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Built in a Day

Capturing the Era of Catalog Architecture

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

"Attractive, homey, healthful communities of Aladdin Houses that were erected as if by magic...." The Aladdin catalog tempted would-be homeowners with dream homes they could build themselves. These were affordable homes for the average American, but they carried upscale names: the Jasmine, the Brentwood, and the Pasadena.

Aladdin claimed they could be "built in a day." That wasn't quite true -- a week, or two, or three was more likely. But built they were -- fifty thousand of them. Along with bigger firms such as Sears, Aladdin changed the architectural landscape of twentieth-century American architecture.

The story of Aladdin is now being pieced together by scholars at Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library from business records, catalogs, and architectural drawings, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The corporate records are the gift of an anonymous donor, who bought a warehouse and simply found them there. They include fifteen thousand drawings, two hundred linear feet of business records, and a complete set of the annual catalogs. University staff members have had to work carefully to retrieve the papers, many of which were damaged by water. The documents cover the life of the company from 1906 until it ceased operations in 1982.

"The Aladdin records have scholarly significance because these are the houses people aspired to live in," says Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Historical Library. "Average Americans don't aspire to own a Frank Lloyd Wright house, really."

The records show how Aladdin and other companies marketed precut buildings for whole new neighborhoods and then for the creation of entire new towns. A single home was replicated again and again across the countryside. Aladdin, based in Bay City, Michigan, sold catalog homes across the country, as well as in Canada and England.

Precut homes made a lasting impression on the United States, according to Robert Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis, authors of America's Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Houses. With their simple styles, they represented the majority of American houses built in the first half of the twentieth century and the majority of those lived in throughout the century.

Aladdin began when William T. Sovereign, a lawyer by training, took note of a friend's success in selling "knocked down" boats by mail. Sovereign reasoned that if the parts of a boat could be machined ready-to-ship and nailed together by an amateur, houses could be sold the same way. Sovereign enlisted the help of his brother, Otto, who worked in advertising. Although they weren't designers, the Sovereigns were comfortable as entrepreneurs: Their father made his money in Michigan's booming lumber business.

Taking over their mother's kitchen as a design studio, the brothers sketched out a simple wooden building that could be put to a variety of uses. They contracted with a local sawmill to produce this precut building, printed a two-page catalog, and were in business. As with any small business, money was tight. Boles tells the story of how Otto realized that if he got an advertisement to a newspaper right on its deadline, the paper had no time to do a credit check and, rather than lose the business, would run the ad anyway. The Sovereigns took advantage of that insight to place a small, one-time ad in the Saturday Evening Post. A week later they heard from their first customer -- a man from Detroit who needed to build three houses and three barns for his family on their new land in Idaho. The Sovereign brothers had both order and payment by the end of the day, and the Aladdin home was on its way.

The business went well. By 1915, sales had reached $1.1 million. The 2,800 homes Aladdin sold in 1918 constituted 2.37 percent of the housing starts in the nation. In 1926, production reached a peak of 3,650 units.

It was a competitive market between Sears, Ward, and Harris of Chicago, Gordon-Van Tine of Davenport, Iowa, Hodgson of Dover, Massachusetts, and three other Michigan firms, Mershon & Morley, Lewis, and Sterling. Sears was regarded as the leader, claming sales of 100,000 houses between 1908 and 1940. Schweitzer and Davis suggest that this figure may have been inflated, noting that Sears included sales of real estate development structures that were not precut in its statistics.

Of all these, Boles believes Aladdin can provide the most complete record of how such companies satisfied the changing tastes of Americans because the company survived the longest and its paper trail is extensive. The documents will also give sociologists and historians an idea of the range of typical family living arrangements of the times. The catalogs, says Boles, give a real feeling for what interested lower -- and middle -- class Americans throughout the twentieth century.

Furthermore, Boles points out, these records may help historical preservationists identify and save precut homes around the country. Many such homes are at least fifty years old, making them eligible for designation as historic buildings in some communities. The Aladdin catalogs provide a record of the century's vernacular architecture -- the styles that dominated farming communities and factory towns.

"Prefabricated house catalogs are a revelation," Schweitzer and Davis write. "They picture the modest homes of the early twentieth century in all their styles and forms, complete with floor plans and, sometimes, prices. [These are] not grand buildings. Not the works of great architects -- if of any architect at all. But certainly representative of the houses that line streets from coast to coast. Such catalogs…are just the tools for understanding early twentieth-century neighborhoods."

