By Karen Foss
(KSDK) -- Generations before internet shopping, or even shopping malls, many Americans ordered their everyday items through the mail from big retailers like Sears Roebuck.
The fat Sears catalog was often called the "wish" book, selling everything from wedding rings to shoes; toys to farm equipment. In fact the Sears catalog granted one very big wish for thousands of Americans.
"They came in about 30,000 pieces with a seventy-five page instruction book that told you how all those pieces went together," says historian Rosemary Thornton.
For just under $3,000 you could buy a charming house like the "Cedars" - right out of the catalog . All you had to do was assemble it!
"Sears promised a man of average abilities could build one of these in about ninety days."
The houses came as pre-cut kits with every detail pre-made. Sears claimed the builder didn't even need a saw! Many of the houses sprang up in the Midwest in the 1920's and 30's.
Kirkwood couple Susan Englund and Doug Luke live in one today. Susan remembers, "We didn't realize it when we first moved in, but one of the neighbors told us it was a Sears house. "It's a lot of fun. It’s a special kind of a surprise for us. It was just really nice to be able to find out a little bit about the house and about the history of it by kind of researching into it a little bit and understanding how it had come about.”
The history appeals to Doug also, "They would ship the parts by rail, and so the idea that it came here to the Kirkwood train station sometime in the thirties, and then you would hire a local contractor and they would build the house for you. In particular, it feels that there is a little bit of Kirkwood history.”
Historian Rosemary Thornton has been sleuthing for Sears houses for years. She says the largest concentration of the kit homes was built by Standard Oil in Carlinville, Illinois to house a sudden influx of coal miners and other workers about 1920.
"These houses in Carlinville are especially interesting because they were built by Standard Oil when Standard Oil had a coal mine here."
Old catalogs at the Carlinville Library document the Sears catalog housing business. The largest house - called the Magnolia - sold for just over $5,000. A simple shotgun house sold for less than $500.
But large house or small, Thornton says everything you needed was included.
"To give you an idea, it was 750 pounds of nails, 27 gallons of paint and garnish, 10 pounds of wood putty, 30,000 pieces that you assembled with an instruction book, so to me that speaks the American dream."
Sears estimated a contractor would charge less than $500 to assemble one of the houses.
"And Standard Oil hired a woman to supervise the building of these houses, which was extraordinary back in the late teens and early twenties. And they said that she was very particular. She would hire men in the morning and fire them by noon, because they weren't working up to her standards,” said Rosemary.
After so many years, so many owners and - often - so many alterations, one of the most frequently-asked questions is: "How can I tell if my house is a Sears house?" It can take some careful detective work.
With direction from Thornton, this Kirkwood family poked around their basement to confirm their house's pedigree.
"So the numbers are at the end of the joists, the floorboards there, so that's what she used to authenticate the house,” said Doug.
Even these 21st century owners appreciate the house's logical floor plan and its detailed, sturdy construction.
"One of the most common misconceptions about Sears homes is that they were modest or that they were cheaply built, or that they were inferior in some way. These are great houses."
And for Susan, Doug, and family, their 75-year-old Sears catalog house still is a great house.
About 70,000 Sears homes were built from 1908 until the venture was closed in 1940. Rosemary Thornton has published two books and numerous articles on Sears houses.