Home, Sweet Home (Some Assembly Required)

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like kit.

And after you know the story of kit houses, you see them—or think you see them—everywhere: in Fairmount, on the North Side, in Arlington Heights.

Kit houses—also called “mail-order houses” or “ready-cut houses”—were popular for at least thirty years early in the twentieth century. Hundreds of thousands were built. And a century later tens of thousands survive.

As the term mail-order suggests, homebuyers ordered their kit house from a mail-order catalog. Two of the largest sellers were mail-order giants Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.

But some kit houses were made right here in Fort Worth by a local lumber company.

Kit houses carried the concept of planbook houses to its natural conclusion, providing not only the plans but also the building materials to assemble a house from the basement up. Several companies made kit houses, but their operation was basically the same: The company distributed a free catalog showing exterior views and floorplans of kit houses. Homebuyers mailed in an order with a down payment. The materials to build the house were precut to fit in a factory, numbered, bundled, and shipped in sealed boxcars to a freight station near the buyer. The buyer paid the balance owed upon receipt and had the kit hauled to a building site.

The buyer received not only the building materials but also blueprints and printed instructions.

Kit houses were not mere shell houses with four exterior walls and a roof to keep the homeowners dry until they saved up to buy the materials to finish out the house.

A kit house was double walled and double floored. A kit included all framing and sheathing and trim lumber, all roofing components, gutters and downspouts, windows and sash weights, stairs and railings, lath for plaster walls, cabinets, counters, closets, exterior and interior doors and hardware, even nails.

And paint—enough for two coats inside and out.

Some kit houses included a wall safe or a built-in ironing board. Pine flooring could be upgraded to oak. Walls could be upgraded from paint to paper.

Some kit houses were designed to be built over an excavation for a basement that contained laundry facilities, a furnace, and space for fuel storage, fruit and vegetable storage, and recreation.

In most cases kit houses did not include bricks, cement, or plaster for lathing. Also the kit-house maker usually sold the heating, electrical, and plumbing systems separately.

The Aladdin Company was not the biggest kit-house maker, but it was the first—and the last. Aladdin sold the first kit houses in 1906. The brothers William and Otto Sovereign founded the company in a lumber town in Michigan, and the company was proud of the quality of its lumber, offering to pay homebuyers $1 for each knot they found in their kit house.

An Aladdin ad in the Star-Telegram in 1919; $1,053 to $1,797 would be $16,000 to $27,000 today.

Sears, Roebuck entered the kit-house market in 1908 and soon became the dominant dealer.

Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl wrote in Houses by Mail: “Sears attempted to make ordering a home as easy as ordering an automobile, radio or piece of furniture.”

From the 1908 Sears catalog; $2,500 in 1908 would be $73,000 today.

In 1910 Sears added gas and electric light fixtures to its kits.

In 1911 Sears began financing its kit houses.

From the 1921 catalog; $989 in 1921 would be $15,000 today.

Homebuyers could even design their own house and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then pre-cut, fit, and ship the custom kit.

Offering so many choices worked: In 1930 Sears proclaimed itself the “World’s Largest Home Builders.”

From the 1934 catalog; $1,631 in 1934 would be $32,000 today.

From the 1940 catalog.

Sears sold three grades of kit houses. Kit houses of the top grade, Honor-Bilt, featured studs and rafters that were spaced more closely—14 3/8 inches—than the 16 inches that is standard today. The lumber for framing, sheathing, and trim of an Honor-Bilt house was a combination of cedar, oak, cypress, maple, and yellow pine.

Stevenson and Jandl wrote: “More elaborate bungalows frequently contained leaded art glass windows, built-in bookcases, and mantels in the living room, plate rails and sideboards in the dining room, and carved staircases.”

Some Honor-Bilt models included a kitchen with a deluxe tiled sink and drainboard, enamel cupboards, a breakfast alcove, clothes closets, broom closet, wardrobe, and coal chute. Homebuyers could even order a left- or right-handed drainboard.

With time Sears kits evolved from lath for plaster walls to drywall and from wooden shingles to asphalt shingles.

Montgomery Ward began selling kit houses (manufactured for Ward by kit-house maker Gordon-Van Tine) in 1910. This photo shows the cover of the 1924 Wardway catalog.

The 1924 catalog details the process by which lumber was cut to fit at the factory.

The catalog points out the specifications of the materials used from top to bottom.

The catalog also ticked off the contents of a kit, down to the smallest item:

Sandpaper and steel wool? Check.
Putty, linseed oil, and turpentine? Check.
Stain and varnish? Check.
Okay, let’s get nitpicky. Closet coat hooks? Checkarino.

Wardway features included “handsome stairways” and built-in linen closets.

Heating systems, plumbing components, and lighting fixtures were sold separately.

Montgomery Ward also offered a wallpaper sample book.

And sold kits for detached garages.

A Wardway ad from 1927; $2,059 in 1927 would be $31,000 today.

Montgomery Ward estimated that 17 percent of lumber cut on site to build a house was wasted. However, note that Montgomery Ward would deliver the lumber for the Panora model “ready-cut or not ready-cut.”

In the days before refrigerators, some Ward kit houses—including the Panora—included a niche for an ice box that was located so that the iceman did not have to enter the kitchen.

Here are a few of the seventy pages in the 1930 Wardway book of instructions.

