Foundations of construction: Aladdin conjured up homes; factory-built kits starting a century ago

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The “Stratford X” home kit, priced at $3434.93. Canadian Aladdin Company Catalogue #16, 1920, catalogue p. 29. Retrieved from https://ia802605.us.archive.org/9/items/aladdinhomes192000cacluoft/aladdinhomes192000cacluoft.pdf

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Constructing homes with hand tools powered only by human muscle was a challenge at the best of times, and a painful, slow, and costly disappointment in the worst. In the early 20th century, the Sovereign brothers devised a system to make homebuilding accurate and by-the-numbers simple. As if the genie in the bottle granted wishes, all pre-cut materials required to build a home were delivered in one drop. The brilliance was provided by the Canadian Aladdin Company (CAC).

William Sovereign of Bay City, Michigan watched a local firm sprout a new business offering “knock down boats.” Boat pieces were machined and built, then disassembled and numbered. The build-yourself boats were mailed to eager amateur boat-builders. The light bulb flashed for Sovereign. He realized that houses could be manufactured and sold the same way. The designer put pen and tape measure to work in 1906.

Persuading his brother, Otto Sovereign, to join him as marketer and manager, Sovereign invested $200 in booklets. The Aladdin Company was born in the United States with a branch in Canada. The initial mail-order catalogue offered boat houses, cottages, and residential garages. By 1910, home designs were available.

First named Sovereign Construction, the Canadian head office opened in about 1905, later settling in Toronto’s prestigious Canadian Pacific Building, built in 1913. While competing with Eaton’s and other mail-order homes sold in western Canada, Aladdin homes were sold across the country.

Developing the “Readi-Cut Plan,” the Sovereign brothers hired engineers to configure optimal use of every centimetre of lumber and supplies to save customers about 30 per cent on their kit purchase. Architects ensured maximal lumber use by placing windows or doors slightly to the left or right to meet requirements.

Choosing a home from the enticing catalogue, customers made their own design changes. Aladdin millworkers cut each piece to exacting specifications from the highest-quality lumber, marked and organized for easy building. Convinced of their quality, the company offered a refund of a dollar per knot if the customer found any knots in the boards.

In Canada, the lumber was selected from the region in which it would be used—fir and cedar for western provinces, milled in British Columbia and Manitoba; hemlock, fir, pine, and spruce from the Eastern provinces, milled in Ontario and New Brunswick.

Ensuring the substance and superiority of their homes, the 1921 company catalogue stressed that an Aladdin house was “not ‘Sectional’ or ‘Portable’ and cannot be taken apart except as you would tear apart any good home.”

Shipped by rail to the train station nearest the customer, “the lumber and materials were accompanied by a detailed set of blueprints and construction manual,” said Canadian Museum of History. The kits were thoroughly evaluated and tested until perfect. The confident company “boasted that anyone who could swing a hammer could build an Aladdin house…”

Before the home kit arrived, purchasers were responsible for site preparation. Received in advance, a blueprint guide for the foundation gave instructions on accurate construction. “We, of course, do not supply stone, concrete or brick for foundations, as they can commonly be purchased as cheaply in one locality as another,” the catalogue noted.

On delivery, Aladdin’s bundle included sills, cellar windows and joists to complete the basement. The rest of the house came too, from subflooring to studs, exterior walls and cladding. Interior lath arrived (the customer provided the plaster), plus doors and windows. right up to rafters, shingles, and insulation. All nails, screws, and hardware were included, with a few extras just in case. The customer chose paint colours, stains, and finishes. It was virtually a house in a box.

Designing blueprints to meet nearly every need, Sovereign’s home plans ranged from two bedrooms to multiple. The customer could buy one home kit or request a village of houses. Aladdin required a down-payment of one-third of the kit price with balance due on delivery. If paid in full upfront, the company offered a 5 per cent discount. Advice was given on estimations to complete the build, varying from 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the materials costs as an average.

More than a dozen Aladdin kits received approval by the director of the Ontario Housing Scheme. The Ontario Housing Act, 1919, promoted an “ideal city (which) featured increasingly similar but separate, working-and middle-class homes and neighbourhoods,” stated Matt Sendbuehler and Jason Gilliland in Urban History Review, Volume 26, Number 2, March 1998.

Home kit prices in the 1920s spanned from about $1,000 for a smaller bungalow to over $6,500 for a spacious two-storey model (about $13,000 to over $84,000 in today’s dollars). A 24’ x 12’ cottage kit could be purchased for approximately $700.

Folding in 1952, the Canadian Aladdin Company proudly supplied home comfort to families for decades; many houses remain standing. No genie was needed, only a good idea and wise construction calculations.

© 2020 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based columnist who specializes in Canadian history.

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