Saturday, April 27, 2013

Booknote: Mail-order Homes

Hunter, Rebecca L., Mail-order Homes: Sears Homes and Other Kit Houses. London: Shire, 2012.

ISBN: 9780747810483

Genre: U.S. History
Subgenre: housing and architectural history, business history

I will note first that I read this as a Kindle edition via Overdrive from my public library, which was an interesting experience onto itself. Checking it out was a good way to learn a bit how our local public library implements Overdrive, and I may post more on that later. I read it using my work iPad, which has the Kindle app in it. Next time, I may check out an e-book in the epub format instead to see how that compares. But for now, I want to focus on the book itself.

This is a short book with a history of kit (or precut) houses that were popular from the very late 19th century to about the early 1980s (the last company that made these homes finally closed down the business in 1983 according to the book). The book not only gives a glimpse of this industry where you basically bought a house in parts, it was shipped to you via rail, then you moved it to the site and assembled it yourself. Everything you would need to build the home came in two rail cars (or truck much later on). When the Great Depression came, the industry took a big hit, then after World War II, the industry had to compete with tract housing, prefabricateds an mobile homes, and thus the industry gradually vanished. Some big names were part of the industry such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, but there were also companies dedicated exclusively to making kit homes.

The history of these homes is interesting in itself. The author, a researcher on the topic, has to use various resources to find these homes and learn about them. Some of the houses are still standing, but they often were modified. Identifying a specific kit home is not easy: companies often copied each others' designs; they did not always keep sales records, and sometimes, a house is only identified by testimonial, as in someone who was around and remembers seeing such a house being built, so on. City and municipal records are not always helpful neither. So it is sleuth hunt to find these homes, and that is an interesting part of the story that shows how a researcher does her work.

The book features good photos of homes, floor plans, and catalog pages and advertisements, which make the book a pleasure to look over. A list of places to visit and a list of references so you can read further are featured in the book as well. The book was a quick read, and it was a nice glimpse into a part of Americana that not many remember today.




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