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323- The House that Came in the Mail

2018-09-11 | 🔗

The Sear & Roebuck Mail Order Catalog was nearly omnipresent in early twentieth century American life. By 1908, one fifth of Americans were subscribers. At its peak, the Sears catalog offered over 100,000 items on 1,400 pages. It weighed four pounds. The Sears catalog tells the tale of a world -- itemized. And starting in 1908, the company that offered America everything began offering what just might be its most audacious product line ever: houses.

The House that Came in the Mail

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars about eight weeks. One of the producers here at many nine p, I ordered a book or office received a lot of books, but this one this special everyone wanted to read it. Okay, so, first of all, this looks beautiful. I know it's only wasn't just any book. That's the producer, Joe Rosenberg. It was a Catalan. I added from nineteen o eight, our number one hundred seventy seven of the great price maker. The sea, There's end robot mail order catalogue was nearly omnipresent in early Twentyth century America, in nineteen o eight. When this particular issue came out, one out of every five Americans were already subscribers, so
couldn't be the Amazon Warehouse before the Amazon Warehouses. Yes, anyone anywhere in the country good order. This catalogue for free, looked through it and then have anything there aren't desired, delivered directly to their doorstep. Seriously. Per thousand pipes very fancy. Looking down at last, reached the world's best judgment. Stones, at its height, the serious catalogue offered over one hundred thousand items on fourteen hundred pages. It wait four pounds today is fourteen hundred pages with a snapshot of american life in the first decade of the twentieth century Ninety six are new. William special singled, strap buggy harness the sheep hearing. Machine menstruation products have definitely evolved Here's catalogue tells the tail of a world itemised, but still with this very issue in nineteen o, eight, the company,
and offered America. Everything began offering what just might be the most audacious and in some ways, most necessary item of all the way. These are how was it page five hundred and ninety six zero subscribers would come across a drawing of a house to stories nine rooms, gabled roofs and a price. Seventeen hundred dollars wait. Seventeen hundred dollars per, I think, the whole the house yeah from nineteen o, eight nineteen, forty seers martyrdom programme offered complete full size. Atwater houses to the would be homeowner what would come to be called kit homes, She was actually provided an entirely separate catalogued where these kit homes, between dozens of different designs, are you Select your preferred model from the catalogue fill out. The provided for sending its in a few weeks later then thing you need, would arrive in a train car. Its door was secured.
Small red whack seal. Just The sea, on the back of a letter to the gain or something it was to be broken only by you throw open the door to this box car and you're, looking at twelve thousand pieces of framing lumber and twenty thousand cedar shakes, that's Rosemary Thornton and architectural historian and the author of the houses that Sears built. She says that that drink are also came with every single door. Every single doorknob afford way ironing board for your kitchen, even the mantle for the fireplace and then you would begin the process of dutifully loading it either onto your your mule and card or your model t. The lumber came, pre cut kind of like a giant IKEA set along with
in true IKEA style and instruction booklet. If you provided the foundation, Sears promised that working without a carpenter and only rudimentary skills, you could finish your sears mail order home in less than ninety days of rosemary says. Does instructions also came with a warning: do not accept any ones advice on how this house should be built, follow this instruction manual and do not deviate. So if the old, wise and carpenter comes violence as a wooden build that way and a serious warning. You up. Fraud do not listen to that man. Sues would go under about some. Seventy five thousand homes across the country In doing so, they help replaced the idea that each new house needed to be built from scratch with the promise that new homes could be standardized, affordable and within reach every family law before the advent of housing developments and the modern suburb. This year's kid home gave Americans their first taste of twentieth century domestic life,
it's. Also a chapter of housing. History was almost lost. Sears was not the first company to offer kit house nor even the first mail order, cattle, but it came to dominate mail order because its founder Richard Seekers was that thing that so many people would claim to be over the course of the twentyth century, but very few actually were used our green genius. It either it's so many things, and one of the one of my favorites is that Sears news at most farm households would have both the Montgomery Ward and this year's robot catalogue in the household. So he purposefully may is catalogue just a little bit less wide and a little bit less. All than the Montgomery Word Catalogue, knowing that when the farmhouse wife was tidying things up, she would naturally put the Sears Robot catalogue on top of the Montgomery Word catalogue. I love that
