Foursquare Home Kits From Catalogs

Pattern Book House Plans From the Early 1900s

aging houses in the suburbs
Pattern Book Houses in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Carol M. Highsmith Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

Also known as the Prairie Box, the American Foursquare became one of the most popular housing styles in the United States. Typically a square box, it was easy to construct and was available from what was known as "pattern books." From approximately 1895 to 1930, the rise of the department store and the intercontinental railroad made shopping from a catalog as easy as shopping on Amazon.com is today. Anyone in America could pick out a house from a catalog, and a kit of supplies and directions would be shipped to the local depot — right down to the screw and nail.

Is your old house from one of these kits? Here are some of the advertisements, illustrations, and floor plans for what became know as Foursquare sytle homes, sold as mail order kits from Sears, Aladdin, and other catalog companies.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 52

black and white illustration from old catalog, $1,995.00 and Our Free building Plans will build, paint and complete, ready for occupancy, this modern nine-room $3,000.00 house
American Foursquare From Sears Book of Modern Homes, Number 52. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

This familiar Foursquare style is made from concrete block, an onsite method of construction. Cast iron was being used for all sorts of things by the end of the 19th century, including cast iron architecture, but Harmon S. Palmer had a different idea. He invented a small cast iron molding machine that could form concrete blocks right at a work site. The hand-operated machine had different "face" ends, including a look of rusticated limestone — popularized by the ​Richardsonian Romanesque style.

These little molding machines became very popular, especially through catalog sales. The Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog offered house plans for free if you bought the machine. "Don't pay an architect $100.00 or $150.00 for plans," declared the Book of Modern Homes. For "a small portion of your millwork order," Sears would give you the plans for free. The plans just happened to be for a concrete block home that could be easily made with the Wizard block-making machine, available for purchase, right there in the catalog.

Note, too, that this floor plan from 1908 to 1914 has an attached kitchen at the first floor level — a sign that this is an early design, when containing kitchen fires was still a concern. What made this house modern? Closets in the bedrooms.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 102

American Foursquare Floor Plan from Sears Book of Modern Homes, Number 102 for $2065
Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog Home, Number 102. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

Model 102 from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog introduces the central hallway. This popular floor plan was different from many other plans (e.g.,Model 52) that had a room-sized hall-foyer containing the stairs.

Sometimes known as the "Hamilton," this model has a kitchen that is more integrated into the first floor than other designs. The second floor suggests that a large "store room" could be modified to a toilet room. What we may consider "standard features" today were not commonplace between 1908 and 1914, including indoor plumbing and, most importantly, waste removal.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 111, "The Chelsea"

black and white llustration fromcatalog, Thie Elegant Concrete and Frame Construction Nine-Room $4,000.00 House
American Foursquare From Sears Book of Modern Homes, Number 111. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

"This house is modern and up to date in every respect," says the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog about Modern Home 111. The Chelsea from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog is advertised as concrete and frame construction. How can they do this for less than $2,500? The advertisement tells us this:

"The low prices we name on all houses shown in this book are only made possible by our selling you the material at manufacturer's cost price, plus one small percentage of profit."

The kitchen and the bathroom are now incorporated into the house proper in this model. The kitchen is one of the four rooms on the first floor, with a separate entrance. This Foursquare house plan has transformed that second-floor closet from Model 102 and turned it into an indoor bathroom. The Chelsea Foursquare floor plan has a nice, large front hall room — quaintly described as a "Music Room" or "Reception Hall." The stairs off this room jut out on the second floor, allowing space for a side entry door under an oriel window. There's also a rear entry and a front door to a vestibule — many escape routes in this model home from 1908 to1914.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 158

black and white illustration and floor plan of Modern Home No. 158 from an early 20th century Sears Catalog
American Foursquare From Sears Book of Modern Homes, Number 158. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

The typical Foursquare floor plan — four square rooms over four square rooms — was not always followed in these catalog homes. Model 158 from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog is a good example of modifications and additions you may find in homes built during this period, 1908 to 1914.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 157

black and white illustration and floor plans of modern home no. 157 for $1,766.00 from early 20th century Sear, Roebuck catalog
American Foursquare From Sears Modern Homes, Number 157. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)


Bedrooms are now called "chambers" in Number 157 from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog, and the exterior squareness of the Foursquare has been modified. If your home was built in this era, circa 1908 to 1914, it may not adhere to typical Foursquare features if it was constructed from one of these catalog kits.

