A small-scale vacation home plan advertised by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association in 1960
Douglas Fir Plywood Association A small-scale vacation home plan advertised by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association in 1960

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

From architectural home–pattern books to kit-house catalogs from companies like Sears and Aladdin, the BTHL contains more than 1,000 compilations of house plans showcasing trends in budget-friendly and otherwise small-scale residential construction throughout the 20th century. Unlike the “tiny houses" of today, these structures (and their owners) were less concerned with making an environmental statement than they were with opening up home ownership—or, in some cases, access to an inexpensive vacation property—to a burgeoning middle class. Two of the most popular catalog makers were the Radford Architectural Co. of Chicago and L.F. Garlinghouse of Topeka, Kan. Each produced dozens of catalogs and hundreds of home designs that were subsequently replicated across the country. Radford Architectural prospered from 1900 until the 1930s, while L.F. Garlinghouse started in the early 20th century and is still active today.

Among the plethora of catalogs in the BTHL, quite a few focus on the construction of vacation cabins, cottages, or other small houses. The Hodgson Co. of Massachusetts was a popular marketer of vacation cottages; the roadside tourist cabin, the predecessor to today's motels, was a subset of this market. Most of the houses, which the books marketed as economic or budget-minded with names like cottages and bungalows, measured between 600 and 800 square feet—somewhat larger than today’s on-trend tiny houses, which are usually no more than a few hundred square feet. Regardless of what you call them, these scaled-down houses reflect Americans’ growing desire for home ownership, no matter the size.

Woodward’s Cottages and Farm Houses

, 1867, Geo. E. Woodward, New York
Architectural pattern books and builders’ guides featuring house plans gained popularity after the Civil War. The description of houses as “cottages” was an indication of smaller designs for freestanding homes. Most pattern books also featured larger houses for the middle and upper-middle classes.

Modern House-Plans for Everybody, 1900, S. B. Reed, New York
This design starts as a 250-square-foot cottage. When a larger structure is added to its front, the original house becomes the rear section of the new, larger home. This is an interesting concept for today’s builders, whether they’re designing tiny homes or modular structures that can be expanded through additions. One caveat: These early examples relied on a freestanding outhouse as a toilet, something not typical today.

Portable and Permanent Wood and Iron Buildings, c. 1900, Boutton & Paul, England
This British catalog presents an early version of the kit house, whose components could be ordered by mail and shipped to the jobsite. This company prospered at a time when the British Empire covered the globe, no doubt bringing these designs with it. The text is written in English, Spanish, and French, though the plans are primarily for English-style cottages of the late 19th century.

Radford’s Artistic Bungalows, 1908, Radford Architectural, Chicago
Radford Architectural, billing itself as the “largest architectural establishment in the world,” published what it calls the “most up-to-date collection of building plan and reference books.” From 1900 to 1920, the company published dozens of house-plan books. Radford’s “artistic bungalows” were single–family homes as small as 1,000 square feet.

Aladdin Houses: Built in a Day, 1915, North American Construction, Bay City, Mich.
During the 20th century, Aladdin Houses was one of the largest kit-home manufacturers in North America. The company started in 1908 and shuttered in 1981, selling more than 75,000 homes during that period. The smallest among them measured around 500 square feet and, like the average single-family home of its time, there was no indoor bathroom.

‘Presto Up’ Patented Bolt-Together Cottages, 1923, Harris Brothers Co., Chicago
The Harris Brothers Co. marketed these cottage-style frames as a vacation home. Even the smallest models included either an open or screened-in porch as an outdoor living space.

The Books of a Thousand Homes, Vol. 1, 1923, Home Owners’ Service Institute, New York
The 1920s was a particularly prosperous era for homebuilders, and the BTHL contains a number of catalogs from this decade. This 316-page volume contains 500 plans for what it calls “homes of moderate cost,” or those with three to eight rooms. Although most are two-story homes, one of the smallest is Plan No. 170, a single-level, 600-square-foot cottage (shown).

100 Bungalows of Frame and Masonry Construction, 1927, Architects’ Small House Service Bureau of the United States, Minneapolis
This collection of bungalows showcases the designs of the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau, a group of Minnesota architects who advocated for the construction of economical homes for under-served middle class home buyers in the early 20th century. A number of similar private companies and organizations promoted small-scale homes from the 1920s through the 1960s in order to make home ownership a possibility for more people. These companies published plan-book catalogs offering complete sets of plans to builders for a small fee.

For Home Lovers, 1923, National Lumber Manufacturers Association, Washington, D.C.
This compilation from the National Lumber Manufacturers Association features designs by architects from across the U.S. The smallest houses have five rooms and measure 700 square feet. Although they all are wood-frame construction, each presents a unique aesthetic, showcasing the variation in residential design in the 1920s.

Paul Bunyan’s Log Cabin Book, 1932, Red River Lumber Co., Westwood, Calif.
The log cabin has a special place in the American memory, and 20th-century vacation cabins often exploited this nostalgia. These small houses came equipped with log cabin–style siding that could be attached to a standard wood frame.

Hodgson Camp Houses, 1933, E. F. Hodgson Company, Boston
E. F. Hodgson Co. was a kit-home manufacturer specializing in vacation cabins. That New England was its primary market shows in the prevalence of white-painted clapboard cabins with window shutters throughout the catalog.

Garlinghouse Budget Homes, c. 1945, L. F. Garlinghouse Co., Topeka, Kan.
Garlinghouse Co. was one of America’s largest plan book publishers, particularly during the post-World War II housing boom. There are nearly 100 Garlinghouse catalogs in the BTHL. For this book of “budget homes,” the smallest model measures 1,000 square feet—a typical starter home for the era.

Summer Living: Log Cabins, Tourist Cabins, Boat Houses, Piers, Cottages, 1953, National Plan Service, Chicago
By the 1950s, the typical house began at 1,000 square feet, with the exception being the vacation or tourist cabin. This plan book features cabins—devoid of bathrooms—as small as 270 square feet. For those seeking one with a bathroom and kitchen, the smallest versions started at 600 square feet.

Second Homes for Leisure Living, 1960, Douglas Fir Plywood Association, Tacoma, Wash.
This text is one of the most popular items in the BTHL. Its designs for vacation homes have a decidedly midcentury modern look, which was achieved using the then-novel plywood construction.

Special thanks to Jim Draeger and Floyd Mansberger for sharing their personal house plan catalog collections with the Association for Preservation Technology.