Home Macroeconomics The Rise and Fall of the Mail-Order Residence

The Rise and Fall of the Mail-Order Residence

The Rise and Fall of the Mail-Order Residence


Within the early twentieth century, a brand new enterprise mannequin appeared: the mail-order residence. Firms would mail out catalogs containing a number of dozen totally different residence choices, patrons would ship of their orders, and the corporate would ship the required supplies – pre-cut lumber, roofing, millwork – together with directions for proper meeting.

Sears, by far one of the best recognized mail-order residence firm, offered its “Sears Trendy Properties” from the early 1900s via the Nineteen Thirties. However Sears was simply one in all many corporations with this enterprise mannequin. Different corporations had been promoting pre-cut properties for greater than 10 years by the point Sears entered the market, and mail-order residence corporations continued to function into the Nineteen Seventies, a number of many years after Sears had left the enterprise.

Advert for Aladdin Properties

What made the mail-order residence immediately develop into fashionable? Why has it pale away? Let’s have a look.

A number of components mixed to create the rise of the mail-order residence.

One was the event of the American railroad community, which grew enormously within the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1840, there have been about 3000 miles of railroad observe within the US. By 1860, there have been 60,000, and by 1900 there have been practically 200,000.

The railroad massively decreased the time and expense required to maneuver freight throughout the US. In 1800, a visit from New York to Chicago took 6 weeks to finish. By 1860, the identical journey took lower than 3 days. Between 1815 and 1860 the prices of transferring manufactured items over land fell by 95%.

Because the railroad community grew, People more and more moved west. In 1861, solely 14% of the US inhabitants lived west of the Mississippi. By 1890, that had risen to almost 27%, most of them farmers. And manufacturing output grew because the railroads made it doable to ship items lengthy distances to extra clients. Between 1859 and 1899, the worth of manufactured items produced within the US elevated from slightly below $2 billion to over $11 billion.

The mass migration, the explosion within the availability of manufactured items, and cost-effective transportation over distance enabled the mail-order catalog. As a substitute of shopping for from their native retailer, with its restricted number of merchandise, patrons may now have purchases delivered from a catalog with an enormous number of items. The primary mail-order catalog promoting all kinds of products was Montgomery Ward, which shaped in Chicago in 1872. By the Eighties, Montgomery Ward’s catalog was 540 pages and listed 24,000 gadgets, accessible for buy throughout the nation. In 1889, Sears (underneath the title “The Warren Firm”) put out its first catalog, which by 1895 was over 500 pages.

The mail-order catalog enterprise was helped alongside by the event of the US Postal Service. Between 1871 and 1901 the variety of publish places of work greater than doubled, from 30,000 to almost 77,000. In 1879 catalogs turned labeled as “aids to the dissemination of information,” which entitled them to very low postal charges of 1 cent per pound. And in 1896, the US established free supply for rural clients (previous to this, rural clients needed to decide up their mail at an area publish workplace).

Because the mail-order catalog companies grew, corporations expanded the vary of merchandise they provided. By 1900, each Sears and Montgomery Ward offered constructing supplies resembling nails, screws, doorways, home windows, and gutters.

Higher postal service additionally enabled one other new kind of enterprise: mail-order home blueprints. Prospects may select a home design from catalogs issued by architects resembling George F Barber or William Radford, and the corporate would mail a set of blueprints essential for establishing the home.

The mail-order blueprint firm developed from “sample books,” which have been collections of residence designs and architectural particulars geared toward aiding “unschooled builders and owners” (Schweitzer 1990). Sample books had been fashionable within the US because the 1830s, and following the Civil Battle sample guide corporations started to promote blueprints of the properties proven in them.

Ultimately the mail-order catalog corporations, resembling Sears and Montgomery Ward, adopted and tailored the mail-order blueprint concept. Along with residence blueprints, the businesses provided the supplies, resembling lumber and millwork, wanted to construct the home. Nevertheless, these have been bulk supplies, not particularly designed for the home in query.

What we consider because the mail-order home – choosing a house out of a catalog, and receiving particular, pre-cut supplies for it and directions for tips on how to put it collectively – didn’t start with Sears, however (possible) started with one other firm, Aladdin Properties of Bay Metropolis, Michigan. Within the nineteenth century Bay Metropolis had develop into a middle of shipbuilding, and a number of other corporations started to promote “knock-down boats” within the early twentieth century – clients would order a ship, obtain the components for it, after which assemble the boat themselves. Two brothers, WJ and Otto Sovereign, obtained the thought to promote homes the identical means. In 1906 they shaped the North American Development Firm (later modified to Aladdin Properties), and offered their first residence in 1907. By 1914, Aladdin was promoting over 1000 properties a 12 months.

