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Home / Business / Sears has faded, but memories of his mail-order companies are holding up: NPR

Sears has faded, but memories of his mail-order companies are holding up: NPR



The Magnolia apartment was one of the largest offered in the Sears catalog. Sears sold more than 70,000 mail-order companies between 1

908 and 1940. Some enthusiasts estimate that about 70 percent of Sears homes are still standing today.

Sears Holdings Corp.


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Sears Holdings Corp.

The Magnolia apartment was one of the largest offered in the Sears catalog. Sears sold more than 70,000 mail-order companies between 1908 and 1940. Some enthusiasts estimate that about 70 percent of Sears homes are still standing today.

Sears Holdings Corp.

Thanks to the internet, you can buy virtually anything online and have it delivered to you in a few days or less.

The process recalls the early 1900s, when people turned to mail order catalogs to buy things. And, amazingly enough for the time, they could even order houses via catalog.

Sears, once America's largest retailer, was just a company that sold houses this way. Now that its parent has filed for bankruptcy, the owners of some of these homes are complaining about the end of the Sears era.

"You know you live in an example of what Sears achieved on the day they became the country's largest catalog vendor," says Andrew Mutch, who owns a Sears house outside of Detroit.

In his first catalog in 1888, Sears sold watches and jewelry. The catalogs proved popular, and over time, various products have been added and tested – including houses.

The Sears Modern Homes catalog debuted in 1908, and it offered all the materials and blueprints for building a home. The pieces that arrived in the post office were supposed to be similar to Lego bricks, so that the buyers could build the houses themselves or hire out contractors.

"You would order anything from your lamps, to your lamp, [the wall covering] kitchen cabinets, the whole thing, whether you get a garage or not, and then it has just delivered to you," Conservative Eric Dobson told NPR ; s Allison Keyes in 2014.

Sears was not the first company to offer custom-made mail order companies, but when the catalog was discontinued in 1940, Sears has estimatedly sold between 70,000 and 75,000 homes.

Sears Homes

A look at the houses cataloged by Sears in catalogs from 1908 to 1940.

The houses originally cost between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand. The Martha Washington model, for example, originally sold for $ 2,688 to $ 3,727 (or the equivalent of $ 35,713 to $ 49,518 today), but sold for more than $ 1 million in 2016.

Some mail-order enthusiasts estimate that about 70 percent of Sears homes are still standing today.

Eric Romain owns one of them, a Vallonia model in Royal Oak, Michigan, and his area has some caravans in particular.

A photo of Eric Romain's Vallonia model house today.

Courtesy of Eric Romain


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Courtesy of Eric Romain

A photo of Eric Romain's Vallonia model house today.

Courtesy of Eric Romain

"I can drive for five minutes, or I can ride my bike and see six different model houses that are identical to mine," he says.

Romain says Sears homes are more or less like other catalog-sold homes of her era, but her stories and her role in helping the middle-class to grow are what makes them remarkable.

"Being a middle class and being able to buy and own a home that you can build with your own hands" makes the houses special, he says.

Romain has fond memories of the business of Sears, where he grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, to buy father artisan tools.

"It was part of the landscape of the growing mall," says Romain. When it closes, he says, "I can not even fathom what that will be like."

An old photograph of Romain's house found in his local library (above) compared to the catalog image of the Vallonia model (below).

Courtesy of Eric Romain and Sears Holdings Corp.


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Courtesy of Eric Romain and Sears Holdings Corp.

An old photograph of Romain's apartment found in his local library (above) compared to the catalog image for the Vallonia model (below).

Courtesy of Eric Romain and Sears Holdings Corp.

Mutch and his wife Wendy lead the Kit House Hunters blog where they share the work that they and other researchers have done to identify kit houses across the country.

Mutch bought a Hamilton-style home in Novi, Michigan in 2003. It was one of the houses in the original Modern Homes catalog of 1908, although this particular was built in 1926.

When Mutch Bought The house received an unusual housewarming gift from the previous owners – a folder containing information about Sears' homes.

He says that he already knew that it was a house of Sears, since he bought the property of friends, but that he bought it for his character.

Mutch began exploring Sears' homes after the son of the original owner of the house had stretched out to him shared photos of the house under construction.

It was this interaction that moved him to explore Sears kit houses.

"I realized that this was not just a house, but the whole story behind the house," says Mutch.

"I associate Sears with that big, iconic brand everyone knew, it was not an obscure store, every town had a Sears store," says Mutch. "It was there forever."

He's not old enough to remember Sears in his best years, but he says he and other kit homeowners are distressed by the company's financial woes.

The Hamilton Model House, now owned by Andrew Mutch, under construction Novi, Mich., Is pictured in 1926.

Family Salow / Courtesy of Andrew Mutch


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Family Salow / Courtesy of Andrew Mutch

The Hamilton Model House, now owned by Andrew Mutch and under construction in Novi, Michigan, is pictured in 1926.

Salow Family / Courtesy of Andrew Mutch

Mutchs Hamilton model house, as it looks today.

Courtesy of Andrew Mutch


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Mutchs Hamilton model house, as it looks today.

Courtesy of Andrew Mutch

Rebecca Hunter, author of Putting Sears Homes on the Map, grew up in Sears Stores. "You went there when you did not have any money to shop in the other stores," she says.

Hunter admits that smaller homes, including kit houses, are being demolished and replaced by McMansions.

"Construction has changed and people's needs have changed, and not many people want a small six and a half-square-foot room cottage," she says.

But Hunter hopes to continue finding and exploring Sears homes and other kit houses.

"The phenomenon of home installation is quite unique in American architecture, so I strongly believe we need to save at least some of those homes," she says.

Ayesha Abid is an intern at the NPR Business Desk.


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