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 Library (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.
Founded by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck in 1886, Sears, Roebuck & Co. earned its 20th century designation as the “world’s largest store” primarily through its catalog sales. In addition to its exhaustive general catalogs, Sears also published kit-home catalogs—which were distributed beginning in 1908—that led to the sale of more than 70,000 residences in 30 years.
Available in more than 370 styles as well as custom options, each kit contained most of the materials required to construct a wood-framed residence, with the exception of heavy masonry or concrete materials, which could be obtained locally. Once a house was in place, homeowners could then turn to Sears’ how-to books on painting, electrical wiring, and plumbing for maintenance needs.
With nearly 100 Sears building products catalogs, the BTHL chronicles both the evolution of residential design and the history of the mail-order-turned-department store corporation.
Honor Build Modern Homes, Chicago, 1918
Prices for house plans range from $400 to more than $5,000 in this catalog, which also advertises a three-room residence that could be constructed in eight hours. Potential buyers can peruse floor plans, furnished room images, and exterior photos or sketches of the different styles.
Ready Made Buildings, Chicago, 1920
This catalog advertises multiple uses for single- and muti-room structures, including as cabins, photography studios, schoolhouses, as well as garages and chicken houses.
Modern Farm Buildings Already Cut and Fitted: Barn Equipment, Chicago, 1928
Sears marketed heavily to rural Americans, who still comprised half of the U.S. population in the early 20th century. This catalog proclaims these barns are “built like a skyscraper!” due to precutting and fitting manufacturing techniques for the components.
Homes of Today, Chicago, 1932
What is the best way to determine floor plan options? Potential buyers in the 20th century could simply fill out and mail a tear-out form from the back of this catalog—specifying architectural preferences, payment plans, and the appropriate garage size.
Modern Homes, Chicago, 1936
Readers are invited to learn about Sears’ kit home-making factories in this catalog, which states: “the buzzing of giant electric machines; the screech of electric spider-like lumber carriers with four ton loads winding their way through the plant around millions of feet of stored lumber; the whistle of electric cranes as they raise an entire load of lumber from storage shed to waiting automobile trucks…. That, briefly tells the story of our factory activities."
How to Paint, Chicago, 1939
Sears also sold various how-to manuals for the homeowner. The “How to Paint” series was published updated regularly over a 30-year period from 1910 to 1940. This edition covers everything from appropriate brushes to the number of coats, to refinishing furniture and household items.
House Wiring Made Easy, Chicago, 1939
The expansion of electrical service to rural America was a major federal government initiative of the 1930s. This Sears guide to housewiring contained practical advice for rural homeowners.
How to Do Your Own Color Planning with Sears Harmony House Coordinated Colors, Chicago, 1959
Sears even offered a catalog that pre-coordinated colors for homeowners to ensure that various furnishings matched using its proprietary Harmony House color collection.