I made no seven sears and robot was selling the then equivalent of one point: three billion dollars of merchandise to american fan, every year and its around this time that Richard Sears saw await cell even more most american families were still living in multigenerational housing. The rain paradigm of the middle class was the victorian home with its many little rooms, divvying up children. Uncles and grandparents seers looked at this dick scene of families living in harmony and saw a waste they opportunity Y know, let's move into old homes with old things when they can move into new homes, fill them with new things from Sears, and thus the serious modern home programme was boy and it was a hit, particularly after the end of world war, one when the influx of returning there
friends triggered a need for more housing, and there is literature that said. If you really love this country, if you really want to do right by America by a house, build a house and that's when kit homes really took off, Sears cut the lumber for almost all of these homes, ready to order in giant mills situated across the country, the largest in Cairo Illinois. At the conference of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers covered nearly forty acres, the sheer variety of homes it shipped out with staggering that first Martyrdoms catalogue had over forty models to choose from, but Sears would go on to offer. Four hundred forty seven differ designs, every house in the catalogue had a name befitting its architectural aspirations. So if you always dreamed of living in a California missions, dial home, but you couldn't actually move to California, you might consider purchasing Sears Alhambra model, others dials included. The ass style when owner and the
its colonial Martha Washington. They range from everything from what I would call a hunters, cabin literally, a two room house for two or three hundred dollars to the Sears Magnolia, which was two thousand nine hundred square feet to full bathrooms. Upstairs a half bathroom downstairs to full fireplaces a dense even had servants quarters and servants. Private bath fears even offering a six classroom schoolhouse. Fleet with an auditorium and library, but mostly it was hops. Big beautiful, empty homes just wait to be filled with things. In fact, if you look at some of the old more plants it'll feature the living room, the dining room, the bedrooms, but then it will say place for a graph, a phone spot for a piano ways, Vertue tufted chairs, and so, if this kind of showing people stuff their houses with stuff from this year's robot catalogue, thinking
where's obliged there are tales of first time homeowners who bought what you might call turnkey operation from the catalogue house, the furniture Many little things rested on the furniture life all from spheres. In part, because the company used is considerable. Marketing savvy to make it clear, building your house was going to be easy the pre designed home. You didn't need an architect and with the power cut lumber frame you didn't need a carpenter either you could treat it like any other consumer item fears even have this in front of the catalogue showed to Odessa models: wanna seers, most popular houses being built side by side one was built for scratch, essentially using ordinary building materials and uncut stick lumber, the other with pre cut lumber
in the end, the house, with the stick, lumber suits unfinished people or collapsed in the front yard, exhausted and then the house, whereas it was put with the pre, cut lumber there sitting on the porch with immense jewel up you now having to sit time of your life, and so other many people did higher contracted builders. Fearsome many did not, and I have heard many stories about families receiving their kit, home and calling on neighbours to help them come out and start the process of building the House for many families. These further first homes, with things like central heating and insulation in some neighborhoods Sears KIT home, might be the only house on the block with electricity nineteen eleven sears began offering competitive mortgages to their customers, which also help bull in neighborhoods of cholera, get around the practice of red lining and red lining, just meant that the bankers and mortgage lending
