April 26, 2022

Did Sears Houses Come with Plaques?

In this post I will re-examine another “fact” about Sears kit homes that is consistently mentioned on the internet.

Many people claim that Sears houses came with plaques that signified that the materials were from Sears Roebuck.

  • "My neighbor's house is definitely Sears. He even has the Sears plaque mounted in the utility room."
  • "I found a Sears plaque in a basement of a house I lived in once. "
  • "I am not sure what model I own, but there is a Sears plaque on the stairwell to the basement."
  • "The Realtor saw a plaque in the attic that said it is a Sears house."

Purportedly plaques are found everywhere in Sears houses--in utility rooms, basements, stairwells, and attics. Is this true? And if it is not the case, why are there all these reports of plaque sightings?

Let's take these questions one at a time.

Did Sears Houses Come with Plaques?
If all Sears houses came with plaques, identifying them would be easy!

I personally have never seen a plaque inside a Sears house. I have never had a homeowner tell me that their Sears house had a plaque. I have never once seen a photograph of a plaque. The Sears Modern Homes catalogs never once mentioned that a plaque that would be issued.

However, I have seen plaques on the outside of Sears houses that were issued by local historical societies, but I don't think that is what the people on the internet are talking about.

162 Rosedale, Crystal Lake.
 

Sears Willard.



The house plaque that clearly did not originate from Sears Roebuck.
 

Without any evidence to support the claim of plaques being issued by Sears Roebuck, we must presume that the people who think they saw one are mistaken.

Which brings us to our next question...

Why are There Many Reports of Plaque Sightings?
I consulted with a couple of other Sears house researchers. The best explanation we could come up with is that people saw the plaques found on prefabricated homes sold after WWII and erroneously attributed them to Sears.

For instance, the Lustron Corporation and the Gunnison Housing Corporation did have plaques on their houses. (Neither of these companies was affiliated with Sears Roebuck.)

A metal plaque on a Lustron house. It designates the model and serial number.

 
A Lustron in Lombard.


A metal registration plate signifying a Gunnison Home.  It says "Registered" and a bunch of numbers I can't read.


A Gunnison house in Kenosha.





March 22, 2022

Boulderstrewn, a Sears Verona with a Booby-Trapped Wine Cellar

2114 Cedar Rd., Homewood. Photo from Realtor site.


Sears Verona from 1923.

 
The Sears Verona is a Modern Dutch Revival that Sears sold from 1918 to 1928. The early Veronas (1918-1923) had a bay window on the second floor. 

The Verona's floor plan is traditional, with a formal reception hall, large rooms, and bay windows.  Sears said in its catalog that the Verona was "built many times in exclusive suburbs of New York, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and other large cities. This proves it is no experiment."

The Verona came with an enclosed back porch on the first floor and a second floor balcony on top of the porch. Today both levels have been enclosed. The enclosed back porch is another distinguishing feature of the Sears Verona. Photo from iafi.org.

 
Today, the Verona in Homewood is an airbnb owned by Peter, a Sears Homes of Chicagoland reader. Let's take a look inside! Unless otherwise noted, all photos are publicly available on airbnb.
 


 



The huge living room is about 13'x26'. 

 

 





Photo from Realtor site. 
 
 
 
 



The sunny eat-in area is in the enclosed porch.


There are stairs all over the second floor of the Verona. There are four bedrooms and a bathroom at the front of the house. 


A representative bedroom in the Verona. The house still has its original doors.

 

Another bedroom, but this one has the Sears "triple unit clothes closet".




The second-floor bathroom has a bay window as well.


J. Harlen Bretz built the Sears Verona in Homewood in 1921. He died in the home at age 98. Bretz was a world-renowned geologist at University of Chicago, where he also received his PhD.
 
J. Harlen Bretz.
 

Bretz named his property "Boulderstrewn" because of all the rocks and minerals he placed in the gardens. 
 
Bretz had quite a rock collection in the yard, although he donated the bulk of his extensive collection to Albion College upon his death. Photo from iafe.org.
 

Photo from iafe.org.


Bretz hosted many parties at Boulderstrewn for University of Chicago students and also students from his alma mater, Albion College. 

Bretz and Albion College students at Boulderstrewn in 1977.

 

Bretz would make party guests find his secret wine cellar. He would hand the guests a set of keys and challenged them to get inside the trick door. The door to the wine cellar was made of heavy iron grill, and to open it, you had to insert the keys in a certain sequence.  

According to the book An Airplane Was My Burro: The Memoirs of a Venturesome Geologist, Bretz booby-trapped some of the holes in the door. "The wrong holes could ring a bell, set off a blank cartridge pistol, give an electric shock, or even trigger a horse laugh." 

Students exploring Bretz's basement.

 

Bretz Drive in Homewood is named in his honor.

 


February 22, 2022

Were All Sears Houses Delivered by Train?

In this post I will re-examine another common misconception about Sears kit homes.

Were All Sears Houses Delivered by Train?
  • "Because the Sears Catalog Houses were shipped by railroad boxcar (typically two boxcars per home) to a rail station near the purchaser, most often Sears houses will be located close to a railway line or station, perhaps within one or two miles."
  • "It is a simple law of early 20th Century geography that because Sears homes were delivered by rail, nearly all are found near rail lines."

According to the internet, Sears homes were exclusively delivered by railroad, and therefore nearly all Sears houses will be found near rail lines. Is that true?

