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No. 860:
Houses by Mail-order

Today, I want to live in a mail-order haunted house. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Where do you go to buy a house? A hundred years ago, the answer was, as often as not, "To a mail-order catalog!" If that sounds weird, let's back up to Chicago in 1833 -- the year Augustine Taylor put up the first balloon-frame building.

Balloon-frame means construction with nailed lumber and studs spaced every sixteen inches. The structure of the house you live in today is probably kin to the Chicago balloon-frame. In 1833 we left the solid old dove-tailed timber beams of European construction. We were a nation of amateurs, and amateurs could throw together balloon-frame houses.

The balloon-frame was wonderfully flexible. Timber-beam houses were naturally square. Now a great gallery of architectural possibility opened up, and we took advantage of it. We built bay windows, watchtowers, and gables. We created homes with steeples, cupolas and porches. We added Victorian gingerbread.

Our midwestern immigrants were very capable people, but few were architects. They needed designs more than they needed carpenters. Of course the answer was mail-order house plans.

The first catalogs of plans came out on the eve of the Civil War. War and its aftermath faded in the 1870s, and the mail-order business took up in earnest. When Sears and Roebuck put out their first catalog in 1891, they were already latecomers.

tip of a 19th century lightning rod (from Elektro-technische Bibliothek, 1886)But houses had to be built before they could be stuffed with the wares of our new factories and emporiums. And what houses we made! For example, the Palliser architectural firm in Connecticut published a set of designs in 1878. They gave floor plans with estimated building costs. Once you had the layout, you were supposed to know how to build the house.

Here's a huge, 4000-square-foot, three-story house. It'll cost $3000 to build. A two-room cottage is only $325. Even the most modest ones are more ornate than mine today. Later catalogs show the general layout, but they charge a fee for the detailed plans.

I wish I could show you the pictures. Since I can't, remember the Addams Family's house where Morticia, Gomez, and Lurch lived. Remember Norman Bates's house in the movie Psycho.

Fine, gaudy old houses like those became the stuff of bad dreams in our brave new utilitarian world. The balloon-frame opened up too much possibility. All that fantasy blew our circuits. We finally put aside our catalog-fed dreams of filigreed elegance.

But some days I hanker to live in a three-story, 16-room house with my study in a windswept turret overlooking the sea. I want to see lightning tearing into the iron weather-vane, down through a copper wire into the ground below. Some days I really want that romantic extravagance -- of another age.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Palliser, Palliser, & Co., American Victorian Cottage Homes. New York: Dover Pubs. Inc., 1990.

Culbertson, M., Mail-Order House and Plan Catalogues in the United States. Art Documentation, Spring 1992, pp. 17-20.

Culbertson, M., From Mail House to Your House. Cite, Spring 1990, pp. 22--23.

Culbertson, M., Mail Order Mansions: Catalogue Sources of Domestic Architecture in North Central Texas. Legacies, Vol. IV, No. 2, Fall 1992, pp. 8-20.

Comstock, W.T., Victorian Domestic Architectural Plans and Details. New York: Dover Pubs. Inc., 1987.

Schoppell, R.W., et al., Turn-of-the-Century Houses, Cottages and Villas. New York: Dover Pubs. Inc., 1983.

Woodward, G.E., and Thompson, E.G., A Victorian Housebuilder's Guide. Woodward's National Architect of 1869. New York: Dover Pubs. Inc., 1988.

Barber, G.F., The Cottage Souvenir. No. 2, Watkins Glen, NY: American Life Foundation and Study Institute, 1982.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and providing the wealth of supporting material.


A typical mail-order house in Calvert, Texas
Photo by Margaret Culbertson

A typical mail-order house in Calvert, Texas