Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Testimonial House: Sears No. 168 in Little Silver, New Jersey

1919 "Modern Homes" catalog
When doing a kit house presentation or talking to reporters, I often equate the search to find and document kit houses with the hunt for buried treasure. While tracking down kit houses is not quite as lucrative, it can provide a similar experience of adventure and discovery. Amongst kit house researchers, many of us equate finding testimonial houses - examples of houses in kit house catalogs and other advertisements that were associated with a specific individual, builder or company - as the equivalent of finding a treasure chest with a stash of Spanish Doubloons. Even though they are often models we know well, the fact that we can connect them to specific individuals makes them a little extra special. I've had some luck finding a few testimonial houses and I want to share one for a Sears No. 168 that I recently tracked down in Little Silver, New Jersey. Let's take a look!

Testimonial houses came in a variety of flavors. Some of them were as simple as the name of the purchaser, sometimes with just a first initial and last name. If we are fortunate, the testimonial included an address, although those sometimes changed over time. The more detailed testimonials were a little more robust, featuring elements like a quote from the satisfied customer and even a photo of the completed home. Sometimes, the testimonials were tweaked to fit the type of publication where it appeared with a lengthy catalog testimonial being slimmed down for a newspaper advertisement. 

The earliest example of this testimonial for the Sears No. 168 appeared in the 1916 "Modern Homes" catalog. The testimonial was part of a 2 page spread of customer testimonials for a variety of Sears models built in locations across the United States. One page consisted of numbered photos of customers houses. The other page consisted of corresponding testimonials from the customers. 

1917 "Modern Homes" catalog

In the case of the No. 168, the customer was Leslie Borden Hill and the location of the house was Little Silver, New Jersey. As you can read from Mr. Hill's comments, the contractor who built his house (that's right, not every Sears house was owner-built), was most impressed by the materials sent by Sears. Although the No. 168 had appeared at least as early as the 1911 "Modern Homes" catalog, this was the first customer testimonial specific to this model to appear in the catalog. This version of the testimonial appeared in the 1916 and 1917 "Modern Homes catalog". 

1916 "Modern Homes" catalog

In 1918, Sears changed up the format of the testimonials, streamlining them and in the case of Mr. Borden's house, he got a new quote to go with a shortened version of his name. Although the house model name isn't mentioned in this new version of the testimonial, the No. 168 was now known as the "Matoka". In the 1918 catalog, all the house models now sported "names" in addition to their number. 

1919 "Modern Homes" catalog

The Borden testimonial appeared for one more year in the 1919 "Modern Homes" catalog. Ironically, the "Matoka" did not! Like many earlier models, Sears had "retired" the "Matoka" in favor of new house designs. Still, Mr. Borden's praise for his house resonated with prospective customers. 

While researching testimonial houses, I was surprised to see that Mr. Borden's No. 168 had not yet been located. You would think that a name, a location and a picture of a house would be enough to find a testimonial house. But that's not always the case. Apparently, no one had looked or had looked and had been unable to find the house. 

Catalog image of Sears No. 168 from 1911 "Modern Homes" catalog

Sometimes the process of tracking down these houses can be arduous and in the worst case scenario, lead you to a location where a Sears house once stood. But fortune was with me on this journey and with help from Ancestry.com, I found myself on Borden Place street in Little Silver and with a quick "drive" down the street, I found the No. 168. 

While tracking down the house through Ancestry, I learned a bit about Leslie Hill Borden. In 1914, he married Helen - he was 22 and she was 19. Based on when the testimonial appeared in the catalog, they had the No. 168 built within a year or two of saying their wedding vows. Mr. Borden was employed as a clerk for an insurance company and in 1942, reported as working for the "Home Insurance Company" of New York. Mr. Hill died in 1961 and as best I can tell, continued to live in his Sears house until his death. 

As you can see from the photos, the No. 168 at 30 Borden Place, Little Silver, New Jersey is a lovely home, well-maintained, and with all the distinctive architectural features that help identify this model. Considering this house is over 100 years old, it looks as nice as the day it was built. I would bet that the Bordens would be pleased with how their Sears house has stood the test of time. 

All images courtesy of Archive.org, Cindy Catanzaro and Judith Chabot.

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