Sears, Roebuck and Co.

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Libraryuxazyvvavydrfdxb (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Chicago is well known as a city of architecture, but it was also a major center for the building products industry. A search by place in the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) reveals that Chicago has more entries than any other city. Several national companies and trade associations produced catalogs and technical publications in the city, including Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward, both of which have dozens of catalogs in the BTHL archives. The city was also the home of the Portland Cement Association (now in Skokie, Ill.), which produced many technical publications on concrete.

Chicago also saw the publications of architectural house plan catalogs as well as building products catalogs, ranging in subjects from cement to kitchen faucets and everything in between. The combination of national and regional building product manufacturers with its central location in the U.S. rail and highway networks kept these industries healthy up through the mid 20th century, when growth in the U.S. started moving south and west.

Ornamental Iron and Bronze Executed by the Winslow Bros. Co., Chicago, c. 1910
The Winslow Bros. Company of Chicago produced the ornamental cast iron at the base of Louis Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building (1899). The company also produced many ornamental stairs, including the interior stairs for the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.

Exterior and Interior Ornamentation in Plaster, Composition and Cement for the Motion Picture Theatre, Decorators Supply Co., Chicago, 1913
The Decorators Supply Co. produced ornamental castings for both exterior and interior use. Photographs of early-20th-century movie theaters in this specialty catalog show painted wood-fiber “composition” ornaments were available in a wide range of motifs for decorative facades and interiors.

The New Olson Rugs, Olson Rug Co., Chicago, 1924
The Olson Rug Co. was a major regional manufacturer of floor coverings. In the early years of the 20th century, it produced rugs that were perfect for a room with wood flooring. By the mid 20th century, the company had moved into the “wall-to-wall” carpeting line.

Building Material, Millwork-Lumber-Roofing: Mantels and Fireplace Furnishings, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago, 1929
Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered a complete line of building products as well as whole house kits. This 1929 catalog featured millwork, wood doors, and windows. Other specialty catalogs include roofing, plumbing, heating, lighting, kitchen cabinets, and appliances. The stocky Sears general catalogs would contain a wide range of household furnishings and building renovation products as well.

Handbook of Hollow Building Tile Construction, Hollow Building Tile Association, Chicago, 1922
Chicago was home to several building project trade associations, including hollow building tile, oak floor manufacturers, and common brick manufacturers. This technical publication from the Hollow Building Tile Association illustrates the wide range of clay tile available for “fireproof” construction.

The Red Book: USG Building Materials—Thermal Insulation, Sound Control, U.S. Gypsum Co., Chicago, 1936
USG has its international headquarters in downtown Chicago and manufacturing facilities around the globe. The BTHL archive holds several editions of the companies annual “Red Book” for a range of building materials including wallboard and insulation.

Modern Homes, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago, 1936
Sears, Roebuck and Co. was a major producer of “kit homes,” with claims of more than 70,000 sold over a 50-year period. This 1936 volume has “modern” in the title, but the house styles would be better characterized as traditional.

Concrete Information, Portland Cement Association, Chicago, 1938
The Portland Cement Association has more than 100 technical publications in the Building Technology Heritage Library. This small summary publication from 1938 was included in that year’s edition of the Sweet’s Architectural Catalog.

Crane Plumbing and Heating for Low Cost Homes, Crane Co., Chicago, 1946
The Crane Co. headquarters was located on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, with manufacturing facilities across the country. They made plumbing and heating products for commercial and residential applications.

Multi-Level Homes, National Plan Service, Chicago, 1961
Chicago is the home to several companies that produced house plans. The National Plan Service was particularly prolific in the post-WWII era. Its publications were sold through lumberyards and builders who had their names printed on the covers.