Identifying Catalog Houses

ASC Group Has Experience Identifying Catalog Houses During Surveys, Part 1

by Douglas Terpstra

While conducting above-ground resources surveys for projects, ASC Group’s architectural historians sometimes encounter structures that can be identified as catalog houses, houses purchased from mail order catalogs in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Sears, Roebuck and Company is the best-known seller of catalog houses, but other firms also sold houses from catalogs.

Catalog Houses Could Include Plans and Materials

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, architects and publishers began to sell books containing perspective designs and floor plans of buildings, most commonly houses. Most of these publications advertised the availability of construction plans and specifications for each design through the mail for an additional fee.

Example of Design No. 632 in Wapakoneta, Ohio

Design No. 632 from Shoppell’s Modern Houses (1890)

Beginning with the Aladdin Company in 1906, firms began to sell the materials to build the house, as well as the plans and specifications for the house.

Sears, Roebuck is best known and had plant in Norwood, Ohio

Today, Sears is the most widely recognized seller of catalog houses, having published its Modern Homes catalog from 1908 to 1940. Sears sold more than 100,000 houses during its house catalog years, and the company also sold garages, barns, and other buildings. Sears produced much of the material for the houses at a millwork plant it owned in Norwood, Ohio.

Other companies also sold houses by mail

Example of Modern Home No. 167/The Maytown in Lockland, Ohio

Modern Home No. 167/The Maytown from Sears’ Modern Homes

In addition to the Aladdin Company and Sears, numerous other companies also sold house plans or sets of plans and materials.

Like Sears, Montgomery Ward was a general sales catalog company that created a sideline of selling house kits under the Wardway Homes label. Gordon-Van Tine Homes built the houses for Montgomery Ward and also sold through their own catalogs. Other firms, such as the Radford Architectural Company and the Standard Homes Company, sold only house plans and not full house kits.

The houses that Sears and other companies sold through their catalogs reflected the popular house styles and types of the period. These included bungalow, American foursquare, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival, among many others.

Example of The Addison in Lemoyne Borough, Pennsylvania

The Addison from Standard Homes’ Better Homes at Lower Cost

Some of these companies also drew from common pools of house designs promoted by building trades organizations, making minor changes to the designs to allow them to copyright the designs in their catalog. The similarity of designs, along with later alterations by homeowners, can make it difficult to identify catalog houses with any certainty.

Next up some of the interesting houses ASC has identified on our surveys.