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A catalog page offering pre-made homes could be bought out of the Sears catalog circa 1918.
AP photo/Sears
A catalog page offering pre-made homes could be bought out of the Sears catalog circa 1918.

House in the box
Sears’ life-size dollhouses: part history, part restoration and mostly obsession

By Deborah Hastings
AP National Writer

CARLINVILLE, Ill. — She speaks with the fervor of a woman possessed. In the cadence of a grange hall auctioneer, Laurie Flori jabs a finger at each house on her street, every one ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Co.

“That’s a Carlin,” she pronounces. “That’s a Whitehall. That’s a Warrenton. That’s a Lebanon.”

Starting nearly a century ago, these stately names were bestowed upon a modest line of homes that could be purchased by mail. To Flori, they are verses in a hymn to working-class America, to a time when things were built better and cost less, when everything in the Sears catalog looked bigger and better than ordinary life.

For a while, the American dream shimmered on those pages, just as obtainable as a pair of work boots or dungarees.

A house of one’s own. Outhouse and plumbing extra. A great deal of assembly required.

Flori’s worship of these houses has been known to propel her right up the porch steps of people she’s never met to proclaim they have history in their joists and it’s their civic duty to preserve it.

Sometimes the folks at home are intrigued. Sometimes they have no idea what she’s going on about, and couldn’t care less.

At all times, this stout, mile-a-minute talker is a woman obsessed: By houses that during a 32-year span could be sent away for and ordered on credit. Houses that arrived with precut lumber and numbered for easy assembly, with 750 pounds of nails and enough paint for two coats.

The interior of a Sears house on Fourth Avenue Southeast in Decatur, which was mail-ordered in 1908 and built on site.
Daily file photos by John Godbey
The interior of a Sears house on Fourth Avenue Southeast in Decatur, which was mail-ordered in 1908 and built on site.
She is not alone in this self-appointed mission. Across the country, otherwise ordinary people have been transformed by obsession into identifying and preserving “kit houses” from Sears. They drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods armed with flashlights and fervor, searching for a telling detail of a specific model — the gabled roof of the Warrenton, the dormer windows of the Medford.

They pound the doors of strangers, seeking admittance to their basements, searching for exposed beams with telltale Sears assembly numbers. They proselytize preservation with the fervor of Jehovah’s Witnesses shoving copies of the Watchtower through a cracked screen door.

Decatur has at least one of the Sears houses, on Fourth Avenue Southeast. Louis Ellner ordered it in 1908, and it arrived as 30,000 parts in two boxcars. The four-story, two-bedroom house was restored in the 1990s after years of serving as apartments.

Sears houses around the country are as similar and dissimilar as the 447 floor plans that Sears delivered.

“It’s like King Tut and the Titanic,” said Marilyn Raschka, who used to cover the bedlam of Beirut as a foreign correspondent and now lives in Hartford, Wis. “It’s utterly fascinating.”

“It’s history,” said Rebecca Hunter, a historian who lectures on preservation and lives in Elgin, Ill. “It’s part of our heritage. And we have to do it ourselves because apparently Sears threw out everything.”

Flori, true to her nature, is a little more blunt. “The only way I can explain it,” she says, and falls into laughter, “is that it’s like a cult.”

All are fighting to identify and preserve whatever is left of the estimated 100,000 houses sold by Sears. It is not easy. No one knows where all of them are because Sears, over the years, destroyed most of its sales records. So people like Raschka and Hunter and Flori rely on their wits to seek out houses and authenticate them.

Other companies offered catalog homes — Montgomery Ward, for example, and the Michigan-based Aladdin Co. But it is Sears — because of name recognition — that gets the most attention.

The city of Carlinville is a special case. It encompasses nine blocks of nothing but Sears houses, the largest concentration in the country. The homes constituted a $1 million order placed by Standard Oil of Indiana in 1918. The fuel giant purchased nearly 200 dwellings to house an influx of miners and managers for 400-foot shafts it was sinking in southern Illinois.

They called this new neighborhood the Standard Addition. They built a park and schools nearby. The city extended its limits so water and sewer lines could greet new homeowners.

Young Carlinville was in love. Here were symbols of prosperity and security for a small town in southern Illinois. Here was the promise of better times ahead. In brand new homes, courtesy of the Sears catalog — whose copies traveled their own journey, in-house to outhouse.

Hope in a box

In 1908, Sears launched its one-stop shop for homes with full-page ads and models at state fairs. The same year, Decatur landowner Louis Ellner ordered a kit house from dozens of floor plans featured in Sears’ “Modern Homes” catalog. He paid between $1,023 and $2,385 for The Hamilton model, according to the catalog reproduced in “Houses by Mail.”
In 1908, Sears launched its one-stop shop for homes with full-page ads and models at state fairs. The same year, Decatur landowner Louis Ellner ordered a kit house from dozens of floor plans featured in Sears’ “Modern Homes” catalog. He paid between $1,023 and $2,385 for The Hamilton model, according to the catalog reproduced in “Houses by Mail.”
The American dream arrived in a box — in scores and scores of boxes, crammed with doorknobs and oak doors, manhandled into box cars, then pulled by steam engine across ribbons of railroad track pushing West.

In that place and time, what arrived from afar inspired hosannahs. Mystery deliveries came from big cities. Creature comforts were unwrapped in new, raw land. Hope came packaged in pretty paper.

And Sears was selling the biggest consumer good of all.

The price was cheap. The materials were not. Cypress shingles, bronze door hinges, glazed windows, granite bathtubs. They came in styles and shapes and sizes befitting a wealthy farm owner. They also came in smaller sizes, at prices affordable to even an immigrant coal miner.

They carried evocative names such as The Montrose, a seven-room, one-bath Eastern colonial with green shutters, flower boxes and a hooded gable entrance. “Justly considered a beautiful home in any community, no matter how exclusive,” said the catalog.

They were sold from 1926 to 1929, at prices ranging from $2,923 to $3,324. Sears estimated its prices were 30 percent to 40 percent lower than market rates.

8-hour house

Then there was Modern Home No. 55MP22, priced at about $400. It was a three-room cottage too small to qualify as even a shotgun shack. Sears boasted the house could be raised in eight hours, from floorboards to window shades, and offered photographic proof.

Blurred black-and-white catalog photos from the turn of the 20th century showed four stages of assembly with a big clock in the foreground of each frame. At 7:45 a.m., the lumber lies in piles. At 9:30 a.m. three side walls are up, as are some interior partitions. At 4:30 p.m., the entire house is done, complete with a very modest front porch.

Sears offered its own mortgages. Over time, it would offer mortgages for land as well, even though it was purchased separately.

But then came the Great Depression, and there went the houses-by-mail boom. Working-class Americans defaulted on their Sears mortgages. Families went even farther West, to California, where it was said there were jobs picking crops.

So in 1940, Sears got out of the business of making life-size dollhouses.

And despite all of the adoration from people like Flori, the place of Sears homes in architectural history is decidedly modest, just like the houses.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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