Her husband was urging that they save their money to buy a home, but in 1928 Leafy Cleaves had a more daring idea.
"We already had the lot, and I was for getting a house as soon as we could," the 78-year-old Silver Spring woman recalled recently. "So I sent away for the Sears catalog, and we picked one out and ordered it."
The mail-order, two-story house, complete with four bedrooms, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, porch, sewing room and furnace, arrived in crates at the Forest Glen railroad station. The lumber for it was pre-cut, with directions for assembling. The cost: $3,600.
"Thank the Lord I got mine when I did," said Cleaves, whose husband, father and brother spent four months putting the structure together. "If we had saved our money, we never could have bought a house, what with the Depression and all."
Homes like hers can be found dotted throughout the Washington area, in neighborhoods ranging from McLean to College Park to Brookland, and many hold their own with much newer homes valued at $130,000 and more.
Mail-order catalog offerings from Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward, priced from $700 for a modest bungalow to $6,000 for a grand, Gothic-columned mansion with servants' quarters, solved the housing problems of thousands of Americans in the first three decades of this century.
Nobody knows exactly how many were built in this area before the market went sour in the Depression and Sears and Ward's got out of the business.
Preservationists say the figure is probably in the hundreds although original owners are usually the only ones who know about the special history of these houses. More than a dozen such catalog-purchased homes have been documented in this area.
"They're historical footnotes more than anything else -- oddities," explains Mark Walston, a Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission historian. Walston came across the Cleaves mail-order house while researching Capitol View, an early Montgomery County subdivision sandwiched between Kensington and Forest Glen.
Catherine and Neil McDonald discovered their mail-order house while looking for an old house to restore. They found a 1926 Sears house abandoned, waiting to be burned down by the expanding McLean Racket Club and last summer moved it around the corner to a lot they owned.
"It had been vacant for eight months, and kids were using it for parties," said Catherine McDonald. "But it's very well constructed, and we had no problem moving it."
The home, which Sears called "The Fullerton" and sold for $2,293, has handsome woodwork and floors and the look of stately residences from an earlier period, according to McDonald. It had six rooms and a porch as originally designed; the McDonalds added central heat and air conditioning, a two-story addition and a deck.
Sears made a film of the McDonald house for its archives in Chicago, as part of its effort to keep track of Sears' role in America's past, according to Ted Erfer, the company's East Coast media relations director.
"The catalog made it sound easy to do, but you had to build them yourself or hire someone to build them," said Erfer, who notes Sears sold about 100,000 mail-order houses between 1909 and 1936, hiring architects to produce the designs of dozens of models. Buyers had to put in their own foundation.
The company's first mail-order catalog of homes grew from four pages in 1908 to 100 pages at the peak of its sales in the late 1920s. Ward's had 100 models to choose from, and both firms opened mail-order offices just to handle the business.
"You could buy a complete home by a single order from a catalog," said Loring Stevenson, a Ward's public relations official in Chicago. "You got two railroad cars of lumber, cut to size, flooring, trim, doors, windows, shingles, supplies, a set of blueprints and enough nails to put it all together. Everything but the masonry -- that was extra."
Erfer said Sears saw the mail-order homes as a way to sell roofing and other household supplies and notes that the homes were designed "with little nooks to fit the furniture we sold." One woman, he reports, ordered a home where "everything, even the shrubbery outside, was from a Sears catalog -- that's kind of a nice touch when you think about it."
The idea that "One Order Brings It All" was part of the advertising appeal of a Sears home, said Erfer. Catalog ads for its "Honor Bilt Modern Homes" proclaimed the purchaser could "dispose of the entire transaction in a few minutes," much more convenient that being "compelled to go to a dozen places for as many different items, each transaction requiring time, expense and worry."
In addition to the home building basics, customers were invited to "benefit yourself still more" by placing orders for "rugs, furniture, perhaps a piano, a Silvertone phonograph . . . silverware, suits, dresses, linen, etc."
The Depression and the increasingly cosmopolitan flavor of the nation took its toll on the catalog home market by the late 1930s. Sears, which had pioneered credit purchasing, found itself in the uncomfortable position of repossessing homes. Ward's sold its homes on a "ship and draw" basis -- one-third down and then paying the remainder for sections as they arrived -- so it avoided having to make foreclosures.
Sales, officials say, slowly dried up. There are companies that still sell catalog homes but on nowhere near the scale of Ward's and Sears in those days. Today, Sears and Ward's officials note, shipping costs would be prohibitively high should they try to revive their catalog home businesses, which they say were never very profitable.
The people who bought the mail-order houses consider them some of the best investments they ever made, particularly when they see what it would cost to have comparable dwellings today. Erfer tells of one man who paid $2,200 for his Sears home some 50 years ago and recently laid out $6,000 simply to replace its siding.
For a real testimonial, however, talk to Leafy Cleaves, who has lived in her house for 53 years and even has a neighboring street bearing her first name. "I watched them put up this new house on the next street, and they just threw it together and sold it for $165,000," she said. "Mine's a lot better made, and I still have the same furnace, too." CAPTION: Picture 1, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold approximately 100,000 mail-order houses between 1909 and 1936 through its catalog ads; Picture 2, and 3, Neil, Lee and Catherine McDonald in front of their Sears house; son Lee in the dining room. By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post; Picture 4, Leafy Cleaves stands in front of of the two-story Silver Spring home that she bought out of the Sears catalog in 1928 for $3,600. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post