What is included in the $1,766 price? Mill Work, Ceiling, Siding, Flooring, Finishing Lumber, Building Paper, Pipe, gutter, Sash Weights, Hardware, Mantel, Painting Material, Lumber, Lath, and Shingles. Not included? Cement, brick, plaster, and labor — just like today, homeowners had to read the fine print.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. C189, "The Hillrose"

black and white illustration and floor polan of First Prize Design Country Residence from Sears, Roebuck and Co.
American Foursquare Honor Bilt From Sears Modern Homes, Number C189. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

Houses in the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog from 1915 to 1920, like the Hillrose shown here, were marketed competitively. "When comparing prices," says this Honor Bilt Modern Home catalog ad, "please consider that this house has a double floor on the first floor and is enclosed with good sheathing." The Honor Bilt houses were the higher-end Sears kits, where the materials were better quality and the construction plans may have had more redundancies — like an extra rafter under the roof or a double floor on the first floor.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. 2090, "The Alhambra"

Colored illustration of The Alhambra Honor Bilt Already Cut and Fitted catalog house, foursquare Mission Type stucco house with front porch, front parapet, and pyramid roof for $1969
American Foursquare Honor Bilt From Sears Modern Homes, Number 2090. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

The Alhambra from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog, 1915-1920, is described as The Mission Type. The stucco siding and parapet detailing are not typical features of an American Foursquare style home, but they are features of the Mission Revival house style popular from 1890 to 1920.

Perhaps the home buyer was becoming more sophisticated or choosy as many options are offered in this ad — for an additional fee you could order clear cypress exterior siding, oak trim and floors, and storm doors and windows.

Another interesting feature of the Alhambra is the way the stairway is separated from the house, almost like an enclosed fire escape.

Aladdin Catalog, The Hudson, 1920

Colored illustration of a mail order house, painted yellow, front porch and pyramid roof, front dormer, square two story
Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes Catalog, 1920, The Hudson. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

"To lovers of simplicity in home architecture," says the 1920 Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes Catalog, "the Hudson always appeals strongly." The description goes on to say that this model uses the famous "Dollar-A-Knot" siding — a guarantee offered by the Aladdin Co. where the company would refund $1 for every "knot" found in their "knotless" siding.

Another marketing ploy offered by Aladdin in this catalog page is that the company would "be glad to send you copies" of "interesting letters from Hudson owners telling of their experiences, cost of erection, and length of time in building." Not only that but the company "will send you names and addresses of owners nearest you," so that you can personally contact happy customers.

Sears Catalog Modern Home No. C227, "The Castleton"

Black and white illustration and floor plan of a Sears Catalog home of the foursquare style
American Foursquare Honor Bilt From Sears Modern Homes, Number 227, The Castleton, 1921. Public domain/Arttoday.com (cropped)

Another "Honor Bilt" home in the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog, 1921, was The Castleton, offered for $1989.00. Houses were becoming more complicated, and these simplified building plans and kits may have been becoming suspect, or at least less useful to consumers. What were shoppers looking for? The ad copy gives us a hint:

"Price Includes Plans and specifications. For prices of Plumbing, Heating, Wiring, Electric Fixtures and Shades see page 115."

Sources

  • Tischler, Gail. Do-It-Yourself Concrete Blocks. Small Home Gazette, Winter 2010. http://bungalowclub.org/newsletter/winter-2010/do-it-yourself-concrete-blocks/
  • Photo Credits Public Domain via Arttoday.com