In the early 20th century, a new business model appeared: the mail-order home. Companies would mail out catalogs containing several dozen different home options, buyers would send in their orders, and the company would send the necessary materials – pre-cut lumber, roofing, millwork – along with instructions for correct assembly.
Did you explore whether regulatory changes (zoning, building codes) may have also had an impact on the decline of these homes? Prefab/mobile homes are zoned out of many cities today.
Super interesting article, I wonder whether there is scope for a revival of this business model in developing countries where a large proportion of the population live in low quality informal dwellings. For instance in South Africa where I live the government housing projects have failed and I can see the potential for these mail order houses for many people currently living in shacks, as long as it can be sold at a price they can afford.
I have a cousin that lives in Trinidad, Co. His wife and he live in a house that was a Sears mail-order home. A surprise when he told us that information and an incredible house.
The experiment was wildly successful in certain areas of the country, specifically IL, OH, PA and other midwestern states. The reason we generally don’t find kit houses outside these areas was because of freight charges. Sears, Wards and Harris had their mills in the Midwest (Sears also had one in NJ), and it was prohibitively expensive to ship the materials the farther customers were away from the plants.
Oh, I live right by that Gordon Van-Tine building. I had no idea this was what they did. I wonder how many of the little old homes scattered around Davenport were built to their plans.
"In some cases, mail-order homes were used to build entire towns of dozens or even hundreds of homes." Interesting. The postwar suburb was already existing in embryonic form. The article suggests that the prefabricated home would be build by the owners, in most cases. This suggests that developers would buy blocks of prefab homes and build them all at once, a combination of scale and construction skill, expedited by prefabrication of the house materials. One of many historical "what if" scenarios is a short recession rather than a Great Depression, and more continuity with earlier trends. The world would be quite different.
This is a great summary. Do you know how long these homes tended to last once built? (Or did you say that and I missed it?)
I get the impression that mail order homes were ripe for their time. I once read that the lumber for all those farm and ranch towns in the west were made of white pine from the Great Lakes region. It's not clear there was enough timber available in the prairies and dry country to build houses. If that was true, the railroads already shipping bulk lumber, cut to standard sizes and dried, ready for use. Once building a house meant ordering wood to be delivered by rail, it was an obvious step to have that wood cut to order before shipping.
Also, weren't there a few companies specializing in easy to assemble rustic homes like A frame ski houses? I remember seeing ads for them in the 1970s, and there's a place that sells such kits not far from where I live. I get the impression that these are for recreational homes, perhaps off grid, not full time housing solutions.
When we were considering building a house before the 2008 market collapse, we spoke with a company that sold kits for modern homes. I forget their name. They took your house design - they had a pattern book - and broke it into subunits - pieces of walls, frames and so on. You could assemble it yourself or hire them to do it. It isn't quite the choose a catalog number and get a kit model but pretty close.