would draw a line around neighborhoods where they would not loan money. So Sears didn't do any of that and that enable immigrants, men and women of color and single women who would otherwise never have a chance of becoming a homeowner tat in the plumbing for the first time. But then the company discovered that it had made mistake. One only sound all too familiar from the beginning, Sears had made sure they're mortgage policy was like everything else in their catalogue obtainable. The application form was only half a page long and almost everyone who applied for a mortgage qualified The average Sears homeowner was also in debt to Sears in the roaring twenties. When interest rates were low liquidity high, it was the problem. But when depression head things got ugly fast become and up proposing on tens of thousands of its very on customers. Rather, it was it an emotional devastation we all know the great depression was horrible. First,
many reasons but losing a home that you had built with your own too high, just seems like such a twist of the knife procedures, was a pr disaster Mary remembers talking to someone in two thousand three who described how serious had for closed on their grandparents home in nineteen thirty one, the very same home. Sears had sold them a decade earlier and he said for two generations are family, never patronize, Sears. Ever again, those are strong feelings. Go from nineteen thirty one to two thousand three after years of declining sales Sears would finally cod because its modern homes department in nineteen. Forty, a few other get home manufacturers ones that hadn't sold mortgages they survived, but this there's get home boom was over then came world WAR two and with it the next modern housing, between the rise of the suburbs and the prefab home, the home
so many of us live in today. Meanwhile, most of the fierce homes, the Alhambra, the Argyle, the magnolias they ended up being sold new owners who didn't know what they bought or didn't care to know. Despite the high quality of the materials over the decades, as the company became associated with convenience over and above quality, no one wanted to admit that they live in hope that came from this year's cattle, it was embarrassing, so a lot of them end up being renovated beyond recognition. Many were too down. Others were if we abandon and ass the way to find the ones that remain, unfortunately, after world war, two during a corporate house cleaning, the sales records were destroyed, so these records or the records are missing records again shown up. The other night is missing. There's a therein, somebody's burn pile all that stuff was disposed of, Sir, The only way to find these houses today is literally one by one
a few weeks after I interviewed rosemary- and I want to see some of the last remaining sears homes outside of Cairo Illinois town were Sears largest mail and one stood when I got there only signed. There never been anything. There was the name of an overgrown back road sears. The two tiny houses to serious Odessa models sitting next to each other. They were the twin one models from that original now, was being built. One fat, but somehow side by side mail. Wherein so shape, but somehow they lived the mail that built them you're on Syria, background I stopped to take a look. Thirty seconds later, a man with me inside no, no you're, just noisy. Let me know they crashed scary, although they guy parks, greeted me waning, old mechanics, jumps, it
he settled into an easy chair in the living room. He told me that he lived on and off in Cairo, since the nineteen fifty is- and he first laid eyes on this route ESA. Nearly thirty five years ago in the house was thorough. It I mean it was the roof was lifted. The windows were broke out. There slave labour. All guy ran into the owner a little while later and beyond. Said to him. How, but I sell you the place and you fix it up here. I came by another. Saved at our last check, He said I ll make you where you can, but he said fifty nostalgic for fifteen of argument thousand ass, a man would get fired if it's up in shape. I'm told about hundreds. I said you re right here So guy went out came back an hour later with the cash and bought the regasa for fifteen hundred dollars on the spot. Eventually, by the reducing next to it to the twin his. There Now- and I say this- But I'm dominance enough. The last
everything on aid for the next five six years on this place, try and make it right did you know that it was a a seers Assyria under the all, these were Sears homes, because a man lived down on the corner. He worked for Sears. Did he tell you re stories about about? He had. But he always home into bad stuff. Guys neighbour told him that job at the mill had been hard, dangerous work as well lot of mills in the area. Wasn't uncommon, see employs missing fingers, This year's modern Home Department closed the workers, purchased the plant and switched making crate. Four bombers during world war. Two after that date, tried making their own kid homes under a new name, but ultimately they couldn't hold on the milk. Nineteen one five, they hundred and fifty May homes. After that, I think this one, Danone and Slowly- Allows- was probably the last one they built, and it was just a little
