Did your old house come "in the mail"? Between 1906 and 1940, thousands of North American homes were built according to plans sold by mail order companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards. Often the entire mail order house (in the form of labeled timbers) came via freight train. Other times, builders used local materials to construct homes according to the mail order catalog house plans. Today, catalog homes can be bought online.
Stock plans are pre-drawn building plans that you can order from a catalog, magazine, or website. Most builders and developers offer a number of house plans "in stock" from which you may choose. Stock plans ordered through the mail or downloaded from a website may include floor plans, foundation plans, structural framing plans, electrical and plumbing plans, cross-section drawings, and elevation drawings. If you are not sure about your selection, you can usually obtain an inexpensive floor plan to review. However, you will need to buy the full set of plans before you can apply for a building permit and begin construction.
Catalog house plans by Sears, Montgomery Wards, Aladdin, and other companies were widely distributed in the United States and Canada in what has generally been called pattern books. Where are those plans now? To find the original plans and to learn other important information about your mail order house, follow the steps listed below.
Search for Written Records
The neighbors may say your home was made by Sears, but they could be mistaken. Several other companies also sold house kits and house plans. To find out who made your house, check building permits, mortgage agreements, deeds, and other public records. Also look through scrapbooks, old correspondence, and ledgers to discover how old is your house.
Look for Physical Clues
Scout around in the cellar and attic for numbers or words stamped on joists and rafters. Also check your home's hardware and plumbing fixtures. You may be able to find trade names that will identify the manufacturer of your home. Keep in mind that the popular catalog houses were widely copied by local builders. It's easy to mistake a locally-made home for one designed by Sears or Wards. Use the process of architectural investigation.
Browse Online Catalogs
Actual pages from historic house plan catalogs are reproduced on several websites. As you browse through these pages, remember that plans were often used for several years after they were first created. So, if your house was built in 1921, make sure to also browse plans for earlier years. Here are some good places to start:
- Mail Order House Plans Index in
- Sears Archives - Find catalog images and network with owners of Sears Mail Order houses.
Browse Print Catalogs
Can't find anything that resembles your house online? Don't give up. Browse through original or reproduction catalogs at your library or bookstore. Some catalogs even include construction information such as the type of woods to use. Here are a few reproduction Sears catalogs availalble from Amazon.com:
- "Small Houses of the Twenties, the Sears, Roebuck 1926 House Catalog." Construction information includes detailed illustrations of interiors and fixtures.
- "Sears, Roebuck Homebuilder's Catalog" - The Complete Illustrated 1910 Edition. Well-illustrated with construction specifications.
- "Homes in a Box, Modern Homes from Sears Roebuck," Schiffer Publishing. Reproduction of Sears 1912 Modern Homes catalog.
Local builders and homeowners often customized mail order plans, adding porches, moving doors, and adapting details to accommodate personal tastes and needs. The mail order plans you find may not resemble your own home exactly.
Study the Ads
The catalog page for your mail order home will provide a wealth of information. You'll find the original retail price of the house and the types of materials used. You'll see floor plans and a simple drawing of the house. You might even find some construction details and specifications.
Stock Plans Today
Stock plans don't have to be from Sears, Roebuck and Company, although bungalows by mail were popular at the turn of the 20th century. Pre-drawn plans don't have to be manufactured built or prefab homes. These days, architects may make custom plans for a client and then put those plans on the market as stock plans. Houseplans.com is one avenue for these architects.
Does all this seem like a lot of work? You bet! But researching your mail order home is also fun and fascinating. You'll enjoy the journey, and along the way you're likely to meet friends who share your enthusiasm for older homes. Good luck!