After a 132 years, the company that built America is declaring bankruptcy. Sears, is closing an additional 142 stores on top of the 40 that were announced in August. It is possible that the former retail giant won’t survive this crisis and that there will be nothing left of it but some empty Ghost-Boxes in malls and the childhood memories of Gen X kids pouring over the Christmas Wishbook.
Actually no, now that I think of it. There will be quite a things left over here and there, if you know where to look….
At about the turn of the last century, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company had a problem. The multi-generational house. At that time it was fairly common for extended families to live in one large but rather over crowded home. If you needed more room, you built an edition on to the existing family house.
An over crowded house, is a house without enough room for fine Sears products to be put inside it, the Sears president reasoned. All these fine young and prosperous couples with their pockets bulging full of ready money and no room to put something. So they just don’t buy it. It was too much of a tragedy to borne.
There was only one thing for it. Sears already sold everything from shotguns to tombstones, they were going to have to start selling houses as well.
And sell them they did. Better than 75,000 of them and that is just the ones we know about. Sears would sell everything from a modest hunting cabin to a magnificent three story mansion, (The Magnolia).
The house arrived by railroad freight car in better than 12,000 pre-cut pieces with a big red wax seal on the front that was to be broken solely and only by the man who owned it.
Sears Honor Bilt line of homes swore that a “reasonably capable man”* could build his house in ninety days. Provided he could follow instructions. The very first thing the instruction book said, was that if you didn’t follow the instructions, anything that happened to your house was on you.
Given the time and place, House Raising parties were held. Men would lay the foundation, women would make food and drink and children would sort the carefully labeled pieces.
In the end you would have your castle. Your nice empty castle, where as the good folks at Sears had helpfully pointed out in the instructions, there was a great spot for a Victrola in the drawing room.
The Sears kit house was no minor thing. It was a major influence on American life in the early 20th century. Before that if you wanted to build a new house, you either had to hire an architect and builder. Or just try and make do with your own skills and those of your neighbors. Or more likely you just move in with Mom and Dad.
And it was the Sears kit house rather than the Model T that actually gave those young families independence in the early 20th century.
Kit houses were not without their detractors of course. Architects and builders hated them mightily. In fact the kit house was what started the Craftsmen design movement. The Craftsmen was a deliberate effort to preserve traditional skills of masonry and wood work. And as any of those architects would tell you, kit houses were designed to be easy to build, not easy to live in.
Sears for it’s part viewed it’s Honor Bilt line as the way of the future. After all if you wanted a car, you didn’t have the Oldsmobile company come over and build it in your driveway. Why should people still be building houses like they did in the day of Julius Caesar? This was the 20th Century after all.
Eventually, Sears ran into a problem. They wanted more and more people to be able to afford to build their houses, so Sears, Roebuck and Co. got into…wait for it…the sub-prime mortgage industry in 1920. There was almost no application process at all to get a Sears mortgage and for almost ten years there was no real problem with the system.
Then came 1930 and Sears had to move from the mortgage business to the foreclosure business.
Imagine how bad it was to lose your home. Now imagine what it was like to be losing a home that you had built with your own two hands.
It was huge black eye for Sears and there were families that swore the company off for generations.
About 1940, Sears decided it was high time to get out of the business. There were a couple of other companies like Aladdin Homes by then but when Levittown was built the end was in sight. The kit companies had to go cheap to try to compete. In consequence, kit houses were suddenly and justly earning a bad reputation for poor materials and shoddy design work.
As for Sears, the kit house business was such an embarrassing sore spot for them that when they closed production they burned all of their sales records.
Today the only way to identify a Sears house is to go into the basement and check the lumber for shipping labels and stenciling, then compare the house against known models. There are in fact ardent hobbyists that do this all time now.
While Sears may soon be a memory, I take pleasure in the knowledge that the dream houses the company built will live on for many more years.
*These were men from 19th century America. Even millionaires knew how to swing a hammer.