advertisements from "Modern Homes" sales offices featured models from the 1940 "Modern Homes" catalog. 

Sears "Bridgeport" model
Ad from November 1940 "Columbus Dispatch" (Ohio)

Where most of the news articles about new Sears houses on the East Coast featured Randolph Evans or custom designs, models from the 1940 "Modern Homes" catalog reigned supreme in the Midwest. Examples of actual houses that appeared in articles about new homes from cities like Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Lansing, Moline, Rockford and Pittsburgh were almost exclusively models that could be found in the 1940 catalog. 

Sears "Parkside" model 
Article from January 1941 "Lansing State Journal" (Lansing, Michigan)

In Rockford, Illinois, we have the good fortune of being able to track a significant number of Sears houses sold during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Building permits pulled by the "Modern Homes" district manager were reported under his name in the local newspaper. Of the 20 houses that we know were built in 1940 and 1941, all but one were examples from the 1940 "Modern Homes" catalog. Likewise, the advertising done by the "Modern Homes" office in Rockford (they advertised a lot!) exclusively featured examples of homes from the 1940 catalog.

Sears "Lynn" model (first introduced in late 1938)
Ad from May 1941 "Rockford Morning Star" (Rockford, Illinois)

Whether one was on the East Coast or in the Midwest, by 1942, home construction largely stopped with exceptions only being made for pre-approved housing for workers in wartime industries. Some of the Sears developments, like the Home Clubs in Elyria, Ohio and Hellertown, Pennsylvania fell into this category. Likewise, some individual Sears homes were built as housing for war industry workers. But late 1941/early 1942 was the last time we see examples of home sales for Sears Modern Homes. 

For those of us who look for examples of Sears homes, there's a couple things we can learn from all this. The task of finding Sears houses is "easier" in the Midwest - just look for those models we know well from the 1939 and 1940 catalogs. Newspaper ads from that time for "Modern Homes" offices and salespeople can help point us to those cities where we might find houses. On the East Coast, outside of the "Home Club" developments, the challenge is greater. We do know that some of the homes built are models from the 1939 and 1940 catalogs. But most of the homes sold from 1940 - 1942 appear to be either Randolph Evans designs or custom designs created by Sears. In either case, finding and authenticating those homes will require some serious digging into old newspaper articles and possibly building permit records, if they exist. For many of us, the fun is in the hunt for these homes. Hopefully, this will help people in their search. 

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