“Give The Kiddies a Chance!” (Get Them Out of the Slums)

My dad used to joke about our little Puritan (Sears house). He said the postman brought it.

When my mother died in 1918 (in the flu epidemic), she left behind five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 4 and an 18-month old toddler. At the time, we were living in a poor area – kind of a slum – and to get us out of that, Dad decided to get us into a home of our own in a different neighborhood. In 1924, we moved into our new home.

I know that if it had not been for Sears and their kit homes, my dad could never have afforded to have a home of his own. It was so good for us to have that little home. Everything in it was shiny and bright and clean.

Reminiscence of Ruth Sward,

Sears Modern Home “The Puritan”

In the early 1900s, many American cities were filthy.

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).  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, greasy soot.

Pictured below are two workers on the side of a tall building. It looks like they’re painting a building, but they’re not.

They are scrubbing off the coal soot. Now, if that’s what the side of a massive building looks like, imagine what a child’s lungs might look like.


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.

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.

Like Ruth’s story above, Sears through open a door and offered families a way out of the filth in the slums and into a pretty little house, where the “kiddies” would have a chance.

Sears Modern Homes opened the door to a brighter future, and a sweet little two-bedroom, 1100-square-foot Dutch Colonial 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.

From the 1925 catalog, heres the Sears Puritan, the Sears kit home that Ruth Swards father built for her family. According to Ruth, the attic was converted into living space and became a third bedroom.

From the 1925 catalog, here's the Sears Puritan, the Sears kit home that Ruth Sward's father built for her family. According to Ruth, the attic was converted into living space and became a third bedroom.

A sweet little Puritan in Mounds, IL.

A sweet little Puritan in Mounds, IL.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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  1. Richard Kearney

    That was wonderful and very interesting. I love these stories about Sears Homes.

  2. Alan Winston

    My grandparents moved into a new house in 1920, and my dad as a boy shoveled sawdust into the furnace as one of his chores. The 1925 owner-built house I live in now had a 1930s Delco oil furnace that we replaced a few years ago. The original furnace was surely replaced so quickly at least partly because it was ductless and inefficient, but it may also have been solid fuel (wood, sawdust, coal), and replaced with oil for the convenience of getting a fuel pump and thermostat. The original owner/builder had a daughter but no sons.

    Sears houses were sold without heating equipment not just to allow buyers to select for different weather expectations and different quality (costs) of equipment, but because different locations would be burning different fuel types – oil, “town gas” (generated from coal in big dirty plants; was natural gas available anywhere then?), cord-wood, scrap-wood, sawdust, and certainly still coal in that era.

    Even coal came in different types and qualities, with quality affecting what firebox size (or furnace size) and type of furnace grate would be needed. Distance and quality affected price and availability, with quality being in terms of both heat generated per ton and cleanness of burn. Coal was mined locally in many areas that are no longer thought of as “coal producing,” and it was often the local cheap fuel of choice, even if it was very poor quality and among the dirtiest types to burn. Some “brown coal” is hardly better than peat in burn quality, and was certainly used for heating in areas where it was the only local-source fuel.

    The Lackawanna Railroad advertised “Says Phoebe Snow/ About to go/ Upon a trip/ To Buffalo: ‘My gown stays white/ From morn till night/ Upon the Road Of Anthracite.'”

    Many of the locomotives designed for slow-burning anthracite looked funny because of the big fireboxes needed to get the steam capacity needed. But the cleanliness of anthracite meant it was often shipped long distances for home heating (as well as for specialty metallurgical usages).

    In 1967 I went off from Seattle to go to college in what would become the “rust belt.” I was startled to find the top surface of my clock radio’s plastic case soon covered in chunky dark soot which left pits when wiped away.

    A few years later I spent a couple of months in old wooden Army barracks where we had to have a “fireman/fire-watch” duty rotation to keep the furnace stoked with coal and to keep a watch for cinder-caused fires – those old wood barracks could become fully engulfed in flames in very few minutes.

    And of course, those standardized WWII barracks were another great example of “catalog” type “housing,” and many were built with pre-cut lumber, whether always on-site or sometimes mill-cut would be interesting to research.

  3. Debbie

    Ewww!!!! When I was a little girl, we lived in an old house. I have no idea if it was a kit home or otherwise but it had a coal furnace in the basement. I remember we had to leave the basement door to the outside unlocked sometimes so that the man could deliver the coal. We lived there for several years. (The light switches on the walls of this house were push-button. I’m sure you know what I mean.

    That is something fun I remember about the house and to this day, when I am in an old house – old house tours, B&Bs, etc., – and I see those same light switches, I just get a big smile on my face!. I don’t remember if there were any problems with having this coal furnace, other than it was in a dark, scary, funny-smelling, cob-webbed, buggy basement.

    I still don’t like basements. They are creepy! But I do like old houses, so I enjoy reading your blog. I think I would have liked and still would like to live in a Sears home, but my husband doesn’t want to live in an old house.

  4. Beth Bornick

    In my city, Rensselaer, NY, the problem was the soft coal smoke from the railroad freight yards and roundhouse. (http://bathonhudson.blogspot.com/2011/09/golden-age-of-coal-smoke.html).

    I’m hoping to find the proximity to the railroad meant that folks could easily construct Sears homes, and am just starting that research, since a neighbor said my house was a Sears kit. The home certainly resembles Model No. 124, and she was built between 1911 and 1914, when the 124 was in the catalog. But I haven’t found any evidence (we even looked behind the baseboards).

    Instead, I may have discovered the architecture firm that originated the design, 7 years before it first appeared in a Sears catalog. Walter J. Keith sold home plans by mail, with detailed materials lists (but not kits). Keith’s Model 1070 debuted in The Ladies Home Journal in 1904, and also appeared in a 1908 book about bungalows. See more details, links and pictures at http://hatcherhouse12144.blogspot.com/2011/04/architecture.html.

    If anyone has a Sears Model 124, I’d sure love to compare photos of some of the interior architectural details (bathonhudson@gmail.com).