In 1927, Calvin Coolidge was in his last full year as president. Babe Ruth batted .356 for the New York Yankees, with 60 home runs and a .772 slugging percentage. World War I, still known simply as "the World War," had ended less than a decade earlier. And a Chicago publisher, the Home Builders Catalog Co., brought forth a hefty 1,200-page volume of house plans.

To an early-21st-century builder, the 1927 Home Builders Catalog is a real page-turner, a rich blend of the outdated and the surprisingly modern. Many of the product ads display slogans straight out of A Prairie Home Companion ("Signal Mountain Portland Cement: It Reigns Where It's Poured"). A few tout bizarre insulating materials,...

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