Not like the Sears and Ward residence choices, which have been merely blueprints paired with bulk supplies, the Aladdin Properties consisted of pre-cut supplies made for the particular residence in query. See the exhaustive checklist of supplies included in a 1919 Aladdin Properties Catalog:

Middle sill basis timber lower to suit. Joists, studding, rafters, and ceiling joists all precisely lower to suit. Sheathing lumber lower to suit. Sub-floors lower to suit. Joist bridging lower to suit. Constructing paper for all dwellings for aspect partitions and ground linings. All bevel siding, each single piece assured to be lower and to suit precisely. Shingles or siding for the broad partitions, whichever most popular, might be furnished for any home at no extra price. Outdoors ending lumber, all lower to suit. Flooring, lower to suit. Roof sheathing, lower to suit. Porch timbers, joists, flooring, columns, railing and posts, roof sheathing, all and every bit lower to suit besides porch rail, uncut. Further Star-A-Star Cedar Shingles or ready roofing. Outdoors steps of all dwellings lower and formed to suit. All doorways mortised with body and trim in and out. Home windows and body, sash and glass, and trim in and out. Moulded base board for all rooms, not lower to suit. Climate moulding for trimming all exterior doorways and home windows, lower to suit. Crown mould, cove mould and quarter spherical mould, and so on. Stairways, treads, risers, stringers, newel posts, balusters, moulding, and so on. for all two story homes lower to suit. All {hardware}. Mortise locks, knobs, and hinges, tin flashing, hip shingles, galvanized ridge roll, window {hardware}, and so on. Nails of correct dimension for whole home. Paint for 2 coats exterior physique and trim (and colours), putty, stains and varnishes. Lath and plaster and grounds for lining whole home. Full directions and illustrations for doing all of the work. – Aladdin Properties Catalog, 1919

Aladdin was rapidly joined by rivals, a number of in Bay Metropolis, which turned a hub for the mail-order residence business. Lewis Properties, which began as a fabricator for Aladdin, began its personal mail-order homebuilding firm in 1913. Sterling Properties, one other Bay Metropolis firm, started promoting pre-cut properties in 1915. Sears truly joined the get together considerably late – it didn’t provide pre-cut properties till 1916. Montgomery Ward didn’t provide them till 1918. By the Nineteen Twenties, eight giant corporations offered mail-order properties, together with many smaller ones. Over their lifetimes, these corporations would collectively promote lots of of hundreds of properties.

Through Hunter 2012

Although all of them had the identical primary enterprise mannequin, particular choices diverse considerably between corporations. Whereas all of the mail-order corporations provided pre-cut lumber and millwork, some included supplies for providers resembling heating, plumbing, or electrical energy. As late because the Fifties, Aladdin didn’t embody mechanical, electrical, or plumbing late in its properties, whereas Sears included these as choices as early as 1919. And although all of them included meeting directions, Sears labeled every particular person element primarily based on its place in the home. Most corporations didn’t embody bricks or concrete of their supplies, although Sears provided drywall lengthy earlier than it turned a regular materials for interiors.

The mail-order corporations marketed closely, each by way of the catalogs themselves (which emphasised how a lot cash might be saved by way of a pre-cut residence) and in magazines resembling In style Science, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Night Put up. By reducing all of the lumber in a centralized location with specialised tools, the mail-order corporations boasted that they might obtain important financial savings. Aladdin marketed its “mill genie,” a $50,000 sawing machine that would lower lumber parts sooner and extra effectively than any carpenter may. And by clever association of cuts, Aladdin was in a position to get extra helpful boards out of a given quantity of lumber than a site-builder would have the ability to. Sears likewise claimed that its properties saved lots of of hours of building labor by utilizing pre-cut lumber.

Aladdin promoting the way it may get twenty toes of lumber from a sixteen foot board, by way of their 1919 catalog

Most mail-order corporations provided different sorts of buildings in addition to homes. Aladdin offered pre-cut fuel stations, and each Sears and Aladdin supplied pre-cut barns and agricultural buildings.

