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House Plan Books in America


Mansion House at Cameron Estate

Photo: Covers of some Early House Plan Books


House Plan Books in America [†]

Plan books are a brochure or magazine that feature various house plans for construction. Often, they contain exterior and interior drawings that represent a particular or popular architecture style and design and are created by an architectural firm or company, like Sears and Roebuck. Instead of commissioning an architect to design a home, the plan book made simplified designs more accessible to the middle and working classes using reproduction and mailing. Early precedent for the plan book in America originates in the builders' handbooks of the mid-eighteenth century. Although popular in England since the mid-seventeenth century, builders' handbooks were not widely utilized in the United States until the mid-eighteenth century. The handbooks available at the time were European imports and versions were not published in America until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These early American publications were reprints of existing English publications or collections of excerpts from them. The first American-made builders' handbook was not published until 1797 when Asher Benjamin published Country Builder's Assistant. Builders' handbooks were written for professional builders and architects. Thus, they assumed the reader possessed, at minimum, basic carpentry, and design knowledge. Topics addressed in Benjamin's Country Builder's Assistant included detailed descriptions of classical column orders, complex joinery techniques, and the geometry of elliptical staircases.

Alexander Jackson Davis's Rural Residences, published in 1838, signaled a transition from the builders' guides towards pattern books. Unlike builders' guides, pattern books were published for homeowners rather than carpenters and architects, and their content changed accordingly. Also called style books, pattern books published plates depicting popular trends in architectural design, which typically included elevations and simple floor plans. In contrast to builders' handbooks, pattern books were not utilitarian publications meant for technical applications. Rather, they served an inspirational, artistic purpose. Rural Residences emphasized romantic revival architecture in picturesque, semi-rural settings. Plans and elevations for cottages and villas were included, however they were not highly detailed or suitable to guide construction. Rather, they represented an attempt to influence architectural style trends. Essays expounding the stylistic features and benefits accompanied each design. Only four years later, Davis collaborated with his good friend Andrew Jackson Downing to publish Cottage Residences (1842). The book combined romantic revival architecture with elements inspired by the English countryside and heavily influenced the popularity of the Carpenter Gothic style.

Like other early pattern books, Cottage Residences was not meant to sell detailed, buildable plans but was rather intended to influence popular architectural trends and illustrate possibilities with readers advised to hire an architect to create individual plans. Cottage Residences and Downing's subsequent works sparked the widespread popularity of the pattern book in America. This popularity was due in part to the author's use of imaginary, romantic settings that allowed the reader to envision the design in their specific location. Downing did not create site-specific designs, choosing instead to place them in generic, although romanticized, settings that allowed open possibility without referencing a specific locale. Pattern books remained popular through the antebellum period.

However, following the Civil War, pattern book popularity waned as authors sought alternative means to address the growing demand for housing, with two means emerging as the most popular. The first attempt was to adapt the earlier builders' handbook format to suit woodworking mill and local builder needs. The new builders' handbooks incorporated detailed designs for architectural components that could be produced using industrial mill technology.9 These new books included plans and large-scale detailed plates that could be used as instructional material. Millworkers across the country learned how to create architectural components utilized in published designs. The adapted format provided builders with more comprehensive and detailed views of published plans and elevations, which, when combined with their existing knowledge, facilitated the construction of dwellings increasingly like designs published in pattern books.

Meanwhile, the pattern book format underwent minor alterations, illustrating the second means through which authors attempted to address increased housing construction demands. Post-Civil War pattern books contained many of the same elements as their antebellum precedents. Designs, essays expounding their merits, elevations, and plans remained popular content. However, increasingly complex details and cross sections joined them. While they had served primarily as inspirational and taste-making documents during the antebellum period, pattern books post-Civil War took on an instructional function. They now included technical discussions and specifications which served to guide the homeowner in identifying quality construction. While the homeowner was still required to hire a builder, he could now oversee construction and ensure it matched the desired design. However, despite these new inclusions, pattern books still lacked the complete plans buyers wanted. In response to a growing demand for complete plans, the plan book entered the market.

Modern American Architecture by M.F. Cummings and C.C. Miller (1868) is recognized as one of the first American plan books. While the contents were primarily residential designs, the book also included several churches. Although it was published in response to customer demand for details, the illustrations included in Modern American Architecture were primarily simple plans and elevations. Room measurements were provided for most plans, and in some cases, a cornice or similar element was addressed; however the plates otherwise were not highly detailed (Figure 2). A skilled carpenter or builder could, using the given measurements and knowledge they already possessed, construct a similar building; however an exact copy was not feasible. Cummings and Miller published their intent when they stated "no details are given in the plates...but the plans and elevation may afford many valuable hints to anyone who proposes to erect a building of similar character and dimensions."11 Modern American Architecture jumpstarted plan book production with many individuals or firms soon producing their own. Although many plan books were described as "complete," they did not offer complete buildable plans. Instead, they offered a complete understanding of the design from which the builder could then extrapolate. This would change with the advent of the mail-order plan business.

Catalogs with advertisements for plans or focusing on plans appeared in the late 1860s. However, the mail-order plan catalog did not become popular for nearly a decade. In 1876, George Palliser of Bridgeport, Connecticut published Palliser's Model Homes for the People, often considered the first prominent mail-order-plan business catalog. Like pattern books, Palliser's Model Homes contained plans and elevations for dwellings in architectural styles and vernacular forms popular at the time. Brief descriptions, listed benefits, and the estimated construction cost were included with each modest home design, with custom designs offered to the reader. However, Palliser expanded on the pattern book format and advertised full plans for each design, as well as custom plans, for purchase at a cost ranging from three to eighty dollars. The catalog was well received, and in 1878, Palliser's brother Charles joined the firm when it published its second catalog. Following the success of the Palliser brothers, many architects soon published their own plan books. Robert W. Shoppell published Artistic Modern Houses of Low Cost (1881) in cooperation with the Co-Operative Building Plan Association, while George F. Barber released Modern Artistic Cottages, alternatively known as The Cottage Souvenir, Designed to Meet the Wants of Mechanics and Home Builders (1885).

