Mail-Order House on Lamartine Street


A small bungalow at 281 Lamartine Street, built in 1940, is a rare, documented mail-order or “Readi-cut” house by the Aladdin Company of Bay City Michigan. The Aladdin Company was one of the longest-lived and most successful of the “Readi-cut,” “built-in-a-day” companies which flourished between about 1905 and World War II.

Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward – huge department stores whose catalogues revolutionized the American middle-class consumer culture and did more than anything else to create a common sense of being an American – were two other companies that offered complete mail-order houses; Sears started in 1908.

The Aladdin Company houses – featured in illustrated company catalogues – consisted of measured, pre-cut, and numbered pieces of lumber delivered by rail boxcar to a siding nearest the house lot. Customers would select a style from the illustrated catalogue and put in the order with a down payment. Customers could – and were encouraged to – make changes or adjustments to what they saw in the catalogue, and Aladdin architects would adapt those changes to preexisting designs. Everything from floor joists, rafters, plaster, shingles, millwork, nails and two coats of paint were provided. Between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces of lumber and other materials would be packed in one or two boxcars and shipped to the buyer within – as it was advertised – a week.

The Aladdin Company was formed in Bay City, Michigan, in 1906 by William and Otto Sovereign, who began as “knock-down” boat builders, using standardized, ready-made, cut and numbered pieces. They expanded this concept into boat houses, garages, and summer cottages. Beginning in 1908, Aladdin began publishing annual catalogues of the house styles and plans it offered; usually modest, one-story, but also larger, two-story homes. The company advertised in magazines like Good Housekeeping, National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post. Aladdin emphasized the value of home ownership to the middle classes and the importance that home ownership meant to the family.

Aladdin had mills in Portland, Oregon and Bay City, Michigan on the edges of the great tree farms of Oregon and Washington State, as well as the north woods of Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada. For forty years, the mail-order house business provided a ready market for the great lumber barons.

Aladdin – like the others, especially Sears Roebuck – also pioneered the common national architectural styles: the bungalow, Cape Cod, gambrel roof and the four-square, all largely Colonial Revival styles. This also, over time, united the national mind: someone from Massachusetts traveling in Kansas would be comforted to see familiar house styles.

Aladdin’s biggest success – especially as individual house sales dropped in the 1930s – was with contractors who bought in bulk. It also supplied houses for company towns and military housing during World War II.

The house at 281 Lamartine Street was one of three adjacent Aladdin houses built by the McDonald Tinker Housing Corporation of Somerville; number 277 still stands, while the middle house was taken down. McDonald Tinker bought two vacant lots near Biltmore Street in 1939. This was originally the site of the Nicholas Broughton house, built by 1874 after Lamartine Street was completed in 1873. The 17,680-square-foot parcel was vacant and subdivided by 1914.

The three bungalow/prairie-style houses that McDonald Tinker built on the lots are not exactly shown in the 1939 catalogue, but several two-bedroom homes are similar, and clearly the contractor modified the plans. More than likely McDonald Tinker had a contract with Aladdin for houses on 1/4- or 1/2-acre lots in the metropolitan area.

Number 281 and its twin at number 277 were small, two-bedroom houses popular in the summer house section of the Aladdin catalogue, and probably marketed to newlyweds and the first time homebuyer.

The location was ideal: Lamartine Street was built in phases that connected the Jamaica Plain (Green Street), Boylston Street (Stonybrook), and Heath Street (Jackson Square) stations on the NYNH&H Railroad. The Jamaica Plain station had long sidings that served the Brookside area factories.

Aladdin guaranteed free shipping and delivery within five days, in carefully packed boxcars from its Bay City mills, to buyers east of the Mississippi. McDonald Tinker had three or four boxcars delivered to a siding, and transported to the three house lots. Aladdin did not provide foundation materials, in this case cinderblocks.

The 1939 catalogue, which McDonald Tinker may have used, offered forty-one house styles (mostly Colonial Revival), ten summer houses and six garage styles. All the houses from 1908 through the last one in 1958 had names, all firmly Anglo-Saxon, such as The Norfolk, The Roosevelt (Thoroughly American), The Hawthorn, The Plymouth, The Pilgrim, or The Birchwood.

It is difficult to document a mail-order house; occasionally a shipping label can be found on the backs of millwork of windows. The building permits for 281 and 277 Lamartine Street list the architect as the Aladdin Company of Bay City Michigan. The estimated cost of number 281 is listed as $3000. This is for materials and labor, but does not include land costs.

Aladdin required a down payment with monthly costs over seven years. McDonald Tinker certainly had bulk rate terms, but in 1939 a house similar to 281 Lamartine, called The Cedars, had a down payment of $158; the monthly charge was $18.63 spread out over seven years, which totaled $1564 or $1722 total.

Labor costs for McDonald Tinker were greatly lowered because all the lumber was pre-cut and measured, requiring no on-site cutting; complicated work such as stairways and rafters were cut and numbered by skilled carpenters in Bay City.

Business slowed for Aladdin after World War II, but it continued to offer catalogues until 1958, and pre-fabricated houses until 1981, family-owned until the end. Sears Roebuck closed its “Honor Bilt” house mills in 1940.

In February 2016 Nik Ligris bought number 281 Lamartine and the adjacent lot where the third house once stood. He proposed to take down number 281, combine the lots and build a three-story, six-family condominium with first-floor parking designed by David O’Sullivan.

Richard Heath, July 11, 2017

The principal source is The Clark Historical Library, Central Michigan University.

A photo gallery of images related to this article may be found here.