“Give The Kiddies A Chance!”

In the early 1900s, America’s cities were a dirty place to be. We were burning coal for transportation (trains), and for home heating and cooking, and also for industry (to power large machinery and heat large buildings). Cities were filthy and the ubiquitous coal dust and soot wreaked havoc on the health of young children, particularly their lungs. Stories abound of women’s flower beds and veggie gardens being destroyed by the soot that rained down from the skies above. In large cities, garments hung out on the line were quickly ruined by the omnipresent clouds of soot.

Pictured below are two workers on the side of a tall building. Any guesses what they’re doing? Let me give you a hint. They’re not painting the brick. They are scrubbing the soot off the side of this building. Now, if that’s what the side of a massive building looks like, imagine what a child’s lungs might look like.

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This image appeared in a 1920s Social Studies textbook, and was captioned, "The amount of soot and dust in the air of some cities is shown by the striking contrast between the parts of this building that have been cleaned and those which have not been cleaned."

The mail-order catalogs issued by both Aladdin and Sears promoted the idea of happy, healthy children, playing with their siblings outside in the fresh, clean air.  The Sears ad (below) says, “Know the joy of living close to nature where your children have a chance to play in safety…”

In this context, “safety” was not about dirty old men luring children into their dark sedans with promises of candy and kittens.  It was about getting your children into a salutary environment – with tall trees and fresh breezes and clean air – so that the children might live to adulthood.  One old advertisement read, “Give the kiddies a chance…get them out of the city.”


From the 1928 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Happy children playing in expansive yards on well-tended suburban lots were an important part of the kit home literature. Below is a picture of two young children, playing under the watchful eye of their mother, in the shadow of a darling little Sears Barrington. The graphic appeared in the 1928 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

1928 caption

We know this is pure fantasy, because Big Brother is pulling Little Sister in the red wagon. Speaking as the youngest girl in a family with three older brothers, I can authoritatively state that if I'd been placed in a red wagon pulled by an older brother, I would have been bound head to toe in extra-heavy duty duct tape, and we would be heading for a cliff.

Sears caption

Just look at Dolly's face. She knows what's going down.

So that was how Sears promoted the “happy children” aspect.  Like Sears, Aladdin kit homes were also offered through a mail-order catalog. Aladdin actually started selling homes in 1906, two years before Sears, and lasted until 1981. Sears closed up their Modern Homes department in 1940.

In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Aladdin (like Sears) also leaned on the “healthy, happy children” aspect to sell their homes. The image below is from the inside cover of the 1919 Aladdin catalog.  By the way, these children are playing in front of an Aladdin Pasadena. What a pretty picket fence! These rosy-cheeked children are enjoying the pleasures of strolling along well-maintained city sidewalks.


Again, pure fantasy. Little Sis has a *parasol* and is sitting in a CHAIR within the wagon. No brother on earth could resist taking Lil Sis around a corner at a high rate of speed and dumping her and the parasol.

caption Aladdin

Not only does she have a chair within the wagon, but her vehicle has a coach light on its front.

Sears homes offered families a way out of the city and out of the slums. They opened the door to a brighter future, and a sweet little two-bedroom, 850-square-foot-house on a small lot with a picket fence. They offered people their very own piece of the American Dream, at an affordable price. Best of all, they offered men and women a promise that their little children could grow up in safety. And for the low, low price of $34 a month.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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