In 1895, Sears, Roebuck and Company began selling building materials in addition to the tens of thousands of items already offered in their mail-order catalog. By 1908, customers were invited to write in and ask for a copy the "Book of Modern Homes," which featured house plans and building materials. The same year the general merchandise catalog carried an ad on page 594 reading: "$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you.".
That first Modern Homes catalog issued in 1908 was 68-pages long and offered 44 house designs, ranging in price from $695 - $4,115. (Throughout the 1980s and 90s, countless magazine and newspaper articles have perpetuated errors about this first catalog, stating that it had 44 pages and 22 designs, with prices ranging from $650 - $2500. -- RT).
In addition to the 44 houses, Sears offered plans and building materials for a "modern" schoolhouse, which the company claimed could be built for $11,500. This was the only Sears Modern Homes catalog to offer a schoolhouse, or any commercial structure, for that matter. .
The timing for these catalog homes was ideal. In 1900 only 8,000 cars were on America's roads. Just a decade later, 460,000 automobiles were registered and licensed. People were heading to the suburbs in their "Model Ts," and Sears had just the house for them. .
After selecting a house design from the Sears Modern Homes catalog, customers were asked to send in $1. By return mail, they received a bill of materials list and full blueprints. When the buyer placed the actual order for the home-building materials, the $1 was credited toward their purchase.
A few weeks after the order was placed, two boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house would arrive at the nearest train depot. A 75-page, leather-bound instruction book told homeowners how to assemble those 30,000 pieces. The book offered this somber (and probably wise) warning: "Do not take anyone's advice as to how this building should be assembled.