Courtesy BTHL

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.

The concept of the kit house likely originated in the U.K., but after these mail-order residences were introduced to the U.S. market in the late 19th century, they became synonymous with the American dream.

Advertised in manufacturing catalogs, the typical kit house offered buyers pre-cut materials to assemble into permanent residences and could be shipped around the country. Though early versions were primarily simple wooden structures, by the early 20th century, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other manufacturers also provided all heating, electrical, and plumbing components. (Concrete, brick, and masonry was not included and usually acquired locally.) Eventually, manufacturers began to market these kit houses as “vacation cottages” and “bungalows” to expand their use and applications.

Today, the BTHL houses a comprehensive catalog of architectural house plan publications dating back to the 1800s. See a curated timeline of these structures below.

Sectional Portable Houses, D.N. Skillings and D.B. Flint, Boston, 1861
Boston-based D.N. Skillings and D.B. Flint marketed its buildings' ease and speed of construction. “The construction of these building is so simple that two or three men without mechanical knowledge, or experience in building, can set up one of them IN LESS THAN THREE HOURS,” the catalog proclaims. The company offered specific configurations for plantation houses, officer quarters, schoolhouses, chapels, carriage houses, and specialty designs for warm climates.

Forrest's Portable Houses, L. Forest & Co., Minneapolis, 1883
L. Forest & Co. claimed to offer the “cheapest, strongest, and warmest portable houses on the market.” Since some of the company’s customers were immigrant settlers of the upper Midwest, the structures needed to provide “sufficient warmth and strength to meet the severity of the climate.”

Boulton & Paul, Norwich, England, 1888
This extensive catalog offers wood and iron “portable buildings” to serve as houses, conservatories, greenhouses, and farm buildings. Many of the wrought iron options feature stylistic treatments typical of the Victorian era with extensive use of galvanized corrugated iron.

Illustrated Catalogue of Goods Manufactured and Supplied by W.C. Sper Ltd., London, 1903
As “horticultural providers,” William Cooper Sper also offered designs for iron houses, cottages, and bungalows, as well as churches, chapels, and missions. The portable buildings were marketed for export and promoted as “suitable for all climates—the Colonies, South Africa, and India.”

Aladdin Houses, North American Construction Co., Bay City, Mich., 1915
The Aladdin Co. was a pioneer in pre-cut kit homes of the 20th century. It survived until 1982 and was relaunched as GreenTerraHomes in 2018. During its peak years in the 1920s, the manufacturer offered a variety of styles, including Craftsman, bungalow, American Foursquare, Colonial Revival, and eventually ranch houses.

Hodgson Portable Houses, E.F. Hodgson Co., Boston, 1916
Operating from 1892 until 1944, E. F. Hodgson Co. was an prolific retailer of vacation cottages in the Northeastern U.S. While vacation cottages were its primary product, the comapny also offered small agricultural buildings such as chicken coops.

‘Presto Up’ Patented Bolt-Together Cottages, Harris Brothers Co., Chicago, 1923
After an early start as the demolition contractor for the 1893 Chicago World Fair, Harris Brothers Co. became a major building material supplier with a line of kit residences in the early 20th century. This catalog features “vacation cottages” with a patented “bolt together” construction system.

Book of Homes, Gordon-Van Tine Co., Davenport, Iowa, 1941
The Gordon-Van Tine Co. offered many designs using “top grade lumber” for customers of its kit houses, but also had a special residential planning department for customizable options.

Liberty Ready-Cut Homes, Lewis Manufacturing Co., Bay City, Mich., c. 1940
The Lewis Manufacturing Co. was one of three kit house manufacturers in Bay City, Mich., and was the first producer of Aladdin Homes. The company survived the Great Depression and continued operation through World War II (WWII) with military contracts, producing more than 70,000 houses before closing production in 1975. This post-WWII catalog features small, one-story houses to meet the increased demand for affordable housing following the war.

Your General Panel Home, General Panel Corp. of California, Burbank, Calif., c. 1950
This catalog features a single model designed with “step saving efficiency” that came “complete, ready for you to move.” In addition to the residential design, the publication offers detailed illustrations of the panel construction and installation methods.

Albee Pre-cut Homes, Albee Homes, Middleburgh Heights, Ohio, 1960
This catalog features various “architect designed” ranch-style kit houses, with one option inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.