Have you ever had the patience to complete one of those big 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzles? Imagine trying to assemble one with as many as 30,000 pieces ... in three dimensions.

That was the challenge you would have faced when you bought a mail-order, or catalog, house kit in the first half of the 20th century. The house components would be delivered to your local railroad station, in several boxcars, ready for you (or a hired carpenter) to assemble on your lot.

Marketed by mail-order giant Sears, Roebuck and Co., as well as other companies, the appeal of the build-your-own kits was obvious: considerably lower cost compared to buying an already constructed home and a large selection of house types and floor plans.

The total number of mail-order (mostly Sears) houses built in the Kankakee area between 1908 and 1940 is unknown, although about 50 have been tentatively identified. More than a dozen that have been confirmed as Sears models are displayed on the website of the Kankakee County Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission has been able to locate and identify many of the mail-order houses in the area thanks to the assistance of the local Realtors’ Association, two Facebook groups (Sears Homes of Chicagoland and Rachel Shoemaker’s Sears Kit Homes) and several local individuals.

Sears published its first “Modern Homes” catalog, with 44 different house designs, in 1908; house catalogs were issued most years through 1940. During that period, a total of about 370 different house designs was offered (plans were added to or dropped from the catalog from year-to-year), ranging from simple cottages to large, two-story, seven-room homes. The number of Sears kit houses actually constructed nationwide is estimated at 75,000. Since several competitors sold similar products, the number of mail-order houses built before World War II could be more than 100,000.

Potential home buyers consulted the catalog to find a type of house, floor plan and price that met their requirements, then sent a $1 payment to receive a set of detailed plans and a list of all the materials included in the kit. The purchase price, ranging from less than $1,000 to $4,000 or more depending upon house size, included all of the framing and finishing lumber, flooring, roofing materials, siding, paint, windows, doors, hardware and fasteners required to build the house. Not included in the price were the building lot and foundation, heating equipment and bathroom fixtures and plumbing materials.

While the omission of plumbing and heating systems seems strange today, it made sense in the period when these homes were being sold. Since the kits were sold nationwide, different climatic conditions required different heating equipment. In many areas, households did not have access to municipal water and sewer systems; they still relied upon wells and outhouses.

Sears advertised the lumber components of the house were “already cut and fitted” for ease of assembly; when the materials were delivered, the owner received a leather-bound instruction book, 75 pages in length, with detailed assembly instructions. The manual carried a stern warning: “Do not take anyone’s advice as to how this building should be assembled.”

Despite the financial savings possible by assembling the building themselves, many kit buyers opted to hire a local carpenter to do the actual assembly. During the early 1920s, the catalog actually provided the potential buyer with both the basic kit price and a “built complete” price that included plumbing and heating equipment and all materials and labor to erect and finish the house. Typically, the “built complete” price was about double the basic kit price.

An example is one of the Sears houses that the Historic Preservation Commission has identified, located at 1045 S. Myrtle, Kankakee. Shown in the 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog as the “Martha Washington,” it was one of the largest and most expensive Sears models. The basic kit price was $3,317; the “built complete” cost was $7,520. An example of the Dutch Colonial style, the two-story home had a large living room, kitchen and dining room on the first floor; with three bedrooms, a “sleeping porch” and bathroom on the second. The catalog description of the home proclaimed it to be “a design that will delight lovers of the real Colonial type of architecture. ... The view to the visitor or passerby presents a vision of hospitality and brightness that is characteristic of many famous historical homes.”

Another of the Sears homes identified by the commission is a mid-priced bungalow model called “The Hampton.” Located at 271 S. Center Ave., Bradley, the basic kit was priced in the 1928 catalog at $1,414. The Hampton floor plan showed three bedrooms, bath, kitchen, dining room and living room. No “built complete” price was shown, but likely would have been about $3,000.

Sears houses were built to last (they advertised, “guaranteed the highest grade of materials”); today, many of them have passed the century mark. Since peak years for sales of the house kits were the 1920s, literally thousands of them across the nation will celebrate a 100th birthday in the coming decade.

Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963 and became hooked on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” He can be contacted at jwklasey@comcast.net.

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