The eccentric engineer: The biggest kit in the world
Image credit: Alamy
Long before online shopping, people living far from city centres could order goods from catalogues. The range of available items could put even a modern internet retailer to shame.
Kit homes were pioneered in the USA by the Aladdin Company, whose ‘Readi-Cut’ houses proved popular, particularly with corporations that were spreading across the wide-open spaces of the US, who had land, but no houses to put their workforce in. Companies like DuPont built entire towns using Aladdin kits, which were cheap and easy to assemble – even by an unskilled workforce. In 1917, 252 Aladdin kits made their way to England to form ‘Austin Village’, a town for the workforce of Austin Motors then busily engaged in war work.
Yet the company that really cornered the market in kit houses was Sears Roebuck. Already one of the major players in the home catalogue business, it prided itself on selling everything from knickerbockers to steel joists. Naturally, not everything sold equally well. By 1906, its building supplies division was making a loss, but as its building materials manager Frank W Kushel was looking at the company’s mountain of lumber and ironmongery, he had an idea. In Sears Roebuck’s inventory, everything you need to build a house was there, so he suggested to Richard Sears that the company could draw up architectural plans, gather all the pieces together and sell whole houses in kit form.
So was born not a catalogue for homewares, but for homes themselves. The 1908 Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans offered 44 house styles from $360–$2,890 along with a kit schoolhouse priced at $11,500, for which you got six classrooms, a library, an assembly hall, and an office. With the money to invest in the latest mass-production machinery, Sears could offer kit houses far cheaper than builders. As its mail-order business already sent catalogues to millions of Americans, the firm could get its dream homes in front of more people than its competition.
Initially, Sears’ kits contained timber that still needed to be cut to size and jointed – a skilled job for a carpenter. But from 1916, following on from Aladdin’s innovation, Sears’ company began offering true ‘kit’ houses, with all the pieces pre-cut, shaped, and numbered, enabling the buyer to quite literally build their own house. This, it was estimated, cut construction costs by around 40 per cent, putting private houses in the reach of whole new sections of the population.
Over the next 34 years, Sears offered over 370 different styles of house to suit all tastes and pockets. With its huge catalogue inventory, it didn’t just offer the frame either. Kits included every shingle, nail, clapboard, column, railing and rafter, right down to the paint. Furthermore, many kits were customisable, having been devised by the company’s own design bureau to be extendable. You could even submit your own design and they’d make up a bespoke kit for you. Kits came in a number of finishes, from the basic ‘Simplex Sectional’ prefabs, to the ‘Honor built’ luxury versions, where wooden sidings could be swapped out for real brick veneers.
Nor did Sears forget about the inside of the houses. As well as the building itself, it offered plumbing and electrical kits, again all preformed, cut to length and numbered so the buyer could do the electrical and plumbing work themselves. There is no record of how many eager kit builders electrocuted themselves (or drowned) in the attempt. The really ambitious could add a central heating kit or even the very latest must-have equipment such as a telephone.
As you might imagine, these kits were considerably more complicated than an Airfix Spitfire. Delivered to your local railway siding by boxcar, you would have to unpack and ship the 30,000 or so parts, weighing 25+ tons to your site, and then set about putting it together.
Sears did, of course, offer a construction service, but most buyers either hired a local workforce or, more usually, decided to do it themselves. This could be an event reminiscent of the ‘barn raising’ parties of the pioneering days, with family and friends invited over to help build the dream house.
Construction was by the ‘balloon style’ framing, so named because it was so light, and hence could be constructed without heavy machinery or a professional workforce. And should the cost put you off, there was no need to worry. Sears also offered mortgages on the kits.
Sadly, the kit building revolution was not to last. At its height, even Walt Disney had built himself a kit house and Buster Keaton had famously messed up building one on the silver screen in ‘One Week’. Yet the Great Depression caused a large-scale default among Sears’ mortgage holders and the company had to write-off over $11m in debt. The business did recover slowly, alongside the economy, but the gathering clouds of World War II finally put paid to the Sears Modern Homes Catalog in 1940. Kits were produced and sent out for another year or so, but the dream was dead.
In 34 years, ordinary catalogue readers built over 70,000 of perhaps the most complex kits of all time. Many probably survive but, owing to poor record keeping, the locations of many of these have been lost and so their Herculean efforts must remain anonymous.
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