Sears, Roebuck, and Company was the Amazon.com of its day. When it was founded in 1888, Sears was not the department store that we think of today. It was the first-of-its-kind mail order business that sold just about anything you might need for your house.
According to the Sears archive, they started the company as a mail-order watch and jewelry business by Richard Warren Sears. He later partnered with Alvah Curtis Roebuck and rapidly expanded the items sold. By 1895, the company offered merchandise in catalogs containing items “… such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing.” The company did its best to keep up with changing technology, and in 1897 it added a Builders Hardware and Material Section to its catalog, providing “... everything a customer needed to construct a building.”
The 1897 catalog was the first to offer supplies to build houses.
Note the old spelling of catalog on the cover.
Several factors made the timing right for mail-order businesses.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, encouraging westward expansion. Settlers could receive 160 acres of land for just a small filing fee, and they could own the land if they farmed it for five years. Sears mail-order service brought merchandise to these farmers’ doorsteps.
The postal service helped Sears, Roebuck, and Company by classifying the catalogs as educational materials. This meant that the catalogs could be delivered for just one cent per pound.
In 1896 Rural Free Delivery began, making catalog distribution even more advantageous for mail order companies.
Almost everyone in Blawenburg received a Sears catalog. While they could buy many of the same products at local locations like Van Zandt farm store or the corner store at Blawenburg crossroad, Sears offered items that you might have to travel a great distance to get. Mail-order sales became a viable option for many people just as internet sales have made purchases easier during the pandemic.
Houses by Mail-order
An example of the Sears Modern Homes catalog
Sears expanded its builder and materials catalog to include full houses and sold them under the Sears Modern Homes brand. Buildings would come in kits with carefully marked pieces for builders to assemble. Sears offered many houses in a variety of styles for potential homeowners to choose, ranging from as little as $191 for a one-room house in the earliest years to several thousand dollars for more elaborate houses. Every five to seven years, they changed the house kits, bringing 20-30 new styles to the market. The catalogs offered a wide selection, ranging from small bungalows to Victorian houses.
Sears thought of all the angles when it came to building a new home. The Sears Archive says, “Entire homes would arrive by railroad, from pre-cut lumber, to carved staircases, down to the nails and varnish. Families picked out their houses according to their needs, tastes, and pocketbooks. Sears provided all the materials and instructions, and for many years the financing, for homeowners to build their own houses.”
The company is said to have sold 70,000 kits during its lifespan – 1908 to 1940. The business reached its peak in May 1926 when it sold 324 house kits in just one month. The kit housing business came to a halt in World War II when there was a shortage of supplies and the need for materials to support the war effort.
Sears Modern Homes were sold mainly in the East and Midwest. A competitor, Montgomery Ward, sold mail-order houses in the West, but their sales were fewer than Sears.
Blawenburg’s Sears Houses
There are two Sears Modern Houses in Blawenburg. They sit side-by-side east of Blawenburg’s first house and business, the Blawenburg Tavern. In her oral history published by the Van Harlingen Historical Society, the late Norma Haight Arons remembers that at least one of the two Sears houses was built by her Uncle Elmer Height, spelled differently than Norma’s maiden name for some unknown reason. Elmer never married and worked for the NJ State Village for Epileptics (now Skillman Park) with his father, William Haight (also spelled differently). A skilled carpenter, Elmer did much of the woodworking at the Epileptic Village as well as several other bungalows in Blawenburg.
Each of the kits that Sears produced had a special name and number such as The Attleboro, No. 3384. One of the houses in Blawenburg was owned by Ed Terhune, also affectionately known as the unofficial Mayor of Blawenburg. His house was The Dayton, No. 3407, and it was built by Elmer Height in 1935. It sold for a modest $1,247.
The information about the house as it appeared in the catalog
Left - Ed Terhune’s house in 1938. He apparently opted to add a garage to his purchase.
Right – Ed standing on his front porch in 1937.
The same house in 2020
The House Next Door
The Sears house next to the Terhune house
The Sears house next door to the Terhune house was originally owned by a person surnamed Allen. As you can see by the picture above, trees and shrubbery make it difficult to see the original design. As best we can tell, this design was called The Vallonia, Model Nos. P13049A, P13049B. It was available from 1927 to 1933, so it may have been built before Ed Terhune’s house. Depending on the features desired, the Vallonia had a price range of $1,465 to $2,479.
The other Sears house in Blawenburg
Today, Sears is barely hanging on as a corporation, and it distributed its last catalogs in 1993. The company has been sold in whole and part by different owners in recent years. Brands such as Craftsman and Kenmore, which were always associated with Sears are now sold by other companies. Craftsman is sold by Stanley Black and Decker. Kenmore appliances are owned by Transformco and primarily sold by Sears, Kmart, and Amazon.
The two Sears houses in Blawenburg stand as monuments to bygone days when Sears, Roebuck, and Company helped modernize America. While these are not the oldest houses of Blawenburg that earned the village a spot on the state and national Registry of Historic Places, they are representatives of how the village modernized over 80 years ago.
Catalogs like this one had extended use after they expired!
1. The Sears catalogs served many purposes, some more basic than as a source of mail-order products. They often occupied an important spot in outhouses across America before toilet paper was widely available. Outhouses were stocked with a variety of materials such as seashells, corncobs, and newspapers to assist with the necessary clean up. But old Sears catalogs were the favorite. They were readily available and served an important purpose. Today we grumble when toilet paper is in short supply or whether what is available is one-ply or two. But back in the day, people were happy as clams to have their Sears catalogs at easy reach in the “necessary house.”
The outhouse favorite is readily at hand.
2. Sears, Roebuck, and Company was the largest company in America for most of its 132 years; however, neither Sears nor Roebuck were associated with the company very long. Roebuck left the company in the 1890s, and Sears left in 1908 after just 20 years.
Baker, Walter. Growing Up in Blawenburg with Norma Haight Arons, Oral History 04-14. Belle Mead, NJ, The Van Harlingen Historical Society, Inc., 2004.
Homestead Act – https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/homestead.html
Sears Archive – http://www.searsarchives.com/catalogs/history.htm
History of Sears Modern Homes -http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/history.htm
Craftsman and Kenmore brands – Wikipedia
1937/38 pictures of Ed Terhune’s house – shared by Peggy Querec, Ed’s niece
Outhouse – Joe Clark, https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc303557/
Sears catalog 1897 – Google images
Sears catalog 1909 – Google images
Sears house catalog 1926– Google images
Sears houses in Blawenburg today – D. Cochran
Sears Modern Homes images - http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/byimage.htm
Copyright © 2020 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.