Assembly Required: A Brief History of 20th Century Kit House Designs

Courtesy BTHL

This article is part of a monthly series that explores historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Learn more about the archives here.

The concept of the kit house probably originated in the UK, but after these mail-order residences were introduced to the American market in the late 19th century, they became synonymous with the American dream.

Advertised in manufacturing catalogs, the typical kit house offered buyers pre-cut materials to assemble into permanent residences and could be shipped nationwide. Although early versions were mostly simple wooden structures, by the early 20th century Sears, Roebuck & Co., and other manufacturers were also supplying all heating, electrical, and plumbing components. (Concrete, brick, and masonry were not included and usually acquired locally.) Eventually, manufacturers began to market these kit homes as “vacation cabins” and “bungalows” to expand their use and apps.

Today, the BTHL houses a comprehensive catalog of architectural house plan publications dating back to the 1800s. See an organized timeline of these structures below.

Sectional Portable HomesDN Skillings and DB Flint, Boston, 1861
Boston-based DN Skillings and DB Flint marketed the ease and speed of constructing their buildings. “The construction of these buildings is so simple that two or three men with no mechanical knowledge or building experience can erect one IN LESS THAN THREE HOURS,” proclaims the catalog. The company offered specific configurations for plantation houses, officers’ quarters, schools, chapels, sheds, and specialized designs for hot climates.

Forrest’s Portable HomesL. Forest & Co., Minneapolis, 1883
L. Forest & Co. claimed to offer the “cheapest, strongest and warmest portable houses on the market”. Since some of the company’s customers were immigrant settlers from the upper Midwest, the structures had to provide “enough warmth and strength to withstand the harsh climate.”

Boulton and Paul, Norwich, England, 1888
This extensive catalog offers “portable buildings” in wood and iron to serve as houses, verandas, greenhouses and farm buildings. Many wrought iron options feature stylistic treatments typical of the Victorian era with heavy use of galvanized corrugated iron.

Illustrated catalog of products manufactured and supplied by WC Sper Ltd.London, 1903
As “Horticultural Suppliers”, William Cooper Sper also offered designs for iron houses, cottages and bungalows, as well as churches, chapels and missions. The portable buildings were marketed for export and promoted as “suitable for all climates – the colonies, South Africa and India”.

Aladdin housesNorth American Construction Co., Bay City, Michigan, 1915
The Aladdin Co. pioneered 20th century pre-cut kit houses. It survived until 1982 and was relaunched as GreenTerraHomes in 2018. During its peak years in the 1920s, the manufacturer offered a variety of styles including Craftsman, bungalow, American Foursquare, Colonial Revival and possibly ranch homes.

Hodgson Portable HomesEF Hodgson Co., Boston, 1916
Operating from 1892 to 1944, EF Hodgson Co. was a prolific retailer of vacation cabins in the Northeastern United States. While holiday cottages were its main product, the company also offered small agricultural buildings such as chicken coops.

Patented ‘Presto Up’ Bolt-On CottagesHarris Brothers Co., Chicago, 1923
From an early start as a demolition contractor for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Harris Brothers Co. became a major supplier of building materials with a line of kit residences in the early 20th century. This catalog presents “holiday chalets” with a patented “bolted” construction system.

book of housesGordon-Van Tine Co., Davenport, Iowa, 1941
The Gordon-Van Tine Co. offered many designs using “premium timber” for customers of its kit homes, but also had a special home planning department for customizable options.

Liberty Ready-Cut Homes, Lewis Manufacturing Co., Bay City, Michigan, c. 1940
The Lewis Manufacturing Co. was one of three kit house manufacturers in Bay City, Michigan, and was the first producer of Aladdin Homes. The company survived the Great Depression and continued to operate through World War II (WWII) under military contracts, producing over 70,000 homes before closing production in 1975. This post-WWII catalog features small homes single storey to meet the growing demand for affordable housing. housing after the war.

Your general welcome panel, General Panel Corp. of California, Burbank, Calif., c. 1950
This catalog features a unique model designed with “step-saving efficiency” that came “complete, ready to move”. In addition to residential design, the publication offers detailed illustrations of panel construction and installation methods.

Albee Pre-Cut HousesAlbee Homes, Middleburgh Heights, Ohio, 1960
This catalog features various “architect-designed” ranch-style kit homes, with an option inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.


Comments are closed.