Look at that photo of stacks of lumber. And that was just part of a 3D jigsaw puzzle of more than ten thousand pieces. Nonetheless, historians estimate that half of the kit houses sold were assembled by the buyers themselves, often with the help of family, friends, and neighbors—a modern-day barn-raising.

Sears promised that a homeowner, working without a carpenter and having only rudimentary skills, could assemble a Sears kit house in less than ninety days.

Personal note 1: Folks, I have been assembling stuff and nailing things to other things for sixty years. But as I read the Wardway book, by the time I reached page 7 I was openly weeping. Very technical.

So, I am not surprised that many kit-house buyers hired professional carpenters for the job.

And in 1929 Sears began offering to send out pros to supervise the construction of kit houses for a fee of about one-half the kit’s original cost.

Closer to home, in 1920 Fort Worth’s Alexander Lumber Company—“From Stump to Consumer”—began selling kit houses. Alexander’s “Readi-Cut” houses were cut to fit at the Fort Worth factory on the East Side beside the International & Great Northern railroad tracks, which allowed Alexander to receive raw building materials and ship finished kits.

Alexander pointed out that its houses were built using the same construction principle as skyscrapers (including the new Waggoner Building): Just as steel girders were cut to fit at a mill and delivered to the building site of a skyscraper, so was the lumber of a kit house cut to fit before delivery, reducing waste and labor costs.

But apparently Alexander’s entry into the kit-house market was short-lived. I find no ads except in 1920.

Likewise, the end came for the other makers of kit houses. The Depression and the rise of inexpensive site-built tract housing finally foreclosed on the kit-house market. Montgomery Ward stopped selling kit houses in 1931. In 1934 Sears had to write off $11 million in bad mortgages. By 1940 its kit house branch was unprofitable, and the last catalog was distributed that year. Aladdin held on until 1982.

The total number of kit houses sold is estimated at 300,000. Included in that total were hundreds of kit houses bought by large companies to house employees. Building contractors also bought kit houses and used them as model homes.

Aladdin during more than seventy years in business sold more than 75,000 houses. Sears also sold about 75,000 kit houses in almost four hundred models from bungalows to colonials.

Tens of thousands of kit houses survive. In fact, not only survive but thrive. Today a kit house’s provenance enhances, rather than lessens, its market value.

Sears kit houses especially are sought after.

This ad from 2016 advertised a Sears kit house in the Dallas “suburb” of Celina.

A Sears Magnolia model built in 1921 in Benson, North Carolina became a centenarian this year; $6,488 in 1921 would be $96,000 today. (Photos from Wikipedia.)

And in Washington, DC a Sears Martha Washington model, which in 1925 sold for $3,727 ($56,000 today), sold recently for $1 million.

How do you identify a kit house?

It’s tricky. Part of the problem is that kit houses look so much like the site-built houses that line the streets of our older neighborhoods. Indeed, that was the goal of the kit-house makers: Sell a house of contemporary design that can pass for a house that cost more and took longer to build. They succeeded.

You can walk down streets of our older neighborhoods with an old kit-house catalog and spot house after house that closely resembles this kit house or that kit house. Those houses you see might or might not be kit houses because kit-house homeowners did not have to follow the blueprints to the letter. Sears and the other makers encouraged buyers to make modifications, submit custom blueprints, reverse floor plans, etc. Other modifications could have been made over a century.

What clues are there that a house was built from a kit? Blueprints certainly are a major clue. As are shipping labels and letters of correspondence between the buyer and kit-house maker. Because Sears and Montgomery Ward financed kit houses, a Sears or Montgomery Ward lien on a house in mortgage or deed records would be another clue. A building permit might list the kit-house maker as the architect.

More subtle, some kit-house makers stamped the model number of the house on boards or used a company-unique system of numbering boards. Such boards would most likely be accessible in the attic.

Personal note 2: When I began writing about Fort Worth history in 2011 one of my first goals was to identify a surviving kit house in Fort Worth.

Early on I heard that a local historian was interested in the kit-house phenomenon, but I learned that he had died.

Someone told me he had heard that a certain house on Hurley Street in Fairmount was a kit house. I left telephone and written messages for the homeowner but never got a reply. The property’s deed card did not reveal anything promising, such as a lien by Sears or Montgomery Ward.

Eleven years later I still have not identified a kit house in Fort Worth. But I remain convinced that a city the size of Fort Worth harbors such houses. I am hopeful that someday as I am biking through Fairmount or Arlington Heights, an old house will whisper as I pass, “Psssst. Hey, buddy. Wanna see a set of Honor-Bilt blueprints?”

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6 Responses to Home, Sweet Home (Some Assembly Required)

  1. Sally and Tom Campbell says:

    Happy hunting!
    A related topic is concrete blocks posing as dressed limestone. They look so similar in nice old neighborhoods.

  2. Al Reader says:

    Dear Mike,
    That was a great history lesson. Never heard of kit houses before. Keep up the good history.

  3. Terry Valderas says:

    Great article yet again, Mike! I frequently drive through Fairmont and Arlington Heights wondering if there were any Sears or Wards kit houses among the Aladdin, Bennett, and Wilson Bungalows.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Terry. That way lies madness! Ten years ago I thought I could identify a kit house in Fort Worth. It’s my greatest research disappointment but still a story worth telling.

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