In some circumstances, mail-order properties have been used to construct whole cities of dozens and even lots of of properties. In 1914, DuPont ordered 61 properties from Aladdin for a city it constructed close to its munitions plant in Virginia. In 1917, Aladdin delivered 252 properties to Birmingham, England, as employee housing for the Austin Motor Firm. Sears offered properties for firm cities to Normal Oil, Bethlehem metal, and different corporations (a verify for $1,000,000 from Normal Oil for properties was reportedly the biggest verify Sears had ever acquired from a buyer to that time), and Montgomery Ward marketed its a number of dozen company clients. Mail-order industrial housing proved so fashionable that Aladdin created a particular industrial catalog, providing to manufacture something from single properties to finish cities, together with faculties, shops, church buildings, banks, and different essential buildings, together with water and sewer providers.

What occurred to the mail order residence corporations?

Most of them appear to have gone out of enterprise throughout the one-two punch of the Despair and WWII. Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Harris all closed their homebuilding operations within the Nineteen Thirties as gross sales dropped (although Sears would try some sporadic revivals). As we’ve beforehand famous, prefabricated building corporations usually wrestle throughout financial downturns, as they’re unable to assist their giant manufacturing facility overheads. Pre-cut residence factories have been usually in depth operations, whose excessive price was onerous to assist when manufacturing volumes dropped.

Gordon-van Tine’s manufacturing facility in Davenport, Iowa.

Sears’ homebuilding operations have been additionally impacted by losses from its mortgage operations. Starting in 1911, Sears started to supply mortgages together with home plans and constructing supplies. Sears’ lending coverage was “frequently relaxed” over time in response to stress to make extra gross sales, leading to enormous losses throughout the Nice Despair. Sears’ losses on mortgages ended up exceeding the worth of all of the income the homebuilding division had earned over its 25-year life.

Following WWII, the mail-order mannequin appears to have fallen in reputation. Aladdin’s gross sales dropped from a number of thousand properties a 12 months to some hundred a 12 months, whilst housing begins total rose. However the Bay Metropolis trio of Aladdin, Lewis, and Sterling managed to outlive into the Nineteen Seventies, with the final of them, Aladdin, ceasing operations in 1983, possible completed off by the housing downturns of the Nineteen Seventies.

Through Schweitzer 1990

Some specialists have posited the rise of competitors from tract residence builders (resembling Levitt and Bohanan) full prefabricators (resembling Lustron, Nationwide Properties, and Gunnison Properties), and cell properties. Collectively, these strategies of constructing outcompeted mail-order properties within the markets they focused: cost-conscious patrons on the low finish of the market, and people who wished the comfort of all their house-components shipped on to them.

This appears doable. It additionally appears possible that advancing constructing expertise performed a task. On the peak of the mail-order residence’s reputation within the Nineteen Twenties, the quantity of labor that happened on-site in typical building was a lot larger than it’s in the present day. Roof rafters, ground joists, and exterior sheathing have been all lower from dimensional lumber, home windows, doorways and cupboards have been made on-site, and interiors have been completed with lathe and plaster. All this work would have been completed with out the help of energy instruments. On this form of building surroundings, the potential labor financial savings from reducing and machining in a manufacturing facility can be appreciable.

However over time, the extent of prefabrication in typical building has risen. Development more and more made use of huge sheet supplies resembling plywood and OSB for sheathing, and drywall as an alternative of lathe and plaster. Roofs and flooring started to be constituted of prefabricated roof trusses or I-joists. Home windows, doorways, and cupboards all turned preassembled. Engineered flooring is designed to suit collectively and set up rapidly changed typical wooden flooring. And the event of energy instruments meant that work that did happen on-site was simpler to finish. Thus, mail-order’s benefits over typical site-built have eroded significantly over time. 

Mail-order was by no means an particularly fashionable technique of constructing: at its peak it was maybe a single-digit proportion of yearly housing begins. As competitors rose and benefits declined, its area of interest might have merely been whittled away.

We will consider prefabricated building as current on a airplane, with “element dimension” on the x axis and “element complexity” on the y-axis. The mail-order residence corporations explored an fascinating a part of this house, utilizing conventional constructing supplies that have been barely extra completed than typical bulk supplies. But it surely doesn’t appear as if the experiment was successful in the long run. 

  • Stevenson and Jandl 1986 – Homes by Mail

  • Schweitzer and Davis 1990 – America’s Favourite Properties

  • Emmet and Jeuck 1950 – Catalogues and Counters

  • Hunter 2012 – Mail Order Properties: Sears Properties and Different Package Homes

  • Chandler 1977 – The Seen Hand



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