a little shot gun house, my wife sisterly. I've learned until she died Even guys, house isn't very serious anymore. He's replaced a lot of the original parts over the years. The front door, Ella thing in this house, in this room right here. This result was that front door Sears door before Series of race rights got downtown Cairo. Nineteen sixties, the town had nearly a hundred other Sears homes. Now, maybe only a third of them are left. Guy watched his arrest were abandoned or reduced to rubble, the downtown just get going down your now go now. You can see for month, or so maybe another business gone, There was nothing down a bit derelict. Buildings has fallen down in a in all this all that's gone. She saw about definition, for a long time, guy parks as little Rhodesia and its twin we're just two
A small handful of serious homes that had been located in identified, one guy but his house of the seventy five thousand kit homes that Sears built and shipped maybe five percent had been properly documented. We sat undiscovered if you lived, this here's house chances are, you didn't even know it at a little over twenty years ago, one woman took a big step towards changing that, now, as she herself would be the first to admit she didn't really mean to as Pierce, are in jeopardy than I ended up in this field. This is Rebecca Hunter and no, she doesn't limpness yourself but she does live in a town on the other end of Illinois, a little western Chicago on the Fox River, it's called Elgin Kara Belgian was not known for serious homes and Rebecca first, got there in the mid nineties, almost no one. There itself included New Serious house was then my pie,
died and ninety ninety five and I was doing everything because it helps and that's how Rebecca ended up with the local library where she happened upon a book about serious homes which contained old catalogue. Image the various models, which would mean nothing except one bit We called day in February ninety ninety seven that book happened to be lying on the dining room table and I picked it up, When I said oh hi, wonder if I could walk around my neighborhood find one of these houses, I would be really funny, and so I picked up the book I'm set about walking in my neighborhood honey. We realised that I wasn't expecting to find any, It was really kind of fun. You know I had a goal. I had a mission and I forgot about the cold and then after oh I dunno pen, fifteen minutes, I was walking down Plum street
and I saw this house and I instantly knew it was a serious right there. After almost zero effort, bone Sears House, Rebecca, looks the house looks the book looks the House looks the book and it's a match: craftsmen, style, tapered, porch com, the outline. Then I saw her. I wonder if I could walk around my neighborhood and find another one
and so I did on walk after walk, Rebecca, kept finding sears models, the Mitchell, the crescent Villona, and there was the Betsy Rossi Osborne and the Alhambra in fact, there's one street than has the sunlight model on one side of the street and opposite the Starlight three of sunlight, New starlight right across the street from each other, but Rebecca wanted to confirm that these were citizens. So she sent a male wrapped asking each resident go and inspect the basement when they did. Most discovered beams bearing a special stamp with apart number from Sears others found. Shipping label from Sears on the back of attic baseboard still we managed to find their homes original Sears blueprints and Rebecca known even done. Still more houses waiting to be investigated, houses in Algeria in the at the moment, I think we are at
two hundred and thirty seven sears houses and about a hundred from other companies. What's more most the homes Rebecca found looked like they were straight out of the catalogue. They'd barely been altered since the nineteen twenties. That's why she was able to find so many because the homes could still be reckoned and there was a specific reason why, when the Elgin Watch Factory, which had employed a quarter of the town closed in nineteen sixty four Elgin a localised recession, sparing it from renovation, praise of the Sixtys and Seventys instead, Sears homes simply sat there through the decades untouched closing of the large factory froze the houses and in time when we talk about that, if we love it and we love it. Rebecca study of the Elgin HOMES, along with the work of other researchers like rose Thornton, our architectural historian, would help to launch what has become a seers house: hunting Movement,
people whose chief passion in life is discover the land trying to find as many kit homes as possible, including rose. Some people do crossword puzzles and some people do jigsaw puzzle. I guess I four sears harms proactively may in Rose and Dale and Wendy and Andrew and Niger, and send look for six Member has their specialty rosemary hunt for the rare seekers. Magnolia, three story: Colonial Mansion, any proper eighteen. Each member has their specialty rosemary hunts for the rare seekers, magnolia the three story colonial mentioned so far. She says they found ten. They are welcome specializes in care homes built by Sears, biggest competitor, Aladdin Company and Andrew much is the numbers guy he's crow,
