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Historical Architectural Research

by Rebecca Hunter, architectural historian

www.kithouse.org

                                                           
 

AUTHENTICATION OF MAIL ORDER HOUSES

What IS a mail order house?

These homes were marketed by mail order catalog from 1906-1982. Nine major companies, and a host of small local companies, sold these homes primarily in the USA, but also in Canada.  The company provided building plans and materials to construct the home. The materials were provided as bulk lumber, or more commonly as precut framing boards. The latter were known as “kit” homes. The buyer received all the materials from one source: lumber, roofing, doors and windows, flooring, trim boards, hardware, nails, and enough paint and varnish to put 2 coats on everything. Electric, plumbing and heating fixtures were NOT provided as part of the house, but were available at extra cost. Materials were shipped primarily by rail, but also by boat, depending on the location of the plant and of the purchaser. Most buyers ordered from the closest supplier, as the buyer paid the freight charges.

These well-designed, practical, homes were made of top quality materials. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk then the structural elements were cut to exact size at the mill. Manufacturers claimed the pre-cut system would save the builder up to 30% compared to the cost of standard building methods.

These houses were usually not distinctive architectural designs, but copies of the most popular styles of the day.  House designs were standardized to reduce waste in materials, but customers were encouraged to personalize their order by moving windows or doors, adding porches, fireplaces, sunrooms, window boxes, trellises, or built in cabinetry, and by selecting exterior finish and colors.

In the days before home power tools, precut homes represented an enormous saving in labor and materials for the home-buyer. Catalog prices typically included only the building materials; the cost of the finished house, including the lot, the foundation, and construction labor was usually about double the price in the catalog.  To promote their homes, companies placed advertisements in national magazines and newspapers in major cities.

Pre-cut housing thrived until after World War II, when tract housing construction methods and increased popularity of prefabricated and mobile housing meant that mail order companies could no longer compete financially.

Where are they found?

Mail order homes are rare, only an estimated 2-5% of the homes built in the 1920’s. The largest number was sold in 1928-1929. The 1920’s homes are located primarily in commuter suburbs of larger cities. Prior to 1920, when more than half of the population of the US was rural, many were built in rural locations.

Who built them?

Mail order homes were marketed to “the buyer of modest means”. Most purchasers were working class families, buying a single home for themselves. Most were probably assembled by contractors, although buyers with sufficient carpentry skills could do it themselves. Some professionals ordered the larger homes, or purchased custom designs from mail order companies.

LOCATING MAIL ORDER HOMES

Matching the external appearance of a house to a picture in a catalog is not a conclusive method of identifying a mail order house, nor is oral history. These are only a starting point. But, since only the Aladdin Company of Bay City MI preserved its sales records, for all other companies, one of the beginning steps in this research is necessarily an attempt to visually match a house to an image in a catalog.  This is most often done with a street-by-street survey, attempting to match actual home with images in mail order catalogs.

Confusing factors in identification from the street:

 
                                                           
   

Look-alikes: mail order homes were copied from popular models

Reversed plans: at no additional cost the buyer could have the plans reversed left to right

Enclosed porches: the most common alteration is to enclose a formerly open porch

Different siding: all mail order homes could be obtained with either clapboard, cedar shingle, stucco or brick cladding

Additions: original buyers and later owners add rooms, stories, ells

Fireplaces: it was  easy to add or omit a fireplace with exterior chimney

“Renovation”: major changes are made in the name of modernizing, renovating or updating a home

Same floor plan: there are many exterior designs but few floor plans, so the same room layout appears in many different houses, and is not a distinguishing characteristic

 
                                                           
 

For companies that offered mortgage financing, i.e. Sears, Ward, a search of county land transfer records can be beneficial in identifying some properties. Buyers in larger towns were more likely to finance with the mail order company; small town dwellers seem to have preferred local financing.

Gordon-Van Tine offered financing for a limited time in the late 1920’s, apparently only in the vicinity of their headquarters in Davenport IA. Aladdin offered some financing for its post 1950 ranch style homes.

DOCUMENTATION

Documentation includes, but is not limited to, purchase and mortgage records, proof of mail order origin, history of ownership, date of construction, newspaper items, past and present photographs, oral history pertaining to a house and/or to the family that built the house

Authentication

Authentication is a special part of documentation that pertains only to buildings of mail order origin. To authenticate is to assemble proof and evidence that the structure was ordered from a mail order catalog.

Why authenticate?

Since mail order house companies copied popular home designs of the day, copied each other's designs, and architects copied mail order designs, the differences between different examples of a similar style can be minute. In other words, a house can look like a catalog image and not be a mail order house. To complicate matters even further, mail order companies willingly made small changes to their standard designs to suit the buyer's needs and tastes. Finally, since homeowners routinely alter their homes over the years, external appearance can be so changed as to render a mail order home unrecognizable.

This then, is why it is necessary to do further investigation in order to prove which buildings are in fact mail order homes. What does authentication consist of? Proof or a preponderance of evidence enables us to designate a given home as a kit or pre-cut home.

