During the first half of the twentieth century, it was not exactly uncommon for a family’s home to arrive in pieces via railroad (or later by truck). The entirety of the house, including precut lumber, staircases, nails, and instruction booklet, just needed to be assembled on-site.
These kit houses—also known as pre-cut houses, mail order homes, or catalog homes—became popular in America and Canada after World War I to accommodate the expanding middle class in an affordable way (since mortgages weren’t readily available at the time). While their heyday was from 1910 through the 1920s, their popularity lasted into the 1950s.
The first-built kit home was manufactured by an English carpenter in 1830 and assembled in Australia by his emigrating son. Now, to be technical, though, this 19th-century home was a prefab since it was built in sections and reassembled (but more on the distinction later).
Aladdin Readi-Cut Houses of Michigan was the first company to build true kit homes with precut, numbered pieces. They were also among the seven major companies to provide early mass-market kit homes. From their “knock-down” boathouse in 1906, they eventually put out a 100-page full-color catalog with 450 different home models, including small bungalows and larger Georgian Colonial Revival homes.
Perhaps some of the most well-known mail order homes are those from Sears. The Sears Roebuck mass-merchandising, mail-order company was founded in 1886. In 1895, they began offering building supplies and house plans. In 1908, they started a yearly catalog of house plans and construction supplies. Their very first catalog featured 22 plans for houses with specifications and materials available. In 1916, Sears started to sell kit houses, packages which included the entire house with numbered parts, instruction booklets, nails, and even paint. By the 1920s, Sears had over one hundred house models and a variety of summer cottages and garages available.
Bungalows remained incredibly popular options for kit homes. These compact homes, which started as a vacation-style home, became popular pre-WWI and were affordable for most families looking to build a home in the growing suburbs.
Sears stopped selling kit homes in 1940. Many companies left the business before, during, or after the Great Depression. Some continued to produce kit homes after WWII, however, by this time many homeowners were moving into tract house subdivisions that were popping up across the country.
You can still purchase a mail order home today and receive the materials for construction. You can also go the route of buying a prefabricated house which, as mentioned above, is different from a traditional kit home.
These type of homes, also known as modular houses, consist of multiple sections called “modules” that are pre-constructed before delivery. The prefabricated sections are then completed on site. Modular homes are not the same as mobile homes. Like traditional stick-built homes, they must conform to all building codes and are built to the same standards.
You can view a collection of Sears Roebuck’s kit homes in the Sears Archive here!
Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.