When Karen DeJeet moved into her suburban Pittsburgh house four years ago, her neighbors filled her in on its history. The house, dubbed a Hamilton, had been assembled from a kit purchased through Sears, Roebuck and Co.
"I had never heard of these before," DeJeet said.
The discovery opened the door for a new hobby that connected her with other enthusiasts, tracking down other versions of the houses shipped by retail giant Sears in pieces so they could be assembled — often by the owners themselves — according to instructions that even included codes stamped on the lumber that would form the bones of the house.
These days it's not unusual to get unassembled furniture in flat boxes from Ikea, but an entire house is another matter.
From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold 70,000 to 75,000 homes through the mail-order Modern Homes program, according to the Illinois company's archives.
It was a retailing triumph, the kind that the company could use about now as it is struggling with years of declining sales and looking at options that range from selling off businesses to partnering with other companies to sell its goods. This summer, Sears reported that it would start selling appliances through online rival Amazon.com.
In the first half of the last century, the Sears team made it easy for residents of a rapidly developing country to have a nice house — no matter where they lived. And if that newly built house then spurred orders for curtains, stoves and bedspreads, so much the better.
Sears designed 447 styles, "From the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.)," the company said.
Some customers took the DIY idea further, designing their own floor plan and sending the blueprint to Sears, which would ship the precut and fitted materials, including the nails and varnish.
The mail-order option became popular as families moved away from cities, an exodus made possible by trolley lines and railroads that extended transportation options. As Sears noted, companies were also building factories farther from urban centers and needed options for employee housing.
Sears doesn't have an official tally of the number of mail-order houses still standing. But the company said that in 1926, it sold 324 units in the month of May alone. In southwestern Pennsylvania, trackers of the houses have found nearly 700 likely Sears houses.
The mail-order program had been launched after struggles to sell building materials from Sears catalogs. The retailer wasn't alone in popularizing the kit system. Other companies provided mail-order houses.
"People tend to use the term 'Sears house' rather generically, like 'Kleenex,' when the house might have been a kit from the Aladdin Co., Gordon-Van Tine, Wardway, Harris, Bennett or Lewis homes, to name a few," said Judith Chabot, who runs the blog Sears House Seeker and works with DeJeet and others around the country to track the historic homeownership trend.
"A lot of people are surprised to find out that they live in a Sears home," DeJeet said. "I thought it was weird at first and thought, 'I don't know if I want to live in this,' but they're really well built. It has a lot of character."