Aladdin homes ranged from the simplest structures to grand homes designed to keep up with the Jones's. In 1919, for example, Aladdin's catalog offered the Erie, a 16 x 24 ft. "little jewel" of a house that featured one bedroom and no indoor plumbing. It was priced at $638.40. The two-story Villa, costing $6,759.25, represented that year 's finest offering. The 24 x 64 ft. Villa featured four upstairs bedrooms, a 16 x 26 ft. living room that was larger than the entire Erie, and such features as a pantry, a sunroom, a breakfast room, two fireplaces and indoor plumbing. After World War II, Aladdin focused on producing "affordable" housing. Homes offered in the 1957 catalog ranged from the low-cost, two-bedroom Alamo with 798 square feet of space that sold for $3,863, to the Hollywood #1, with 1,664 square feet of space and a price of $8,373.

Aladdin also sold whole cities -- factory towns -- that could provide housing for thirty to three thousand people. The towns came complete with schools, churches, firehouses, water and sewage systems, sidewalks and roads. Even the electric generating plants and light poles were supplied by Aladdin. Aladdin's greatest success came as industrial firms expanded rapidly at the start of World War I. DuPont had Aladdin supply homes for a whole town -- Hopewell, Virginia -- where a new munitions plant was under construction. A Canadian subsidiary of Aladdin sold 252 precut worker homes to Birmingham, England, where, as Schweitzer and Davis describe, "a typical Midwestern American town of wooden houses with very un-English front porches was put up."

One of the great reasons for success, Schweitzer and Davis argue, was the marketing brilliance of the 1910s and 1920s. "In many respects, the early part of the twentieth century was every bit as much a salesman's time as it was an engineer's, designer's, or corporate organizer's," they write. The Aladdin catalogs grew into large, colorful affairs, from fifty-six pages in 1911 to 118 by 1918, complete with floor plans, cut-away perspectives, and scenes of typical families. An example from 1918 tells us what appealed to the buyer of the day: "In design the Rochester is truly American -- simple, strong and substantial. Conservative lines bespeak dignity and personality…"

Aladdin also stressed quality. The catalogs boasted a "Dollar-a-Knot" guarantee: For every knot found in the shipped wood, a customer could ship the wood back and receive a dollar. Boles say it was a matter of trust. "A person sitting in Omaha wonders how good the house will be. He has to pay two-thirds of the cost before he ever sees anything. Aladdin and other companies could not afford to offer anything less than high- quality products."

Although Aladdin Homes probably couldn't be built in a day, as the slogan claimed, the company was meticulous in sending complete instructions -- two-hundred-page "how-to" books. Each part of the house was carefully numbered so the purchaser could assemble his home with just hammer and nails -- and maybe a few friends. Homes sold later in the century when building codes had been established also required the help of an electrician and a plumber.

Catherine Lynn, who teaches at the architecture school of the University of Miami, Florida, sees a lesson for the present day. "The task of building modestly-priced homes and communities is vital. This archive is essential to giving us a basis for understanding how to recapture the American tradition of building low-income housing in a town planning setting, which we abandoned after World War II."

Lynn worked with Connecticut's historic preservation society, where she saw Aladdin homes being nominated for the register of historic places for Bristol. "They were so good at producing the vernacular, blending in with what's already there," she explains.

The business magazines of the 1920s were full of articles explaining that it was in a company's best economic interests to make a good place for workers to live, Lynn explains. Businesses were encouraged to buy homes and build communities like Aladdin's. Aladdin's records could provide a model for how to build those communities again.

That idea doesn't come from nostalgia alone. A task force in Colorado recently told the governor that the development of affordable housing near commercial areas was one of the top eight concerns of small businesses in booming metropolitan Denver.

Similar problems exist in other states. "If we're to keep or attract workers to Connecticut in these difficult economic times, we must provide housing," Lynn says. "We need to use Aladdin records to see what worked and what didn't in creating those homes."

Meanwhile, Clarke library will be archiving Aladdin's drawings and records over the next ten months, preserving them on microfilm. The result will be a ready reference for anyone interested in America's vernacular architecture of the twentieth century.

Ronica Roth is a freelance writer in Denver.

Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University received a $67,245 grant from the Endowment for the Aladdin archival project.