Mail order houses once arrived by rail

By Willa Wick in Community


Was your house a “catalogue mail order kit” house from the 1906-1940 era? Sounds strange now, yet thousands of these arrived by rail for new homeowners in Canada and the USA.
There were at least nine different companies which engaged in the marketing of kits, which expanded to cottages, sheds and barns as well as homes. The familiar ones of course were the model homes from Sears and Eaton’s, but in reality the biggest offerings in Canada were from the Aladdin Company in Toronto.
One by one catalogue companies from 1900 to the war years introduced some form of a ready-cut house line.
The T. Eaton Co. Limited was once Canada’s largest department store retailer with a catalogue found in most homes. In the 1860s Timothy Eaton had an interest in a small dry goods store in St. Mary’s. In 1869 he sold that interest and purchased a dry goods and haberdashery (men’s hats, shirts and neckties) on Yonge Street in Toronto. His business prospered and a decade later it was moved to much larger premises still on Yonge Street. Mr. Eaton maintained the lease on the former empty store in order to delay the expansion of his competitor Robert Simpson. Over time the competition between Simpson’s and Eaton’s became one of Toronto’s greatest business rivalries.
By 1920 Eaton’s had mail order warehouses in Winnipeg, Oakville and Moncton New Brunswick in addition to Toronto. At a time when the populace was mainly rural, often in isolated settlements, the Eaton’s catalogue was the homeowner’s bible which provided a selection of goods otherwise unavailable.
American companies were already pioneers in catalogue mail order homes when Eaton’s jumped on the bandwagon around 1910. They delivered all the materials necessary to build a small prefabricated house. Today a large number of Eaton’s catalogue homes still exist throughout the country, mainly in the west.
From the ‘Plan Book,’ Eaton’s proclaimed that great care had been exercised in the selection of the designs and special effort had been made to provide the most economical construction throughout. This would in turn give the home builder the benefit of a considerable saving in both time and material.
Working in the Sear’s lifeline was a fellow named Kushel, who was given the dismal task of dismantling the catalogue’s weakening building materials department. Rather than sell things piecemeal he came up with a marketing plan – develop a catalogue of house plans and build packages to contain exactly what was needed to construct any particular home. Since Sears was already well established in general merchandise sales selling everything under the sun to furnish a house ……why not sell the house as well!! Kushel’s boss, Richard Sears himself, recognized the potential….and the first 44-page catalogue of homes was produced in 1908.
Although the idea had been original for Kushel, it was already happening at companies in other parts of the continent. By 1906 the Aladdin Co. of Bay City, Michigan had steadily been selling pre-packaged small buildings, cottages and garages.
For the first few years Sears sold the plans and everything needed except the lumber. The specs were included but the buyer had to obtain the framework from his local saw mill. In 1911 Sears started to include uncut wood in the kit, but it wasn’t until 1914 that they offered precut, factory fitted lumber.
In the meantime Sears added a new twist – they provided financing – terms of 25 per cent down payment and as little as six per cent interest.
In theory, handy homeowners could, and did, put their own homes together with just the instruction manual. Each piece was stamped on the end with numbers to correspond to the floor plan sequence.
Initially designs were conservative, but as popularity increased so did the elegance of the homes, By the mid ‘30s there were full three storey homes with up to four or five bedrooms, split levels, and many verandahs, posts and pillars. The Sears pre-packaged kits were often equipped with all the fancy amenities from built-in china cabinets, mirrored closet doors and kitchen cupboards to built-in ironing boards, book niches and medicine cabinets.
The mortgage program peaked in the 1920s but waned in the ‘30s with the effects of the Great Depression.
The main competitor in the Eaton/Sears mail order house packaging business was Aladdin Homes, and this company sold the majority of the kits from their Toronto depot. Aladdin’s marketing was brilliant. A few houses were listed in the regular catalogue as a teaser. The catalogue advertised free architectural books that gave details, sketches, floor plans, and information on lumber and hardware. Once a home was selected the actual blueprints could be ordered for $2.50. When the house kit was ordered the cost for the blueprint was subtracted from the invoice.
Fir and cedar came from B.C. forests for the catalogue homes west of Manitoba and millwork was done in Winnipeg. The rest of the pre-cut kits were manufactured in Ontario and New Brunswick mills from spruce, pine and hemlock. All kits were shipped complete, knocked down flat, ready for assembly. The company’s dedication to quality led to a guarantee that would be hard pressed to equal today, “they would pay a dollar per knot for every tree knot found in their load of lumber”.
These kits were all shipped by rail to the station (with side lines) closest to the prospective homeowner’s property.
The most common early style was a one-and-a-half-storey model selling in 1912 for $696.50. For an extra $150 indoor plumbing (tub, low down closet, sink, 30 gallon boiler in the kitchen, pipes and fittings) could be ordered. A hot air heating plant (furnace, registers and all necessary pipes and fittings) was an additional $150.
How would one know today if they were living in a catalogue mail order house?
It cannot be ascertained by style alone – many of the original bungalow species were so basic that an interested buyer was encouraged to add his ideas to the plan and return it to the company for blueprint changes.
In nearly 40 years of sales, Sears alone offered in excess of 400 different designs.
Over time, as with many older houses, they have been upgraded, renovated and modernized – some to the point they are unrecognizable.
There are a few things however, that do still stand out. The wooden parts of a kit house were numbered. Look in the basement or attic for any exposed joists or rafters, cellar stair risers, studs, or any visible board that has never been painted. Each company marked with their own code, some stamped in ink, some were hand written in grease pencil. Identification marks could either be in the middle of the board or
near the end.
At one time companies encouraged the home owner to purchase lumber locally if it would be cheaper than shipping from a catalogue mill – in that case the pieces wouldn’t be coded at all.
Oral history or neighborhood talk might give you a clue, but much more accurate are historical records, mortgage agreements, original deeds, building permits or (dream) a framed dated blueprint.
Are there catalogue mail order homes within our readership area? Likely. With large railway terminals in Palmerston, Stratford, Kitchener, Guelph etc., plus many towns where double lines existed allowing a boxcar to be dropped off – it is safe to expect there are houses in this part of Ontario.
If you own one, or know of one, please drop us a line or send a photo to