Last fall, Amazon raised some eyebrows when it announced that it will start selling and shipping containers homes online. Letting the joke aside, applying its philosophy of having everything delivered to your doorstep, to small homes itself, it is absolutely amazing. Of course, for Australia, this dream might not come true, as shipping prices are high, because of the distance. But the program is at its wake so we don’t know for sure how the shipment services might improve for faraway lands. Nevertheless, you can ask the internet marketplace for the rates regarding shipping container homes and other things across Australia.
But Amazon wasn’t the first to sell homes through mail, even in if the same day-delivery is an achievement. Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the first company to sell home kits across the country. More than 100 years ago, the company proposed a revolutionary service, which revolutionized home construction and design. As Sears, Roebuck & Co. filed for bankruptcy this week, critics started to compare the old business to what Amazon is doing. But in reality, what Sears, Roebuck & Co. did is completely different of what Amazon hopes to achieve.
Let’s put things into perspective. When Sears, Roebuck & Co. started their business there was neither commercial aviation nor long-haul trucking. They still had the courage to market more than 400 home models to anyone who has access to the catalog and money to spend. From 1908 to 1940 Chicago-based Sears sold up to 75,000 homes across USA, even in Alaska, via train. The company’s marketing program was straightforward and simple: “The customer must be satisfied for a lifetime for every house we sell is a standing advertisement for Sears, Roebuck and Company”.
The beginning and how the company developed
To understand the impact Sears had on the housing industry, it is important to know that in 1908, when they started to sell houses, one-fifth of the country subscribed to their catalog. This Bible of consumerism offered more than 100.000 items which would be delivered across the country to your door. The home kit division, Modern Homes, hoped that every Sears house to be furnished with Sears goods. So, they offered not only housing solutions but also design proposals.
In 1906 Sears started to sell building inventory as a kit, because they had unsold goods which filled up warehouses. This concept was successfully tested earlier by Aladdin Company, Sears’s competitor. The company gave appealing names to the houses: Avondale, Crescent, or Starlight and sold them to the growing middle class Americans who dreamt of having their own home. “Sears was not an innovative home designer. Sears was instead a very able follower of popular taste,” states the company’s site.
Furthermore, the company accepted changes and blueprints. So they would provide buyers with the materials for their dream home. The latter would give the land and the labor. Inspired by the need to move out of the parents’ houses, Sears started to sell mortgages. During the Great Depression the brand took a hit when they were forced to foreclose on millions of dollars of customer homes.
Regardless, people loved the affordable houses from Sears. In Carlinville, Illinois, Standard Oil created a 12-block area of Sears’s homes. The investment was $1 million and now it is considered the largest collection of Sears houses. To acknowledge the investment, Sears named the model home Carlin, after the town. Pleasantville, New York, had a Sears & Roebuck hill. This shows how popular the mail homes were. Today, you can find some Sears homes at the National Historic Register.
How homes by mail changed the culture
Cheap, accessible and quality housing was not the only thing Sears offered. They also helped standardize the use of drywall and asphalt shingles and also popularized modern conveniences like central heating, electricity and indoor plumbing to the general public. Anyone with little knowledge of building houses could assemble the kit in 90 days. This is because the balloon framing, a method which uses a simple skeleton that needs to be dressed with other materials. The kits also included parts for indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity.
Because these homes were accessible and easy to build, newlyweds started to buy them. Thus, popularizing the idea of single-family living, that only seemed like a dream before the proposed Sears method. After WWII the single-family living increased dramatically. These homes proposed new technologies that decades later would be recognized as modular homes. They used pre-cut timber from mills and workshops across the US.
One important advantage of the catalog was the anonymity. So Sears delivered to anyone, anywhere, regardless if their name or color. This is a dimension that is often disregarded. But we are talking about a period heavily affected by racism. So a person of color buying a home anonymously is an amazing aspect.
Today, Sears is a piece of history. Realtors sell these Victorian-inspired designs at a premium price. There is also a community of Sears catalog home fans who create maps, tours to the homes and books. Sears has revolutionized the home-building industry and shaped it, for over a century. Unfortunately, the company has a shorter lifespan than the homes it sold and shipped through mail.