A short history of Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. was founded Chicago in 1886 as a mail order company. Its origins go back to Minnesota where a railroad station agent named Richard Warren Sears:
received from a Chicago jeweler an impressive shipment of watches which were unwanted by a local jeweler. Sears purchased them, then sold the watches for a considerable profit to other station agents, then ordered more for resale. Soon he started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs. The next year, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he met Alvah C. Roebuck, who joined him in the business. (Wikipedia)
Sears grew grew to be the largest retailer in the country, a status it maintained until 1989, when it was surpassed by Walmart. By the early years of the new century everyone wanted to own his own home, and Sears was ready and willing to help them make that happen. According to Sears’ history website:
In 1906, Frank W. Kushel, a Sears manager, was given responsibility for the catalog company’s unwieldy, unprofitable building materials department. Sales were down, and there was excess inventory languishing in warehouses. He is credited with suggesting to Richard Sears that the company assemble kits of all the parts needed and sell entire houses through mail order.
Rosemary Thornton is the foremost expert on Sears catalog houses. She has several helpful books, including Sears Homes of Illinois, which I enjoyed very much. And her website is a fount of awesome information. According to her:
The first Model Homes catalog in 1908 coincided with the advent of the Model T, which gave people the opportunity to move to the suburbs.… Sears home sales skyrocketed in the 1920s. By 1931 Sears had sold 57,000 homes. Then the Depression came and sales plummeted. Sears had to foreclose on the mortgages they had freely offered. No more easy payment plans. By the end in 1940, 70,000 homes [had been] purchased. The 1926 Catalog was largest with 80 house designs, not counting farm/out buildings.
Rosemary says there are Sears home in nearly every city or town of Illinois. And the various models were named after places in Illinois. But “many people mistakenly think they have one. Others do and have no idea. Many have been drastically changed or added onto by remuddlers.” In case you get the urge to go hunting for them (Lots of people consider that a fine hobby) Rosemary has clues about what to look for in her book and on her website.
The average Sears catalog house kit had approximately 25 tons of material with over 30,000 parts, including everything from kegs of nails, glue, paint, plaster, roofing, paint, varnish, windows, doors, plumbing, and electrical fixtures. A disassembled, gravity-fed coal furnace was also part of the package. Bathroom floors, with their blue and white octagonal tiles were laid in thick mortar beds, all of which was included in the kit. How complete was the package? Well, Sears sent along two small trees for planting in the front yard. And each kit included floor plans that detailing the ideal placement for Sears Roebuck furnishings, such as chairs, couches, dinettes, pianos and tables. (Old House Web)
The whole house was delivered by boxcar. The buyer broke the wax seal on the boxcar, inventoried the materials, and hauled it by wagon or Model T truck to his site. Railroads gave them 24-48 hours to do so. …Each piece of lumber was stamped with letter and three digits. Sears sent a 75-page leather bound instruction book, embossed with the buyer’s name to explain how to put it all together. (Thornton)
The various websites, books, and authorities conflict on who has the largest collection of Sears house— Elgin, Illinois or Carlinville, Illinois. It’s close, but I concluded that the honor should go to Carlinville because its houses are contiguous.
The Sears Addition in Carlinville, Illinois
News of the house began to leak out to Carlinville citizens on October 17, 1917, when a small newspaper article informed the public that the Carlinville Coal Company had been sold to an unknown entity. Over the course of the next few weeks, the facts were teased out.
The buyer turned out to be Standard Oil Company of Indiana, which excited citizens to no end. Everyone knew that Wood River had boomed when the company built its refinery there. And then when word got out that Herman Schoper had sold his 500-acre farm to the company, the speculations really started flying.
“What the purchase means no one knows, but a company like the Standard is not making such investments without developing them.” (qtd in Thornton)
When the company’s plans became clear, everyone was delighted. Standard Oil was going to expand the coalmine to fuel their refinery, and they would be hiring 2,000 miners, supervisors, and support personnel to run it. At the time, Carlinville’s population was fewer than 4,000 souls, so finding men to fill the jobs would be a challenge.
Many able-bodied men were overseas. In the state of Illinois, more than 351,000 men had gone to war. The labor shortage was acute. In order to attract the highest quality workers, Standard Oil decided to build houses for them. (Thornton)
And they decided the best way to get good, solid houses and get them quick was to order them from the Sears catalog. The city of Carlinville annexed property–still known today as the Standard Addition–upon which to build the 156 houses Standard Oil had ordered. It would be a nine-block community, and there would be nine different modest-sized Sears models randomly placed along the new streets.
A temporary rail spur was built to the edge of the Addition to facilitate the unloading of the boxcars. They dug the basements of the houses with a steam-powered slip shovel at $17 for 5-room house and $20 for 6-room house.Construction of the houses themselves began at the farthest edge of the new neighborhood on College Street (now University Street) and ended on Front Street nearest to the train tracks.
And the builders were supervised by a 28-year-old woman named Elizabeth Spaulding. (Read about her in my other post.)
Construction of the houses began in the fall of 1918, and they were finished 8 ½ months later in the spring of 1919. Standard Oil made them available to their miners at $1000 under cost, and Sears offered generous terms on the mortgages. (I’m still not clear how that worked exactly.)
Carlinville was giddy with the benefits all this brought to the city. They had agreed to install the necessary infrastructure for plumbing and sewage. They put fire hydrants in, and built a park. There was at least one grocery store conveniently located in the Addition.
And all was well. The Sears homes in the Standard Addition gave 156 mining families a shot at the American Dream. But the dream only lasted six years. After the Great War, Standard Oil discovered that they could buy coal cheaper from non-unionized Kentucky than they could dig it out of the earth for themselves in Carlinville. So they closed the mines down and sealed them shut.
Sears was forced to foreclose on every last home in the Addition, and the miners left to find work elsewhere. Many went to the industrial city of St. Louis, 60 miles to the south. For ten years, the homes in the Standard Addition sat empty and desolate. With only eight families left, it became known as “The Phantom City.” (Old House Web)
Standard Oil finally got around to selling the houses. It was the height of the Depression, and people snapped them up for a fraction of their current prices in the Sears catalog. The houses were in terrible condition, and the new owners had to work hard to get them back into shape.
Only 150 of the houses still exist. An article from the Nov/Dec 1985 issue of Illinois Magazine, said that some of the trees Sears had sent for the front yards were still alive. And when I visited the Addition a few months ago I noticed some fine old trees lining the streets.
A few years ago there was a resurgence of interest in the Sears houses in Carlinville. There have been numerous documentaries about them, and people from around the world have come to tour the Addition. At one time Carlinville featured them an annual house tour, but I don’t believe they do that anymore.
Some people are quite dedicated to preserving the Sears houses and educating people about their existence. Lori Fiori is one such aficionado. Some might even go so far to call her an “evangelist” for Sears houses. (In this respect, my character Josephine Sayers in More Than Meets the Eye bears a resemblance to her.)
I enjoyed Lori Fiori’s book Additionally Speaking very much. And here is an article written about her in 2007 by Deborah Hastings, AP National Writer.
I hope you’ll get the chance to visit Carlinville one day soon to see the Sears houses for yourself. In 2018 they will be 100 years old, and they can’t last forever, you know. Until then, you can relive the glory days of the Sears catalog house boom in More Than Meets the Eye.
It would be so nice of you to share!