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Barn Builder

Sears tapped in to a market for farm buildings, such as corncribs, tool sheds and barns.

by Vince Farinaccio

The Sears Modern Homes of the early 20th century that offered prospective homeowners the opportunity to purchase their house through a mail-order catalog also provided farmers with what they needed.

According to the Sears Archives website, the company addressed the “growing demand from rural customers for ready-made buildings. In 1923, Sears introduced two new specialty catalogs, Modern Farm Buildings and Barn. The barn catalog boasted ‘a big variety of scientifically planned’ farm buildings, from corncribs to tool sheds. The simple, durable, and easy-to-construct nature of the Sears farm buildings made them particularly attractive to farmers.”

The retailer had already shown itself to be a friend of the farmer. In 1912, the New York Times reported, “In an attempt to solve the high cost of living, $1,000,000 has been pledged by Sears, Roebuck Co., of which Julius Rosenwald is President, to establish in 1,000 counties of the United States a trained agriculturist, whose duty it will be to teach farmers how to make the most of their acreage.”

By 1923, the newspaper was reporting that Rosenwald’s efforts were now focused on the “economics in marketing [the farmer’s] products…[and]the disposal of the surpluses which he has piled up through better farming methods, and it is essential that he reap the full reward for the use of these improved methods.”

For all its efforts, Sears wasn’t able to avoid the effects of the Depression beginning six years later. After the stock market crash of 1929, according to the NJ Herald in 2017, Sears suffered “a loss of more than $8 million in uncollectible mortgages” and subsequently continued “with fewer designs and no mortgage financing.” As the country slowly emerged from the Depression, however, there was a renewed interest in new homes, particularly in New Jersey.

According to an April 1937 New York Times article, New Jersey Federal Housing Administration director Thomas E. Colleton told the newspaper, “New home construction figures show activity in both North and South Jersey. North Jersey leads with 980 new houses for the first three months, the total value being $7,208,800. South Jersey is now witnessing the start of the largest home-building campaign in its history and many tracts have been submitted to the Federal Housing Administration for subdivision approval.”

While many online sources indicate that Sears ended its sale of houses in 1940, that is not true. Only the company’s catalog was discontinued that year. In fact, the New York Times reported a steady rise in medium-priced and low-cost housing in New Jersey in 1940, noting Sears’s presence in the town of Union with “sixty-three homes in the $4,000 price range hav[ing] already been sold from the plans.”

In late 1941, Sears, Roebuck & Co. told the New York Times that “the diversity of industrial activity in the New York and Northern New Jersey areas and the huge volume of defense orders being placed there are creating many new home communities in those States…The Sears, Roebuck firm announces it has established several new communities in New Jersey. It has built and sold hundreds of low-cost dwellings to a steadily employed group of industrial workers…and has thus created a satisfied class of taxpayers.”

The December 7 edition of the New York Times containing this statement had been available at newsstands for only a few hours when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the United States into World War II. In that short span of time, the fate of Sears Modern Homes had changed.

Without its catalog, Sears relied on advertising and continued to sell its houses through local sales offices until May 1942, when it closed its home division. According to a 2018 NPR article, “Sears is estimated to have sold between 70,000 and 75,000 houses” between 1908 and 1942.

Jersey Reflections