Although Artistic Modern Houses of Low Cost generally followed the plan book format established in Palliser's Model Homes, it had two significant differences. While Palliser offered custom designs to readers, Shoppell offered complete sets of working plans for any design included in his publication. The price for each plan was prominently displayed along with the estimated construction cost and a brief description. Shoppell further differentiated his plan book through price. At twenty-five cents, Artistic Modern Homes of Low Cost was priced twenty-times less than Palliser's Model Homes, which sold for five dollars. This marks a transition where the advertised plan, rather than the book, became the primary product. Until the late 1880s, authors earned most money associated with the plan book from royalties or from architectural services readers purchased after reading it. The plan book became a catalog from which to select products (plans).

Residential plan books vastly rose in popularity during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While architecture was becoming an increasingly popular profession, it could not keep up with the demand for housing. Furthermore, the average homebuyer could not afford to hire an architect to custom design a house using popular trends of the time. Plan books, with their many designs, low cost, and ready availability were a welcome alternative. They were easily attainable, both physically and financially, and allowed the purchaser to participate in popular architectural trends that otherwise were reserved for the more wealthy or elite. Although plans advertised in plan books were characteristically modest in both size and complexity, they often incorporated popular architectural elements, although typically in restrained or simplified forms. The designs offered were simple enough for the common homeowner or local builder to construct and plan books were marketed directly to homeowners in many cases. The owner could buy the design and then follow the plans using common tools, materials, methods. As demand grew, many firms entered the plan book market. The Aladdin Company, the Radford Architectural Company, and Sears became major suppliers.

Brothers Otto and William Sovereign founded the Aladdin Company in Bay City, Michigan in 1906. They published their first catalog, Aladdin Knocked-Down Houses, two years later. The Aladdin Company marketed its plan books directly to the homeowner and placed a heavy emphasis on easy construction (Figure 3). Unlike most other plan books published at the time, Aladdin offered "kits" or packages of plans coupled with pre- cut and milled elements which a homeowner could use to complete construction with ease. In 1908 Aladdin asserted there was "no experience or mechanical skill needed to put together Aladdin Knocked- Down Houses, and no tool but a hammer.

The Radford Architectural Company in Riverside, Illinois, published The Radford Ideal Homes: 100 Houses in 1903. As the title suggested, this publication offered one hundred designs for low and mid-priced dwellings each priced at five dollars per set. Savings in money and time were advertised as key Radford plan benefits while the firm also advertised free duplicate plans, specifications, and signed affidavits for use in insurance settlements should a home built using Radford plans be destroyed. Reversed and custom plans were available for an additional fee. Radford Architectural Company plan books remained popular with American home builders for over two decades. However, the firm ceased publication during the mid-1930s.

Already a household name, Sears, Roebuck, & Company expanded their product line to include plan books in 1908 with Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans. In contrast to many other companies that typically distributed their plan books within a specialized or localized range, Sears distributed their plan books nationwide. The plan books were free, and each typically offered approximately twenty plans from which the homeowner could choose. Complete plans, including material lists and labor estimates, were available for order and at minimal cost. Purchasers of the plans were also offered special price reductions on building materials from Sears. In conjunction with plans, Sears also sold the millwork, mechanical systems, and hardware needed to construct its designs. Framing lumber still required a local purchase; however, this changed in 1911 when Sears acquired lumberyards and mills. Customers could then order all required building materials from the company. In 1915, Sears introduced "Ready Made Houses," which were advertised as both portable and easy to assemble or disassemble. These houses were small, with only three to five rooms, and marketed as summer or vacation homes. Shortly after, in 1918, the company began offering pre-cut and fitted lumber for over half of all Sears house plans. The lumber was numbered and corresponded to annotated plans to facilitate construction. At this time, Sears stopped selling blueprints separately and transitioned from plan books to the "kit house" model it is most known for. Sears kit house production remained high until the Great Depression and resulting economic hardship significantly reduced sales. In 1934, the company liquidated the home construction department and left the market completely in 1940.

Although some plan book companies, including Aladdin and Topeka's Garlinghouse, were able to survive the Great Depression, their sales were significantly reduced in the aftermath. Plan books fell out of wide-spread popularity following World War II, when large scale housing construction increased the available, affordable housing stock. The Aladdin Company continued to produce plan books selling their "Redi-Cut" homes through the mid-twentieth century, however, sales continually declined, due in part to consumer antipathy towards prefabricated housing. Post-World War II, a glut of prefabricated housing entered the market. While typically affordable and relatively quick to construct, portions of prefabricated housing often did not meet the standards of durability, size, and style consumers were accustomed to. This negative connotation became associated with prefabricated housing in general. By 1946, a Fortune magazine survey reported only 16 percent of survey respondents desired a prefabricated house while 33 percent would only choose prefabricated housing if no other suitable options were available. Mid- and late-twentieth century Aladdin catalogs pointedly emphasized their "Redi-Cut" homes were not prefabricated, illustrating the company's attempt to distance itself from negative consumer connotations. However, sales continued to decline, and the firm ceased operations in 1981. In contrast, the Garlinghouse firm maintained suitable sales throughout the twentieth century and continued to produce plan books.

Adapted from: Emily Lenhausen (editing by Kansas SHPO staff), Rosin Preservation, Historic Houses of the Garlinghouse Company in Topeka. nomination document, 2019, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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