Homes by Mail, A Guide to Popular Plans

Bungalow Styles and More - Early 20th Century Pattern Book Houses

Vintage illustration of a bungalow-style home on a waterfront; screen print, 1913.
Pattern Book House, c. 1913. Photo by GraphicaArtis/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Craftsman bungalows and other small houses were beloved by Americans in the early 20th century. Mail order catalogs sold patterns for Bungalows, Cape Cods, and cottages to the growing middle class. Publications from Sears, Roebuck and Company, Craftsman Magazine, Aladdin, and Ye Planry spread dreams of home ownership across the United States. How many of these endearing (and enduring) mail order houses can you find in your neighborhood? View historic plans online.

Catalog Homes from 1933 to 1940

Vintage black and white photo of a two-story cottage and fence
Depression-Era Homes Honored Tradition. Photo by George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images (cropped)

Sear Catalog homes from 1933 to 1940, the time of America's Great Depression, honored traditional design. The Sears Cape Cod style is described as "modern," yet the exterior is the familiar style popularized by New England colonialists two centuries before. The Chateau design gave Americans an international flavor, while The Mayfield began to introduce the most famous post-Depression design, what has been described as the Minimal Traditional.

Homeowners often ask "what style is my house?" The answer is complicated because most homes combine a variety of styles. Although Sears and other mail order companies often gave their houses names such as "Cape Cod" or "Bungalow," these terms were used loosely.  What style are these homes? You might simply call them Catalog Style.

Mail Order Homes from 1908 to 1914

Modern Home No. 147, Sears, c. 1909
Modern Home No. 147, Sears, c. 1909. Public domain image from

When living rooms were called "parlors," Sears and other companies were selling homes by mail, through catalogs. The certainty of Post Office buildings across the U.S. and the enormous effect of the railroads made ordering and delivery of entire homes possible. Homeowners or developers could choose designs from a catalog, and house kits would arrive by train, each piece pre-cut, labeled, and ready to assemble. The Michigan-based Aladdin Company is considered the first to offer homes by mail in 1906. With their success, the established catalog company of Sears, Roebuck and Co. introduced their own designs in 1908. At the same time Sears Roebuck was selling bungalows to the growing middle class, the bungalow became a very popular house style in the fast-growing state of California.

Ye Planry Building Company was a designer/developer West of the Rockies. Their renderings appeared artistic when seen within a group of 1908-1909 mail order houses. By 1911, Sears and others were clearly imitating the new Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-type designs and offering more options to their catalog customers, as seen in this group of 1911-1913 mail order houses.

Sears Bungalows, a Sampling from 1915 to 1920

Modern Home No. 165, Sears c. 1911
Modern Home No. 165, Sears c. 1911. Public domain image from

In later Sears Catalogs, the quality of the printed page became more crisp and modern. More "ink" was used to produce the page. Some of the Sears plans include prices for "Honor Bilt" versions of the Standard Built Modern Homes. Honor Bilt kits included better quality materials and more upscale interior and exterior features. In later years, all kits were Honor Bilt, even these bungalow house plans from 1915-1917 mail order houses.

Natural light and ventilation become important selling points as Sears, Roebuck & Co. competed for catalog sales. Being located in Chicago, Sears could take advantage of the local architectural environment, especially in mass marketing what Frank Lloyd Wright was advocating—natural light and ventilation from an abundance of large windows.

Sears Homes from 1921 to 1926

Modern Home No. c250, The Ashmore, Sears c. 1917
Modern Home No. c250, The Ashmore, Sears c. 1917. Public domain image cropped from

Sears first issued a mail order catalog way back in 1888. There were no house kits, but there were many new inventions in the catalog, like the wrist watch. The U.S. was moving with the Industrial Revolution, and Richard Sears knew that "time" was of the essence. The first Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog wasn't published until 1893, but soon enough Sears was selling the mechanical products the company thought people needed—like bicycles, sewing machines, and "hand cranked washing machines."

Buyers were not actually BUYING the Sears bungalow floor plans in these catalogs. The plans were free when you bought all of the materials—a kit of construction pieces that could be assembled to look like this house. Since the plans were free, Sears sometimes offered variations in floor plans and construction materials for the same house, as seen in this group of 1921 mail order houses.

Sears broadened their business by adding home kits in 1908, rivaling the Aladdin Company's share of the home kit market. By the 1920s, Sears had overtaken Aladdin's market share with one- and two-story designs. Some of these house designs became iconic—The Fairy looks strikingly similar to today's Katrina Cottage.

Sears Plans and More, 1927 to 1932

Modern Home No. 2023, The Savoy, Sears, c. 1918
Modern Home No. 2023, The Savoy, Sears, c. 1918. Public domain image cropped from

Early catalog homes generally omitted bathrooms, had limited kitchen facilities, and bedroom closets were still a luxury. Plumbing and electricity were being introduced to rural America in the first half of the 20th century. These plans reflect this change in expectations.

By 1921 catalog floor plans were looking a bit different—bathrooms became a more standard feature and bedroom closets were proudly displayed. The hall closet was invented, as people accumulated "stuff."  New materials, too, became available—casement windows allowed a full window to open and French doors added luxury to privacy between living rooms and dining rooms.

The Aladdin Company began selling prefabricated mail order houses a few years before Sears, Roebuck. After a decade of competition, Sears began to dominate the field. Sears catalog homes from 1927 to 1932 show why.

Arts and Crafts Bungalows from 1916

Four popular Craftsman houses from The Craftsman Magazine, July 1916
Four popular Craftsman houses from The Craftsman Magazine, July 1916. Images cropped from public domain image courtesy University of Wisconsin Digital Collection

How do Craftsman bungalows fit in with Sears Craftsman bungalows? Every month The Craftsman magazine presented front elevation drawings and floor plans for homes designed in the tradition of the American Arts and Crafts movement. Take a look at these beautiful plans from 1916.

Furniture maker Gustav Stickley embraced the English Arts and Crafts movement that advocated hand-made products of beautiful design. To promote these values, Stickley published a monthly magazine, The Craftsman, from 1901 until 1916. He built a utopian community, Craftsman Farms between 1908 and 1917.

At the same time, Sears Roebuck Co. freely used the name "Craftsman" to sell their own mail order homes and tools. In a 1927 marketing coup, Sears bought the trademark for the name "Craftsman." The only true Craftsman bungalow plans, however, are the ones printed in The Craftsman magazine. The rest is marketing.

4 Popular Craftsman Bungalows from September 1916

Four popular Craftsman houses from The Craftsman Magazine, September 1916
Four popular Craftsman houses from The Craftsman Magazine, September 1916. Images cropped from public domain image courtesy University of Wisconsin Digital Collection

This group of Craftsman bungalows from 1916 includes a traditional Arts and Crafts design, with sloping roof and shed-roof dormer. What may not be so traditional is that the house may be constructed of cement, like the fireproof homes advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright.


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