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September 21, 2012 9:10 pm
Almost everywhere in the world companies offer flatpack furniture, sold from catalogues or showrooms and sent home in cardboard boxes with stick-figure illustrated instructions. Cheap, relatively easy to assemble and mass-produced, the pieces offer a convenient solution to furnishing homes; however, they rarely last more than a few years.
Flatpack products have not always had such short lifespans. Shipped in boxcars instead of cardboard and with leatherbound instruction manuals instead of A4 leaflets, flatpack homes were aimed at Americans moving from farms to suburbs in the Midwest and along the east coast in the 1900s.
Sears, the department store, was one of the most prolific manufacturers. It sold more than 70,000 of its Modern Homes from 1908 to 1940, customised and delivered to a local rail depot in a boxcar or two. About 25,000 are estimated to remain today.
Models ranged from two-room cottages without indoor plumbing to the Magnolia, which had a dozen rooms including servants’ quarters. The cheapest sold for less than $1,000; the grandest for more than five times that amount.
Kit catalogues highlighted the labour and cost savings. A 1926 catalogue stated that a Sears home would save more than 230 man hours during construction and eliminate the need for an architect. Though it saved only about $125, that was enough to make home ownership achievable for many.
“Here is a fine two-storey home that any American can be proud of and in which he can find comfort for a lifetime. It is a dignified, substantial house that will stand out among its neighbours and never go ‘out of style’,” read a 1923 entry for the Sears Americus model.
Nearly 100 years after it was built, the catalogue’s promises hold true for the Karas family. In the nearly two decades they have lived there, they have had few problems with their Americus home in Western Springs, Illinois. It retains its original oak flooring, skirting boards and decorative touches including diamond-shaped detailing on the fireplace.
“You don’t hear about Sears houses falling down,” says Steve Seaney, who owns a 1921 Avondale.
The Alhambra, a “mission” type home, had “a sideboard in the dining room, a large brick mantel with a bookcase on each side in the living room, an ironing board in the kitchen”. In Susan Mojica’s Alhambra in Elgin, Illinois, all but the ironing board remain in good condition. The home, which sold for $1,969 according to the 1919 Sears catalogue, still has its original light fixtures, door hardware, skirting boards and stucco exterior.
The home remained in the family that built it in 1928 until three years ago, when Mojica and her husband bought it for 80 times the original price at $157,500. The Mojicas are slowly restoring the property to its original condition.
Western Springs and Elgin are both Chicago suburbs, where many kit homes are still located. Chicago is a nexus for railroads, and flatpack homes are often clustered along railway lines because of the ease of transportation.
Before homes could be shipped, buyers either had to pay for the home or obtain a mortgage, which Sears helpfully provided. By selling mortgages, Sears stood to make more money than just selling kits, says Rebecca Hunter, an expert on Sears homes. Most mortgages were five-year loans and the average payment was $25-$30 a month. In 1929, Sears pulled in $12m in sales for 49,000 homes and sold $5.6m in mortgages. Just in time for the stock market crash in October 1929.
In the early days of the Great Depression, business remained relatively steady but it took a turn for the worse in 1933-34 – $11m in mortgages was liquidated in 1934 and Sears discontinued the Modern Homes line. It was briefly revived until the early 1940s, but never achieved its earlier success.
Though some people live in Sears homes without any idea of their history, others, like Seaney, seek out a historical residence. His Avondale home originally had three bedrooms and one bathroom. When Seaney and his wife purchased it, the exterior had been painted pink and the signature front porch had been enclosed. Through careful renovation, they added and enlarged rooms to make a substantial family home. They hired an architect who specifically dealt with historic homes, and were careful to stick to period details. They restored the front porch, repainted the house to a colour similar to the original and rewired the electrical work.
Hunter, who inspects old building permits and mortgage documents to track down kit homes, says she can find it difficult to tell at a glance whether some of the homes are actually flatpacks. One home in Elgin had a façade that had been completely renovated, while the back and sides remained perfectly recognisable.
“People are honouring their mail-order homes,” she says. “When they find out more about them, people want to go back to the original appearance and they are delighted to see their homes looking like a picture from the catalogue.”
Though thousands of Sears homes are still standing, there is no definitive index of which models remain. The Sears Archive, which has a website for enthusiasts, is no longer maintained and the last archivist left years ago, according to researchers. The work falls to people such as Hunter, who travel around the country, driving through tree-shaded suburbs looking for a Sears diamond in the rough.
On a smaller scale, local organisations such as the Western Springs Historical Society trace local homes that are thought to have been made by Sears. They do not have the authority to preserve them, but they try to maintain their histories. The society recognised the Karas family’s preservation effort with a plaque that hangs on their restored front porch.
“We’ve got people who are restoring and honouring their homes and then we have the people who are just renovating them,” says Hunter.
“Sears homes represent an important time in our history, it was the growth of the middle class and middle-class people wanted the houses. Sears was there for the buyer of modest means.”
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