working with that half a dozen people on a database that would list every single seers. Meanwhile, Nigel Tate and nineteen is the youngest member of their team. He's found over one thousand kit homes without even leaving his desk uses. Google street you most Lee. They hunt for houses, the old fashioned way chasing down clues. Patrolling the mean streets of America in a car together Andrews up in front and he's got his computer unease riding down, addresses and Dale is striving in Wendy and I are in the back seat. Each camera in everybody's looking out the window, and somebody says hey: what's that over there on the right, although Whitman they're, not exactly bounty hunters and so I'm getting out and I'm taking pictures and this very large angry man bursts out the front door. He has a baseball bat in his hand if we get Nick we take off the occasional misstep aside, Rosen Rebecca think that and other house hunters have helped identify nearly fifty thousand kit home
from seers and other companies. So the next time, a ragtag team of researchers, armed with cameras, laptops and an old Sears Catalogue, Knox New Door ass. If they can take a quick tour of your basement, don't be frightened. There there to help and who knows you might even be standing in and discovered model. Have you ever seen a few years schoolhouse they started there that one year Now here I've been looking for that a long time could Laurent I've been hot, nothing down like it, my job,
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but for most of my years, unless it was just an abandoned building east of Bike for miles long. This overgrown railroad track that ran past the building in a trench and at the time that big complex was come of this ominous presence that you just slit, pass tenure, biogas and I get too close to see basically don't engage with it at all. It's not really something like you got to you just cycle paths that you actually here. It's just you know, and it took a multiple city block, so it was really kind of between the parking lot in the building. It was this big empty present, rang the city and then suddenly you know I moved back to the Midwest years later, and this place is totally transformed had been renamed. The mid down exchange and it was full of all these little shops and either it is on the main floor plus offices and apartments encounters above and those old real track that I'd biked along had been cleared and paved and turn into this five mile grew
way which was really needed. Service ready, made rails to trails conversion rate, and I got really interested in this not just as a building, but also as an urban phenomena right like how they had turned this nothing into a something again. So I naturally being an architecture, kick started. Into the history of senior citizens. So what did you find in you and your research will? For starters, Richard warned Sears himself was born in Minnesota, where he actually started, selling, watches and early. Eating hundreds, then or time he moved operations to Chicago as our growing This larger mail order business, and it basically became the Amazon of the early twentieth century and in the nineteen, please be started branching out even more having retail outlets to their distribution centres. All the way from you know, Boston to Seattle, and you show me features of these. They look surprisingly somewhere, even though their like scattered across the entire EU us they have some different
Rick styles, but they're all can boxy that big windows and other details- income, including these really great distinctive art, deco style, towers, yeah yeah. They look a little bit like castle towers, had thing when there are big give away. If you're gonna hunting these kinds of serious building told her and they serve to function to they basically concealed these huge water systems that then serve the floors below and yeah. Once you know the towers and the other details, you can really easily start to spot other towers and other cities and a lot of that commonality. Traces back to this one architect, in particular George coalmines, and he did a procedures even designed a one point, a mansion for the hope, companies president, but he's mostly known first big scale, commercial work and, among other things, he worked on this really big early plant and administrative hub for seers in Chicago the visitor. This year's Tower of Chicago or the now Williston. It's something else right right about actually came
Many decades later. But amazingly, it was only like half again as big as this really old, complex Nobody really knows about the old complexes built a bit west of downtown. And it was about three million square feet. The company boasted that it was the largest commercial complex in the world at the time and its band bottle blocks it covered. Existing streets is actually blocked off city states and they had to get special permission, of course, from the city to do that in the place basically function like a city within the city. It had some power plant, it had its own corporate. You know employee based fire Department and it even had its own radio station W Ls short for world's largest store love. It adds on commercial ready the station and so great yeah. I mean they got sick of basically by