Proof: any ONE of the following:

 
                                                           
    Part number and/or part name stamped or written on framing elements (e.g. joists, wall studs, rafters). This is usually the easiest proof to obtain. See the attached page detailing part number locations and descriptions for various companies.

Company name and or address, or trademark on framing elements.

Blueprints, correspondence, other paperwork.

Grantor-grantee records showing Sears, Wards or Gordon-Van Tine held a mortgage, repossessed and/or resold the house, especially during the depression (The other companies did not offer mortgage financing).
 
       
  Evidence: at least FIVE of the following:  
       
   

Exterior and room dimensions, and floor plan match catalog description

Size, spacing, and location of doors and windows, pitch of roof, location of furnace chimney correspond to the catalog images

Hardware, windows, doors, banisters, balusters, trim boards, fireplace, built-in millwork, lighting and plumbing fixtures, are seen in the catalog

Shipping labels on millwork. Trim boards were the only boards not precut to size at the mill, since their final size depends on the wall finish. Therefore, they are not numbered, but may bear a shipping label. However, customers could purchase millwork without buying a house kit, so the shipping label only proves that the board it is on came from the company identified on the label.

Labels on drywall - again, customers who did not purchase a home could buy drywall from the catalogs.

Indication on the title search that Sears, Wards or Gordon-Van Tine paid the real estate taxes

Oral history  

Note: Cabinetry, plumbing, lighting and heating fixtures were not included with a house kit, but often could be purchased as extras. They could also be purchased by any other customer. Catalog customers could also purchase doors, windows, hardware, trim boards, flooring and other millwork.  Therefore, company identification on these items does not prove the house is a mail order house, only that the item came from that company. 

 
       
 

HOW TO PROCEED WITH AUTHENTICATION AND DOCUMENTATION

Identify target homes. This is the most difficult step, and requires a large collection of mail order catalog images and a good eye for minor architectural details. Only a few researchers have the materials and skills to accurately perform this step.

Mail an introductory letter and questionnaire to current owners of the target homes. Enclose instructions for locating and identifying part numbers for the various companies, a self addressed stamped envelope, and a copy of the catalog page showing the home.

See the enclosed bibliography for reprints of catalogs from which you may obtain the photocopies. For Lewis, Sterling or Harris Brothers homes, or for any homes which are not in the reprints, contact Rebecca Hunter at the address above.

Search grantor/grantee or tract records for each property, looking for mail order companies or their trustees as grantors or grantees

Research the approximate or actual date of construction. If a house was built before 1906, it can be eliminated, since the earliest known companies began selling kit homes in 1906. For dates of operation of each company, see "Brief Histories of Mail Order House Companies" at www.kithouse.org.

Research the history of ownership

Talk to owners who are personal acquaintances 

Contact former owners using a letter and questionnaire

Contact relatives of original or subsequent owners

Contact long-time area residents

Talk to local groups or their members: VFW, Moose, Lions, Kiwanis, church groups, genealogy groups, nursing or retirement home residents

Visit as many homes as possible, looking for part numbers and checking interior measurements and floor plans

Publicize the research project in newspapers, library and/or museum displays, radio talk shows. Provide contact information and encourage people to let you know about mail order homes in your community.

Do a 6-month follow-up: send a second letter and another questionnaire to those who have not responded to the first one.

In the absence of owner cooperation, wait for undocumented homes to come on the real estate market, at which time you can visit them to look for interior evidence and proof.

DATA GATHERING AND PRESERVATION

Record data on paper (one page per house) and/or in a computer database. Initially, the data sheets are best kept in a loose-leaf notebook. This allows easy addition, deletion and re-arrangement of pages as the research progresses. Updated pages can replace earlier pages; updated lists can replace old ones.

A database is an excellent way to record information because it can be sorted and printed out to show geographic locations, names of mail order companies, names of models, age of homes, names and/or occupations of original owners, or any other information that has been included.

Suggested data categories are:

 
                                                           
    Model name
Model number
Style
Years sold
Address
Street
City
State
Zip
Year built
1st city directory Listing
Company
Historical info
Documentation
1st owner
1st owner’s occupation
Photo number
Future research
   
                                                           
 

Make a photographic record of the homes, including current and past images.

Since this research is in part dependent on cooperation from current homeowners, it may take time to obtain information on all houses. If a current owner is not interested, the researchers must wait for a new owner, or contact previous owners. Even when a professional architectural survey by a mail order house researcher has been done, homes which no longer look like their catalog image will have been missed, and, with luck,  will be discovered at a later time. Homes for which we do not yet have catalog images will be missed as well.

When the study is complete, you will have a valuable historical document. To preserve it and to make it available to others, a copy can be donated to the local library, historical museum and/or city government.  It is best to bind copies available to the public to prevent pages from being lost or misplaced.

