- Historic Sites
At Home On The Highway
A hankering for house cars—and trailers and motor homes—has diverted Americans for more than seventy years
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
“See America First.” After the First World War broke out in Europe, this slogan, coined by an organization of Western businessmen and civic leaders, beckoned thousands of Americans to see the West. While German submarines endangered transatlantic ships, tourists began responding enthusiastically to articles promoting the Rockies, the deserts, and above all San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which drew thirteen million visitors in 1915. Many chose to cross the continent by automobile, taking a novel, breezy, monthlong voyage in an open touring car instead of the three-and-a-half-day trip in a stifling Pullman car. They drove on partially paved wagon roads, alternately dusty and muddy: the Midland Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Lincoln Highway, and others.
It was a journey of nostalgia and adventure. Long-distance road travel had lost prominence thirty years earlier as railroads had reached across all the Western states. Now upper- and middle-class tourists were reviving it as a romantic sport, and they saw themselves as modern pioneers in motorized prairie schooners. The conveniences of city hotels, garages, and route markers made the open spaces an easier challenge by 1915, but the trip was still arduous. Searing heat, paralyzing rain, and mechanical breakdowns demanded strength and patience. Ingenuity and self-sufficiency remained essential.
In the 1930s, Americans in almost every middle-class neighborhood built plywood trailers ion used chassis.
Despite the difficulties, many motorists shunned hotels and relied on their own tents and camping equipment. Tenting had begun to be popular in the 1870s, principally among hunters, but by World War I, motorists from cities and suburbs were enjoying a taste of nomadic, preindustrial life in tents, temporarily shedding the burdens of prescribed dress and daily routine while pursuing family harmony and leisure. But there were limits: most chose to ease the hardships of camping through folding equipment and cleverly devised comforts. Then prosperous travelers fond of nature but accustomed to soft living began to modify the automobile itself to take more of the indoors outdoors. The recreational vehicle was born.
The very first house cars, as they were called, belonged to the wealthy. They were custom-built trucks with comfortable, if simple, aboveground sleeping quarters. Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, had a wood-and-canvas house car built by his shop in 1915 and furnished with cots, an alcohol stove, and cooking utensils. He accompanied his wife and son on numerous trips west. T. Coleman du Pont, the Delaware industrialist, owned a similar vehicle, one of the earliest, built in 1911; John K. Dean, a Boston manufacturer, also had one. These were little more than sturdy, attractive wood-and-canvas boxes on wheels, but a few magnates managed to include most of the comforts of home. The Gypsy Van, which belonged to Roland R. Conklin, president of the New York Motor Bus Company, had sofas, beds, a kitchen, and even a rooftop deck. The house car gave the upper class a play home that combined some of the appeal of a yacht or a private railroad car with the flexibility of the automobile.
With the rich and prominent enjoying a strikingly new diversion, the middle classes could not be far behind. By 1916, less affluent campers were fashioning their own house cars, but most of them were limited to less expensive trailers, which typically consisted of a collapsible tent attached to a wagon body of wood and sheet steel. Inside were folding beds, extra cots, a table, electric lights, an icebox, storage compartments, and a gasoline cookstove. Many motorists simply stretched cots over the seats of their cars to stay out of the damp and buggy outdoors. Several companies began to manufacture attaching cots and tents that folded out from a car’s running board. Arguments sprang up about the relative merits and defects of trailers and house cars—the former were difficult to tow and back up, a backbreaking chore to unfold, and they reduced driving speed; the latter were heavy, sometimes foundering in chuckholes, and less convenient for side trips. By the end of the decade a small industry had arisen to manufacture tent trailers with names like Auto-Kamp, Twin Bed, and Prairie Schooner. There were two standard designs—the low trailer, in which the tent was folded flat over the cots, and the high trailer, whose steep, sloped walls gave it the appearance of a great khaki toaster.