the air time another. I guess Asia and of ITALY there. Ok, you know it will start at women course, because you know at the time series is this giant its America's biggest retailer and they just kept expanding too. They kept following kind of where the country took them at first they did mail order where they served rural populations. Then they headed these mixed use plants with retail outlets to serve cities, and then, as fuel moved out to the suburbs you now they began to go into these shopping center. Today. Obviously, series is not doing quite as well and a lot of that company Such a cargo, for example, has been torn down, but some parts are still around and some of you can be reused, including that central iconic Tower, because it's really hard to reuse a million plus square feet inside of a said, yeah, it's incredibly difficult and almost impossible to find a single corporate client who could take that hot and so like the one in Minneapolis, for instance, it had the bring in all these different,
a collar seen our local hospital in the sea on board and other developers, so that you know there is a plan to make it mixed views from the start. But these buildings also has the advantage is too far and active. Reuse, the other built a sturdy concrete, masonry- and they get a lot a light in on all sides because they have the huge windows. And so, when you wrote me years and years and years ago, it was in part a story about how cities are reusing, these Sears buildings yeah. That's what really fascinates me the most! It's it's not just. You know that their being reuse, but it's the stories that they tell. The different cities there being we used in so in some ways. It's like this big urban experiment out. He put these different boxes that all kind of the same and are all you know, sort of similar in size. You spread them out across the kind, and you abandon them. What happened, and it turns out that you get these very city specific stories of abandoned reuse that tell you something about these different places.
Okay, so what are some of your favorites? What did you discover in Seattle? Famous for its coffee? There's an old plant south of downtown? That's been transformed into headquarters of Starbucks, and the LOS Angeles plan is being renovated right now, but for a long time it was basically down to just the retail store. We're on the ground floor and the rest of the building was empty, but of course, even an empty building. You're talking about Hollywood has a function. Now you can read it out for filming re, so became a filling location and a lot of city sort of all the Minneapolis example in Boston was the first one to do it. Where are they just say that we have to bring in a bunch of different programmes to make this work for our city, so they had theatres and sports complexes. Daycare centers in Memphis in Minneapolis and other cities followed suit, and so there's a little Sears building in Uptown Oakland
we got uptown. Is you drive up telegraph away from the hateful down tunnel? Can California towards beautiful uptown going have already, I think, you'll see a little one and what it will do they use in full, so that place is really spar and it's called the telegraph laughs and basically, there live work unit. So the residential units and there's himself storage on their stuff, but mainly its residents right, which is probably the thing we need the most and the barrier. Oh yeah, yeah Is it there empty buildings through used here? I would hope we can just turn them all into more housing Dexter. Ninety nine percent invisible was produced this week by Jo Rosenberg mixing tech production by Sharif uses for music by Sanrio Katy Mingle is our senior producer, Kirkwall steady. Is the digital director threats The team is senior editor, Delaney Hall, Avery Travel brilliantly in this
Harold Turn Mazur and me Roman Moors, special, thanks to the rigs family, any other Sears homeowners of Illinois and too many dough Meyer I mean our producer, Joe Rosenberg, the entire length of Illinois, twice Project of ninety one point: seven k, L, W in San Francisco and produced on radio row and beautiful, downtown, Oakland, California, Ninety nine percent of visible as a member of Radio Tokyo from Pierre acts of fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all a pot casting reconvene them all at Radio Tokyo dot FM. You find a show in joint discussions about the show on Facebook and Twitter me at Roman Mars and the show at ninety nine p. I org run Instagram tumblr and read it to, but we have lots of pictures of serious catalogues and the adaptive reuse of Sears buildings on our website, it's nothing p? I gotta work
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Transcript generated on 2020-02-14.