October 8, 2013

How Many Sears Homes were Built?

In this post I will re-examine another common “fact” about Sears homes that is frequently mentioned in the media and on internet sites.

How many Sears homes were built?
  • "Sears, Roebuck & Company sold approximately 50,000 kit homes nationally...."
  • From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold about 70,000 - 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program."
  • "From 1908 to 1940, between 75,000 and 100,000 houses--all components manufactured by Sears--were made available through the company's catalog."
  • "From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold more than 100,000 house kits by mail, mostly to the burgeoning middle class."
There's a big difference between 50,000 sold and over 100,000 sold.  (And we've already learned that Sears continued to sell homes through 1942, not 1940.)

Where did these estimates come from?
When the book Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company was published in 1986, the authors stated that 100,000 Sears homes were sold, based on a total touted in some Sears advertisements. 

In the 1990 book, America's Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th-Century Houses, authors Robert A. Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis debunked the 100,000 figure. They said that that number may have included all structures built by Sears or built using Sears building materials. Schweitzer maintained Sears sold about 50,000 kit homes.

In her 2004 book, Putting Sears Homes on the Map, Rebecca Hunter estimated Sears sold 56,000-70,000 homes.

Let’s take a closer look at the source information.

The facts
Sears, Roebuck discarded the sales records for the Modern Homes department. There is no way to know the actual number of homes that were sold. The best we can do is estimate based on information in the Modern Homes catalogs, information provided to the press at the time, and the financials in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. annual reports.


Year
Source
Fact reported
Increase over prior year
Running total of sold homes
Notes
1912
Sears merchandise catalog
1,340 sold

1,340
Assume this is correct. Business just getting off the ground.
1915
Merchandise catalog
Over 3,000 sold

3,000

July and Sept 1924
Display ads
30,000 sold

30,000
This seems like a reasonable number, on the high side. Sears first started selling homes in 1908. In 1931, Business Week stated that Sears sold about 3,000 houses a year starting around 1920.  So if they sold 12,000 between 1920 and 1924, they sold 17,000 in the prior 11 years.
1925
1926 Modern Homes catalog
34,000 sold
4,000
34,000
Again, this number seems consistent with a 4k increase over the previous year.
January 1926
Display ad
34,000 sold

34,000

October 1926
Display ad
37,000 sold

37,000

1926
Annual report
$8.4 million in sales
3,300 (my estimate based on sales)
37,300

June 1927
Display ad
37,500 sold

37,500

October 1927
Display ad
41,200 sold

41,200

January 1928
Display ad
41,200 sold

41,200

April and May 1928
Display ad
41,200 sold

41,200

August 1928
Display ad
42,700 sold

42,700

Fall 1928
1929 Modern Homes catalog
More than 44,200 homes sold

44,200

Spring 1929
1929 Brick Veneer Catalog
45,900 sold

45,900

April 1929
Display ad
46,900 sold

46,900

1929
Annual report
Sales were $12,050,000 for 1929.
4,300
48,500

May 1930
News article
55,000 built by May, 1930
2,599
56,299
Number from Sears 1931 report
1931
News article

2,000
58,299
More than 58,000 accordig to April 1931 press release
Aug 1932
News article
Sales $7,516,835

60,000 (reported by Sears)

1933
Annual report
Sales $3,575,878

61,000 (my estimate based on sales)

1934




In early 1934 the Modern Homes department was discontinued.
1935
Wall Street Journal and Vancouver Sun


100,000
Impossible! This number was provided by Sears to the press.
1935
1936 Modern Homes catalog


100,000
Impossible!This figure cited twice in the catalog.
1935
Company memo
Sales of about $1 million.
130
61,200
Sears resumed the Modern Homes business.
1936
Business Week
Sales of $2 million
260
61,460

1937
Business Week
Sales of 3.5 million
455
61,900

1938
Business Week
Sales of 2.75 million
357
62,300

1939


1,200
63,500
Very strong year, according to Wall Street Journal. Sales on target to hit $7M.
1940-1942



64,100
No sales data. Estimate 400 for 1940 and 150 per year for 1941-1942.




TOTAL between 63-65k



Based on this data, I would estimate the total houses Sears sold to be between 63,000 and 65,000.
 
The commonly reported 100,000 value is out of touch with reality, although it was reported by Sears in their catalogs. The 50,000 low-ball estimate is also out of line since Sears hit that milestone about 1930 and sold houses for 12 years after that.
 
Do you agree with my logic? Please leave a comment below.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds right and is consistent with other kit home manufacturers from the same era.

Caterina B said...

My husband's parents bought the "Jeremiah Nunan" house in Jacksonville, OR the mid 60's, I think it was. They put a lot of love into it and sold it in the late 60's. It was also called a "Catalog House." I believe, however, that it was built in the 1890's. You can look it up on google. It's for sale again on Zillow right now. My hubby and I and our children toured the house in 1993 and he was pretty overcome with nostalgia to see it again. His parents paid about $60,000 way back then and now it's millions!

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...