The short answer: sometimes Sears homes were delivered by train, and sometimes they are located near train tracks.  Let's look at the facts.

The Sears Roebuck Plants
For most of its years in operation, the Sears Modern Homes department served its customers from three locations:
  • In Cairo, Illinois, Sears had a 40-acre lumber and millwork plant. Cairo had access to five railroad lines, and the Illinois Central line abutted the Sears plant. Cairo was also adjacent to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and three barge line companies maintained terminals.
  • In Norwood, Ohio, Sears had a 17-acre millwork factory. There were multiple railroad lines near the factory.
  • In Port Newark, New Jersey, Sears had a 50-acre lumber mill. The port was 32 feet deep at points, which enabled the largest barges and draft ships to dock there. 

The Sears mill in Cairo.


If you purchased a Sears kit house, most components were shipped from one of those three locations. 

Frustrating Freight Charges
Customers were responsible for all freight charges, and freight was expensive! Obviously, the farther you lived from Illinois, Ohio, or New Jersey, the more your freight charges would be. That is why we rarely find Sears houses on the west coast

In their catalogs, Sears insisted that the savings on the building materials was so significant, that even with exorbitant freight charges, customers would still save money over buying locally. Sears even offered to help customers finance the freight charges because sometimes people couldn't come up with the money to get the materials to the building site.

The 1913 Modern Homes catalog featured many customer testimonials that mentioned the freight costs. Sears had to address the elephant in the room--the fact that freight charges were deterring potential buyers.

 
In the 1938 Modern Homes catalog, customers could complete an information form so that Sears could provide them a total price for their order, including the dreaded freight charges.


Minimizing the customers' freight costs was critical for Sears. This is why they gave customers the flexibility to choose whatever delivery method was best for them: train, truck or barge. 

The Most Common Delivery Method: Train
Rail was the predominant delivery method for Sears homes.  Is this the reason that most Sears houses were built by railroad tracks as some authors have asserted?

Let's look at the Chicago area. Chicago had many "railroad suburbs", and residential and commercial development after the turn of the century was centered around the railroads. So, the assumption that many Sears houses built during that period were located near railroad stations because the materials were delivered by rail is spurious. Most residential development was centered around the railroad stations, period. Chicago is not unique in this respect--the suburbanization of other US cities often follows the same pattern.

Data scientist Mitchell R. Fawcett, Jr. examined Sears houses in Ohio. He found that 79% are located within two miles of a railroad.  Is this correlation or causation? Most Sears houses were being built in towns that were growing in the 1920's and 1930's, as were most non-kit houses. Those flourishing towns in Ohio typically were located on the rail lines. Further, according to Fawcett's research, there is a significant number of Sears houses not located near train stations.

4802 Greenwich Court, Rolling Meadows. This house was delivered by train.


Sears Woodland.


The shipping label for the Woodland in Rolling Meadows that shows the materials for the house were delivered to the Palatine train station, on the Chicago & Northwestern line. The house is 2.8 miles from the train station, in an area that was rural at the time.


A Newer Delivery Method: Truck
During the 1920's, the number of trucks and paved roads increased rapidly. Railroads began losing freight business as trucks offered better service and quicker delivery than the railroads could provide.

One advantage of the truck deliveries was that the building materials were delivered directly to the customer's lot. (The railroads could provide direct-to-home truck delivery from the station to the customer's lot, but this was typically an additional charge.)

Sears Roebuck capitalized on this development.  

This blurb ran in newspaper advertisements for Sears Modern Homes in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other east coast locations.


The plant in Norwood, Ohio, offered truck delivery of homes within 35 miles.


A Sears Roebuck shipping label from a Sears Malden in Rockford, built in 1941. The label clearly states that the carrier is the Keeshin Motor Express Company of Chicago, a nationwide freight trucking company.


The shipping label from a Sears Brookwood in Downers Grove, built in 1931. The delivery of the building materials was made by Benson Motor Service of Chicago. The word "Interstate" is also on the label.


The fact that trucks were becoming more commonplace also enabled customers to manage the deliveries themselves. I was contacted by a man whose father was a building contractor who constructed Sears houses in the Indianapolis area. His father would drive his truck to the Cairo mill to pick up the materials in order to save money on freight.

The Most Economical Delivery Method: Barge
Workers at the Cairo plant recalled sending the houses out by rail and barge.

The mill in Cairo was less than a mile from the Ohio River. Houses could easily be shipped out by rail or barge.

 
Here is a map of the waterway system during the time Sears was selling houses. Cairo is circled in red. Its prime location on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meant Sears could ship houses by barge to cities like Omaha, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Houston, and Birmingham.


Barge deliveries were slower than rail deliveries, but the freight costs could be as much as seven times lower. 

1670 Whitcomb, Des Plaines. According to a former owner, this Sears house was "floated up the Des Plaines River by barge and then transported two blocks to the property." 
 
 
Sears Crescent.


The Final Word
Sears kit houses were delivered by rail, truck, and barge, with rail being the predominant way. Many Sears houses are located near rail lines, as are many houses that were built in the 1920's and 1930's. I don't believe there is a correlation between whether a Sears house delivered by rail was more likely to be very close to the railroad. We simply have too many instances where that was not the case. 

In general, living by the railroad was "the place to be" in that era, because that is where the commercial development was. Furthermore, in the Chicago area, many suburban residents worked downtown (like today) and they had to live near a railroad station. Whether they bought a Sears house had nothing to with it.