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The Tin Garage

Summer 1997 | Volume 13 |  Issue 1

ANTIQUARIANS SAY, “THE MORE THERE WERE , the fewer there are.” By 1927 fifteen million Model T Fords had been built, and to shelter these tin lizzies, thousands of tin garages were bolted, screwed, and banged together in back yards from Cape Cod to Puget Sound. Not many T’s are still around, and even fewer tin garages. Some of them, built carelessly or cheaply, just rusted to pieces and collapsed. Most of them outlived their usefulness. As the auto industry matured, cars grew wider and longer until by 1940 most tin garages couldn’t hold them. As a result, thousands were claimed in World War II scrap drives. Yet even today, if you look closely in older neighborhoods and rural communities, you’ll see the rare survivor, usually recycled as a storage shed. You can recognize it by its corrugated steel roof or its pressed-steel imitation clapboard siding—and by its inevitable rust.


Tin garages were the first mass-produced, prefabricated buildings spawned by the booming twentieth-century steel industry. The granddaddy of the Quonset hut, the tin garage flourished from about 1910 to the mid-1930s as the auto industry kept pouring out endless streams of cars. Galvanized (zinc-coated) strip steel had been rolled into corrugated sheets for roofing and siding even before the turn of the century, and roofs made from the steel supposedly “neither rusted nor rotted.” They were versatile, easy to install, and almost indestructible. And the cost of steel dropped nearly as fast as its production soared: from eleven million tons in 1900 to forty-six million tons by 1920.

By the end of World War I, farmers, shopkeepers, and even blue-collar workers could afford to buy cars. But once they bought one, where would they keep it? You couldn’t just let your major investment stand out in the rain, especially since it might very well have no roof of its own. Of course, farmers had their barns, and rich folks had carriage houses. Then, with the post-World War I rush to suburbia and singlefamily tract housing, a new architectural phenomenon appeared: the garage—a word borrowed from the French garer (to shelter) that sounded much more sophisticated than shed .

As early as 1908 Sears, Roebuck had begun selling precut do-it-yourself wooden garages. Then in its 1916 Modern Homes catalogue appeared an all-steel nine-by-twelve-foot fireproof “portable garage,” including two-by-four-inch lumber for the sills, internal steel bracing, nuts, bolts, wirereinforced glass windows, for $62.75. The catalogue asserted that “two handy men can bolt garage together in a few hours.” (On the same page a 15-by-21-foot three-room house, “complete with floor,” was offered for $226.)

By 1925 Sears was selling both single and double garages with names drawn from America’s glorious naval history: Monitor, Merrimac, and Ironsides. Prices had nearly doubled: The cheapest sold for $119, at a time when a Model T could be had for $290. The catalogue proudly announced that these latest garages were made of “guaranteed new ‘open-hearth’ steel.” The designers had taken care to duplicate traditional wooden construction features—recessed door panels, for example—in pressed steel. It was fine to be modern, but not too modern.

In one decade, from 1910 to 1920, the ratio of cars to citizens in the United States had rocketed from roughly one per two hundred to one per thirteen. Suddenly cars were everywhere. So were tin garages, but unlike the cars, they soon disappeared. During the 1920s home builders began offering wooden garages as optional extras. After a while almost every new house featured at least a carport and more often a fully attached garage, frequently a double, with space enough for bicycles and lawn mowers. The garage as outbuilding fell out of fashion. Sears, Roebuck abandoned the garage business in 1939. Today tin garages have all but disappeared, along with the Model T’s and Marmons, Stanleys, and Reos they were built to shelter.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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