February 24, 2015

Where's the List?

One of the most common questions I am asked in classes is:

"Where can we find the list of Sears homes?"

You know, the master list of Sears house locations compiled by researchers for the last 30 years.

I asked the same question myself a few years ago.

A Frustrating Lack of Information
When my daughter was in third grade, she had to create an exhibit for the Chicago Metro History Fair. We decided to cover the topic of the ready-to-build kit houses that Sears, Roebuck sold through mail order.  I had read articles about Sears homes in our local newspaper, and I thought it was an understandable history topic for young kids.

My daughter wanted to include photos of actual Sears houses in our area.  I inquired at the nearby historical societies. They gave me a few leads, but I was surprised to learn there was no master list of Sears home locations.

As I helped my daughter do her research, I soon learned that most articles and websites simply mention the name of a town where a particular Sears house is located but do not mention street names or house numbers. When you're dealing with a dense, highly populated area like Chicago, a town name is essentially useless--a person could spend hours looking for a single house and not find it.

Sears, the company, had attempted to start a national list of Sears houses on its Sears Archives website (now abandoned). The meager list contained only one house from my immediate area and, as you might guess, the street address was not included so it didn't help me locate the house for my daughter's project. Frustrating.

At the time, there were a few detailed lists of homes. Elgin had paid for an architectural survey and published its list of kit houses online. The cities of Aurora and Blue Island had published brochures about where their kit houses were located. A resident of Park Ridge had launched a website about where the kit houses were in that town.

My daughter and I were able to cobble together enough photos for the exhibit (five houses). But the precise locations of most Sears homes in the Chicago area remained a mystery.

My sweet little third grader in front of a Sears Wilmore at 743 N. Pine in Arlington Heights. We used this photo as part of her history fair exhibit. 

The Birth of the Sears Homes of Chicagoland Website
I started a free website and posted the house photos that my daughter used in her history fair exhibit (and their specific addresses).Maybe the information would help someone else one day. 

As people started contacting me through the website about their kit homes in the Chicago area, I soon realized that I must start posting about more of these historic homes and make the addresses available. We live in a land of teardowns, and it’s important to know a house’s history before hitting it with a wrecking ball. 

My policy is that I do not include a house photo on my website without a specific address. (Homeowner names are another story; I include those only with permission.)

"The List"--the National Database of Sears Homes 
There were several other researchers throughout the country gathering addresses of Sears homes just like I was. We agreed that the addresses needed to be readily available and housed in one central location.

This group started the National Database of Sears Homes where we could enter the addresses of Sears houses in the United States as we discovered them. This official registry is just a simple spreadsheet, but it's better than nothing. It's slow going; as a volunteer I admit that I add only a couple houses a week.

This list contains only a fraction of the Sears houses still in existence today. (Sears sold roughly 65,000 houses.) When I asked one researcher why no one had ever started a master list, the answer was, "There are just too many houses." You have to start somewhere!

Researching kit houses is no different from any other scientific discipline. Scientists must communicate their discoveries and results so that others may build on that work to extend knowledge. Additionally, openness about findings enables other investigators to challenge and verify results.

Looking Towards the Future
But there are still some kit house researchers who choose not to share specific addresses of houses they locate. What will happen to that research if something unforeseen happens? Poof... it's gone.

The idea of a common list of addresses takes on even more importance in light of recent events. Researcher Donna Bakke and popular blogger Laraine Shape (who ran Sears Houses in Cincinnati) both passed away in the last few months. With that in mind, I've thought about what would happen to my website with its hundreds of house histories if something happened to me. I haven't figured out how a succession plan will work, but it's an important consideration. At a minimum, I have ensured that the house addresses have been entered in the database for future reference.

If you have information you would like to include in the National Database of Sears Homes, please email me.

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