- 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
By the early 1920s greater numbers of middle-class tourists were building their own house cars, often starting with used automobile chassis and designs published in magazines. Camping trailers continued to outnumber house cars, but the latter—typically yellow, green, cream, or blue boxes made of plywood or fiberboard and set on Model T chassis—were also conspicuous in Western towns, camps, and parks. No two were exactly alike; some resembled rolling chicken coops, others were finely crafted vehicles. By 1921 a small number of companies were making house-car bodies—Livabout, Caravan, Lamsteed Kampkar—that then were attached to existing chassis by automobile dealers or local mechanics.
Devotees of early house cars believed they were perfecting a charmed imitation of gypsy life.
Now that the house car was becoming Everyman’s yacht, the models belonging to middle-class families acquired some of the same features as those of the rich. In his Ark, the cereal processor William K. Kellogg surrounded himself with mahogany paneling, leather upholstery, revolving chairs, and amenities like an ice crusher, but most of his simpler furnishings and gadgets could be found in homemade house cars as well—these would include wicker chairs, electric lights, a primitive toilet and small kitchen, and a battery-operated radio. Devotees of house cars believed they were perfecting the charmed imitation of gypsy life that auto campers had first conceived. One company actually used as its slogan the line “We All Have a Little Gipsy Blood.”
No longer preoccupied with finding tent sites or hotels, owners of house cars could accelerate their schedules and travel farther. They could stop for the night at the nearest field, stream, or unused lot, either securing permission or simply hoping to go undetected. House cars cost considerably more than camping trailers, but their owners tended to take longer trips, and heating systems made possible a longer travel season, with winter journeys to Florida or the Southwest. Also, house-car owners enjoyed a special advantage when they arrived at new places in the twenties—they could meet and get to know the local people who were drawn to their vehicles wherever they stopped. Mr. and Mrs. M. W. Trester, who left Denver in 1921 for a three-year journey in their Motor Palace, summed up the lure of the house car when they told a reporter: “We decided to travel and actually to see the United States. We wished to visit out-of-the-way places, to become acquainted with people who have not been affected by the congestion of our big cities, who are interesting and unassuming, then we want to see everything worth seeing in the country, and with this car we can travel and be at home at the same time.”
In the early 1930s auto camping became associated with Depression poverty, and its popular appeal nearly vanished, except at places like national parks and other playgrounds; those who could afford camping as leisure increasingly turned to the enclosed, fully furnished house trailer, which eclipsed the old house car in popularity. Some middle-class motorists had built rough house trailers in the twenties, and by 1929 the well-to-do could purchase a luxurious Aerocar trailer designed by the airplane manufacturer Glenn H. Curtiss. In almost every middle-class community, Americans built plywood trailers on secondhand chassis for use on weekends or vacations. Like house cars, house trailers were personalized and comfortable; like the earlier tent trailers, they could be detached to free the car for side trips. And like their predecessors, they were soon being manufactured for sale, usually at six to eight hundred dollars apiece. Models included the Traveleze, Kozy Coach, Vagabond, and the still familiar Airstream.
House trailers were built to higher standards than most previous homes on wheels. A typical design incorporated a steel chassis, a wooden frame with plywood walls and flooring, insulation, a green, blue, red, or tan skin of Masonite or imitation leather, and a canvas roof. The moderne interior was heated and furnished with sofa beds, a folding table, cabinets, a kitchenette, a toilet, and often a shower or bathtub. Trailers grew ever longer and better furnished, and by the late 1930s several manufacturers were promoting annual model changes.