Gardens to Gables

Houses by Mail: The Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan

I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love affair with mail-order catalogs. The arrival of the mail meant a 1/4 mile hike down the gravel driveway to the big metal mailbox (an enticing target for mailbox baseball players), and back up the hill again holding the treasure (secured by at least two large rubber bands) of three daily newspapers, perhaps a letter from one of my older sisters, and always a handful of catalogs.

Pouring over the offerings from various companies kept me entertained for at least a half hour (a half hour of silence, for which my parents were likely fervently thankful). It is only natural that I now love studying the era of houses by mail – the golden age from 1900 to 1930 when Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Gordon Van-Tine, and Aladdin Homes brought a dizzying variety of house plans and architectural styles to prospective homeowners across the country.

I think that may be the Sears Christmas catalog…

House plans by mail have been around for a while – almost every national magazine of the day in the late 19th century carried advertisements for Victorian period homes.

From the March 1897 edition of American Home Magazine.

But the prospective homeowner still had to find a builder (with a large crew) and purchase all of the building materials. The era of the “precut house” at the turn of the 20th century offered thousands of Americans a different path to home-ownership.

Companies prepared standardized, precut lumber, numbered to match with a key of the house plan. Windows, doors, nails, trim, and paint were part of the package too. All the homeowner had to do was find a site, prepare a foundation, and be able to assemble all of the pieces (theoretically with a smaller number of workers than a conventional house).

Although Sears Roebuck may be the most familiar, a number of manufacturers produced precut houses between 1900 and 1930. The subject of this post, the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, actually manufactured homes from 1906 until 1981.

Brothers Otto and William Sovereign started the the family-owned firm, which sold over 75,000 homes to both individual and corporate customers.

From the 1908 Aladdin Homes Catalog.

By 1917, Aladdin was selling 3,000 homes a year – on a cash only basis. Manufacturing plants in North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, and Canada churned out the individual building elements. The catalogs, brimming with color images of dwellings set in idyllic landscapes, allowed the customer to participate in the design process.  The plans could be tweaked to remove a room, or add a  garage or a porch. The position of the house could be rotated to fit the parcel.

The Roseland, from the 1917 Aladdin catalog, is a three-bedroom bungalow described as “artistic” with its seven rooms conveniently arranged. The cost for the plan and the materials? $687.80.

Like the houses produced by other mail-order companies, Aladdin’s homes, once built, were indistinguishable from their conventionally built neighbors. This can be one of the hardest parts of researching whether or not you have a house by mail – from the exterior, the precut house – whether Aladdin, Sears, or some other make – cannot be identified. Local builders and lumber yards often copied the plans from a popular national company, and there is no one style that defines an Aladdin house.

Measuring the floorplan and comparing it to a published plan from the manufacturer is one way to go about it- and one of the wonderful things about the Aladdin Company is that in 1996, the records of the Aladdin Company were donated to the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University – a repository consisting of an “almost complete run of company catalogs, full set of sales records, over 15,000 post-World War II architectural drawings, and various other company records.”

Kenwick neighborhood, Lexington, Kentucky.

That means if you are walking your dogs through the neighborhood one night and you start studying a house you see (above) – you can go the Aladdin site at the Clarke Historical Library and find what looks very much like that house…

The Shadow Lawn from the 1919 Aladdin Sales catalog.

This two-story, four bedroom house, described as a home of “most striking individuality” was one of Aladdin’s top sellers.

The plan and description of the Shadow Lawn.

Do I know that the house I’ve walked by on numerous occasions was in fact ordered from an Aladdin catalog? No, unfortunately. The only real clues would be on the interior, such as stamped lumber, or shipping labels on doorjambs. Maybe the owners have some archival documentation – but the exterior, as pleasing as it is, provides no hard evidence of its provenance.

But that does little to diminish the fun of pouring over these mail order catalogs, filled with houses of all shapes, sizes, and prices, that allowed so many families to become homeowners for the first time. The housing boom of the 1920s, with many young couples moving out of multi-generational dwelling, resulted in a housing shortage nationwide. Aladdin and others helped provide permanent, well-built houses that transformed communities and are today (at least in my neighborhood) very desirable, walkable, popular neighborhoods.

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3 Thoughts on “Houses by Mail: The Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan

  1. Ms Brother, Imagine my surprise when local architectural phenom Graham Pohl sent me this article and it displayed MY house! If I’d known you were going to photograph Casa Dolce I would have raked up a bit! I’ve owned this since 94 and have completely redone it, not always to original but, I’m proud of it. If you’d like a tour I’d be happy to accommodate!

  2. DAVID AMES on December 19, 2017 at 8:19 am said:

    Very cool!!

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