Bungalow Homes by Mail

Early 20th Century Pattern Book Houses

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

Bungalow homes have always been popular with the American working class. They radiate a coziness and comfort that continue to be inviting to homeowners. Bungalow house plans have been included in the dreams of many Americans, and the ideas were pushed by early catalog and magazine marketing.

The Craftsman tools used today are part of the history of the American home. 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 array of do-it-yourselfers. Publications from Sears, Roebuck and Company, The 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? Here are some examples of where today's homes may have come from.

Catalog Homes from 1933 to 1940

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

Sears 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 "Bngalow," these terms were used loosely. What style are these homes? You might simply call them Catalog Style.

Mail Order Homes from 1908 to 1914

black and white illustration of six-room cottage or bungalow costing $683.00
Modern Home No. 147, Sears, c. 1909. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

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.

Sears Bungalows, a Sampling from 1915 to 1920

black and white illustration of bungalow costing $1,362
Modern Home No. 165, Sears c. 1911. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

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

black and white illustration of bungalow costing $1,648.00
Modern Home No. c250, The Ashmore, Sears c. 1917. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

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 many companies did in their 1921 mail order catalog advertisments.

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

black and white illustration of a California bungalow called the Savoy costing $2,333
Modern Home No. 2023, The Savoy, Sears, c. 1918. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

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

black and white illustration of No. 132 Seven-room craftsman cement bungalow from Craftsman Magazine
Detail From The Craftsman Magazine, July 1916. Public domain/University of Wisconsin Digital Collection (cropped)

How do Craftsman bungalows fit in with Sears Craftsman bungalows? In the early 1900s, 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. 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 the The Craftsman from 1901 until 1916. The homes and plans from later issues are particularly refined and beautiful. Stickley further expressed his ideals in the utopian community he built between 1908 and 1917, Craftsman Farms in New Jersey.

At the same time Stickley was promoting his vision of handcrafted simplicity, 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

floor plan of stone and shingle cottage number 93 from Craftsman magazine
Detail From The Craftsman Magazine, September 1916. Public domain/University of Wisconsin Digital Collection (cropped)C

The Four Popular Craftsman Houses article from September 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.

It's interesting to note the parallel careers of both Wisconsin-born men — Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley. The open floor plans and focus on the fireplace are characteristic of the designs of both Wright and Stickley. Comfortable built-in nooks and furniture are common to the architectural designs of both men. "The arrangement of the inglenook is particularly worth noting," Stickley describes in this floor plan from the September 1916 issue, "for it combines practical comfort with a decorative, craftsmanlike construction."

Wright and Stickley meant what they said. If Sears had said this, it would be to market their product and sell goods. America was changing from an individual-driven to a corporate-based economy, and architecture tells part of that history.

Sources

  • Aladdin Company of Bay City, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University. https://www.cmich.edu/library/clarke/ResearchResources/Michigan_Material_Local/Bay_City_Aladdin_Co/Pages/default.aspx
  • Craftsman. Craftsman History. https://www.craftsman.com/history
  • Sears Brands, LLC. Chronology of the Sears Catalog. Sears Archives. http://www.searsarchives.com/catalogs/chronology.htm
  • Sears Brands, LLC. Craftsman: The Standard of Quality. Sears Archives. http://www.searsarchives.com/brands/craftsman.htm

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