For an example of a completed survey, see Rebecca Hunter's books, Elgin Illinois Sears House Research Project and Beyond Sears: Mail Order Homes in Elgin from Aladdin, Lewis, Sterling, Harris Brothers, Gordon-Van Tine, and Montgomery Ward. Both are available from the Gail Borden Library in Elgin Illinois (847 742-2411)

LOCAL RESOURCES FOR RESEARCHING HOMES

Public Library Reference Department:

-  city directories with listings by street address give history of ownership; listing by last name may include occupation and name of spouse and children high school age or older who are living at home.
- books on city and county history
- back issues of local newspapers
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: show footprint, dimensions and materials

City Government:

Planning Department may have old building permits on file.
Historic Preservation Commission may have information on individual houses

County Government

- Recorder of Deeds: grantor/grantee records allow determination of approximate date of construction; mortgages and tax defaults are listed. Search the individual record section for names of known Sears trustees Walker O Lewis, E. Harrison Powell, Nicholas Wieland, C.C. Parr and Wards trustee Thomas P Riordan. Search in the business section for the names of mail order companies which offered mortgage financing: Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Gordon-Van Tine.

Area Historical Museum: photos of events, people, schools; information on architects.

Township:
- tax assessor: legal description, possibly photographs, year real estate tax was first paid (not always accurate)
- rural surveys

MATERIALS FOR USE IN MAIL ORDER HOUSE SURVEYS

To send to owners:
Sample letter  & questionnaire to owners
Descriptions of part numbers for various companies

For the researchers:
Brief history of selected mail order companies
Sample press release
List of apparent mail order homes in the community

USEFUL ABBREVIATIONS IN LEGAL LAND TRANSFER DOCUMENTS

 
                                                           
  MTG - mortgage                                        
                                               
  TD  - trust deed                                        
                                               
  SAT - satisfied, paid off                            
                                 
  REL - release                            
                                 
  QCD - quit claim deed                            
                                 
  JGMT - judgment                            
     
                                                           
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY ON MAIL ORDER BUILDNG AUTHENTICATION

Hunter, Rebecca. Beyond Sears: Mail Order Homes in Elgin Illinois from
Aladdin, Lewis, Sterling, Harris Brothers, Gordon-Van Tine and Montgomery
Ward. Elgin Heritage Commission 2004. Available from Gail Borden Library,
Elgin IL.

Hunter, Rebecca. Elgin Ilinois Sears House Research Project. Elgin Heritage
Commission, 1999. Available from Gail Borden Library, Elgin IL.

Hunter, Rebecca. Putting Sears Homes on the Map: A compilation of testimonials
published in Sears Modern Homes Catalogs  from 1908-1940. Elgin IL;
Rebecca Hunter 2004

Light, Sally. House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home.
Spencertown NY: Golden Hill Press, 1993

McAlester, Virginia and Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New
York: Alfred E Knopf, 1984

Stevenson K.C. and Jandl H.W. Houses By Mail. National Trust for Historic
Preservation, 1986. Available from John Wiley & Sons Inc, 605 3rd Av New
York NY 10158-0012, 800 225-5945. 

Thornton,  Rosemary. The Houses that Sears Built. Alton IL: Gentle Beam
Publications, PO Box 1392 Alton IL 62002, 2002.

Wolicki, Dale Patrick. The Historic Architecture of Bay City Michigan. Bay City
MI: The Bay County Historical Society, 1998.

CATALOG REPRINTS

Aladdin. Aladdin  "Built in a Day" House Catalog 1917. Philadelphia and New
York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications, 1995

Bennett Lumber Co. Bennett’s Small House Catalog 1920. New York: Dover
Publications, 1993.

Gordon-Van Tine. 117 House Designs of the Twenties. Philadelphia and New
York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications, 1992

Pacific Homes: California’s Kit Homes: A Reprint of the 1925 Pacific Ready Cut
Homes Catalog. Alton IL: Gentle Beam Publications, P O Box 1392, Alton IL
62002, 2004. Preface by Rosemary Thornton and Dale Patrick Wolicki.

Sears Roebuck. Sears Roebuck Catalog of Houses 1926. Philadelphia and New
York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications, 1991

Sears Roebuck. Homes in a Box: Modern Homes from Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Schiffer Publishing, 1998  (Reprint of a 1912 Sears Modern Homes catalog).

Sears Roebuck. Sears, Roebuck Book of Barns: A Reprint of the 1919 Catalog.
Elgin IL: R L Hunter Press 2005. Preface by R. Hunter and D.P. Wolicki.

Sears Roebuck. Sears Roebuck Homes of Today 1932.  Philadelphia and New
York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications, 2003

Sears Roebuck. Sears, Roebuck Home Builder's Catalog 1910 Edition.
Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications, 1990

Sears Roebuck. Modern Homes, 1913. Dover Publications, 2006

Montgomery Ward. Wardway Homes, Bungalows and Cottages 1925

Philadelphia and New York: Athenaeum and Dover Publications; 2004

 
                                                           
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