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Patricia W. & J. Douglas Perry Library
Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0256
telephone (757) 683-4483
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The Papers of Rosemary Thornton

BIOGRAPHY

Rosemary Thornton was born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1959, to Thomas Hoyt Fuller and Betty Brown Fuller. Thornton spent most of her childhood in Virginia, where her father worked as an assistant manager at Skippy Peanut Butter. In 1974, her father left Thornton and her mother, and would not return to Thornton’s life until the early 2000’s. Most of Thornton’s life from then on was spent in Illinois.

As an adult, Thornton’s career has revolved around real estate. She first worked as both a realtor and freelance writer in Alton, Illinois. Later, she and her husband started a small rental property business. She continued to do freelance work, along with her real estate business, and published her first book, “The Reality of Real Estate”, in 1993.

Kit-homes were pre-assembled homes that could be ordered and delivered via railroad boxcar in the first half of the 20th century. Thornton discovered kit-homes in 2001 while writing an article on them for a freelance job in Carlinville, Illinois. She began writing her second book, “The Houses that Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sears Catalog Homes”, not long after. That same year, Thornton’s mother died, and she and her husband divorced two weeks later.

Thornton made Sears homes and writing her primary focus and career from that point on. She spent the remainder of the year completing her manuscript for her second book and published it in 2002. In less than two years, the book sold several thousand copies, and Thornton received several hundred e-mails and letters about possible Sears homes and praise for her book. She published two more books about Sears homes following that two-year timespan, as well as a re-print of “The Houses That Sears Built”.

Thornton later moved from Illinois to Norfolk, Virginia and re-married in 2007. She traveled to more than 24 states to give lectures on Sears homes. Thornton made appearances on several television programs to promote her writing and bring attention to the existence of kit-homes. Since publishing her second book, hundreds of Sears and kit-homes have been found across the United States.

Kit-homes were first introduced by Bennett Homes in 1902. The houses were designed using a “balloon-style” framing system and pre-cut lumber. Each house came with at least 10,000 pieces of lumber and each piece numbered, stamped, and labeled, thus eliminating the need for measuring or cutting. As there was no need for a team of skilled carpenters for each house, kit-homes were affordable and the customer could either hire a carpenter to put the house together for them or put it together himself/herself. Most chose the latter.

Aladdin Homes began offering kit-houses in their catalogs in 1906, and sparked the true beginning of the kit-house trend. Their largest competitors were Montgomery Wards and Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sears began selling kit-homes in 1908. However, as most Americans already had Sears catalogs and ordered most of their home essentials from Sears, it was not long before Sears became the primary seller of kit-houses.

Advertising their kit-houses as Sears Catalog Homes, Sears offered more than 370 different house designs, and also offered barn and schoolhouse designs. Plumbing, electricity, and central heating were all offered as modern conveniences to be installed. The houses were affordable, with the cheapest ranging around $450, while a school house might have averaged $11,500. Sears also began to offer financing plans in 1916, including both mortgage programs and loans with low interest rates. From the introduction of Sears homes to their end, Sears sold more than 70,000 houses.

The success of kit-homes began to falter in 1930. The Great Depression, coupled with demand for more intricate house designs, slowed house sales. Sears was forced to liquidate $11 million in mortgages. Sears closed the Modern Homes department in 1940. All sales records were destroyed during the company’s corporate house cleaning, leaving no record of where the houses were located. Thornton’s third book, “Finding the Houses that Sears Built; A Guide to the 60 Most Popular Designs”, revolves around identifying Sears homes, as the only way to find them now is one by one.  All other companies closed down their kit-home departments or were out of business by 1982.

SCOPE AND CONTENTS

The Papers of Rosemary Thornton is a collection of catalogs and documents from kit-house manufacturers such as Sears, Roebuck and Company, as well as papers that Thornton has accumulated during her search for kit-houses in the United States. The contents of the collection include catalogs, photographs, and estimates from kit-house manufacturers, along with letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and e-mails received and sent by Thornton.

SERIES DESCRIPTIONS

The collection is broken up into the following series: I: Kit-house Manufacturers, II: Rosemary Thornton Correspondence.

Series I: Kit-house Manufacturers: This series contains catalogs from kit-house manufacturers such as Aladdin Homes, Montgomery Ward and Company, and Sears, Roebuck and Company, as well as advertisements, estimates, floor plans, and photographs. It is organized alphabetically.

Series II: Rosemary Thornton Correspondence: This series contains letters, photos, and publications received by Thornton on the subject of kit-houses. It also contains responses from Thornton and notes on possible and confirmed kit-houses. This series is organized chronologically.

PROVENANCE

Gift of Ms. Rosemary Thornton. June 21, 2011.

ACCESS

Open to researchers without restrictions. Questions on literary property rights should be directed to the Special Collections Librarian.

SIZE

2 Half size boxes, 1 oversize box, 2 binders, and 3 poster tubes

COLLECTION NUMBER

MG 111

CONTAINER LISTING

Series I: Kit-house Manufacturers

Box 1

Item 1: Photograph: Montgomery Ward & Company: Group Photograph of workers outside building, No Date

Item 2: Publication: Montgomery Ward and Company: Lighting the Path to Economy, No Date

Item 3: Publication: Sears, Roebuck and Company: Peerless Wall Board, Roofing of the Future, No Date

Item 4: Building Estimate: Sears, Roebuck and Company: Catalogue of Millwork, Specifications and Bill of Materials for Modern Home, No Date

Box 2

Folder 1: Aladdin Homes: The New Home, Advance Messenger of Aladdin, 1914

Folder 2: Montgomery Ward and Company: Book of Homes, 1915

Folder 3: Sears Home Construction Division, America’s New Low Cost Homes, circa 1934

Folder 4: Sears, Roebuck and Company: HonorBilt Modern Homes, HonorBilt Homes, Concrete Machinery, Starr Garages, The Book of Modern Homes, Modern Homes, 1938-1940

Folder 5: Sears, Roebuck and Company: Modern Plumbing and Heating Systems, Building Materials and Millwork, 1921, 1930

Folder 6: Sears, Roebuck and Company: The Kit House in Southeastern VA, 2005

Poster Tube 1

Building plans for The Crafton, Model 3318, 1930-1931

Poster Tube 2

Building plans for The Osborn, Model 2050, 1917-1920

Poster Tube 3

Building plans for The Somerset, Model 7008, 1920

Binder 1

Slides:

  • Aladdin Catalog, circa 1920
  • Gordon Van-Tine catalog, circa 1941
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, “HonorBilt Homes”, 1929.
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, “Summer Cottages”, circa 1927
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, “Simplex Sectional Buildings”, 1921
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, “HonorBilt Homes”, 1924
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, circa 1908
  • Gordon Van-Tine, “Book of Homes”, circa 1941
  • International Mill & Timber Company, “The Famous Fifty and Other Favorite Homes, Built by the Sterling System”, 1916
  • Sears, Roebuck and Company, “The Book of Modern Homes”, No Date

Series II: Rosemary Thornton Correspondence

Box 3

Folder 1: Notes, Letters and Photos, 2001
Folder 2: Notes, Letters, and Photos, 2002
Folder 3: Notes, Letters, and Photos, 2003
Folder 4: Notes, Letters, and Photos, 2003
Folder 5: Notes, Letters, and Photos, 2004
Folder 6: Notes, Letters, and Photos, 2005
Folder 7: Notes, Letters, and Photos, No Date

Binder 2

E-mails and Correspondences, 2002, 2004

 

Revised: 7/31/2012