Then & Now: From the pages of a catalog – the blue silk blouse and the bungalow

“The Osborn,” from a 1919 Sears kit home catalog. Photo courtesy of Sears Archives.

BY RANDY FLETCHER —Fall always brought a flurry of excitement to our household. It may have been the change in color of our New England fall leaves, the anticipation of the coming holidays, or the arrival of that thick, thick catalog — the Sears catalog.

I can remember how thrilled my mother and sister were as they poured through the pages of merchandise. You name it, it was there in that book. My mother would dog-ear the pages of items that piqued her fancy. After spending hours leafing through, she’d pass the catalog to my sister and say, “Terri, why don’t you take a look at the blouses and see if there is something you would want from Santa.” My sister would quickly flip past the pages of clothing and stop at the section with dolls and other toys.

But she wound up settling on a pretty blue silk blouse that was featured on page 346. Me, I had my eye on the 20-inch Spyder bike with a banana seat on page 754. I made a big dog-ear so that my mom wouldn’t miss it. To my surprise, Terri got that pretty blue silk blouse that year and a Raggedy Ann doll. Me, I got tube socks and a box of fishing lures.

The Sears catalog made shopping easier for my parents and for many people before them, especially those who lived in rural areas. Richard Sears first introduced the catalog in 1888. It featured watches and jewelry. Just a few years later, it was expanded to include sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages and clothing. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog promised low prices, money-back guarantees and free delivery. It quickly became the largest mass-merchandising catalog in the world.

Richard Sears had the great foresight to know that as much as Americans like to shop, they like convenience even more. Sears shaped how we shop. Its name was well known in most households — and still is today. What many people may not know is that Sears, Roebuck & Co. also sold kit homes.

In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, “Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,” featuring 44 house styles ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. Potential homeowners were able to open the catalog, study the different house plans, visualize their new home and then order it directly from Sears — just like a pair of pants! Families picked out houses according to their needs, tastes and pocketbooks. Each design could be modified in numerous ways, including reversing floor plans, building with brick instead of wood siding, or choosing the style of the kitchen cabinets. Sears promised that “a man of average abilities could assemble one of their kit homes in about 90 days.”

Entire homes would arrive by railroad, with everything from precut lumber to carved staircases, right down to the nails and varnish. Sears provided all the materials and instructions necessary to build one of their homes. Manuals for the latest technology available at the time — indoor plumbing, electric work and central heating — were also included. Some of these kits contained up to 30,000 pieces, and each piece was numbered and labeled to help with assembly.

Between 1908 and 1940, there were 447 different house plans designed, mostly by an anonymous group of skilled architects. Over the more than three decades that it sold kit homes, Sears offered many different design styles with names like The Osborn, The Verona, The Puritan, The Greenview, The Jefferson and The Magnolia (which was the most expensive home, selling for around $6,000).

One of Sears’ biggest selling models was the common bungalow. This affordable house began as a vacation-style home, but became a major housing type in cities and suburbs in the years before World War I. Bungalows came in a wide variety of types and styles that included Arts and Crafts, Spanish, colonial and English Tudor.

The last Sears kit home catalog was delivered in 1940, but kit homes were still sold until 1942. According to the Sears’ archives, there were over 70,000 Sears homes sold and built across America. Half a dozen or more of them exist today in Hyattsville.

With the advent of “one-click” and other online options, shopping from home has become very different, and even more convenient than it was in the early 20th century. Still, when I hear “Sears” mentioned or see a catalog in the mail, I like to imagine that maybe, many years ago, a young couple flipped through a thick catalog, dog-eared a couple pages and dreamed of a beautiful bungalow. And maybe Santa gave it to them for Christmas that year, just like he gave my sister a pretty blue silk blouse.

The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city: www.preservehyattsville.org.