At Home On The Highway

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A dozen or so manufacturers achieved considerable volume, and the largest, Arthur G. Sherman of Detroit, became known as the Henry Ford of house trailers. A bacteriologist and an avid camper, Sherman began building trailers in 1929. After demand increased, he built his Covered Wagons with prefabricated sections on an assembly line. By 1936 his Covered Wagon Company, with its extensive dealer network, sold about one out of every six house trailers manufactured in the United States. Hailed as a pioneer in a rapidly growing industry, Sherman was one of the few businessmen to become a hero during the Great Depression. Indeed, the dramatic success of the whole trailer industry contrasted noticeably with the failure of older industries and attracted nationwide attention.

The government’s use of trailers in World War II made them a legitimate choice for homes.

Part-time tourists owned about half of all house trailers; migratory workers and other itinerants lived year-round in the other half. As early as the depression of 1920–21, unemployed Americans had lived in house cars while seeking work or a new home. By the 1930s thousands of wheat harvesters, fruit pickers, cotton pickers, factory workers, and other laborers were living and traveling with their families in homemade trailers. Skilled workers such as salesmen, carpenters, mechanics, and contractors also lived and traveled in trailers. Many retired couples toured continually in them, migrating south in the winter and north in the summer. Trailer residents paid little for berths and utility pickups at trailer camps, and some squatted on unattended fields.

By 1936 the growing number of trailer nomads—some two hundred thousand trailers were on the road—alarmed many observers, a few of whom made frightening predictions that a mutant form of civilization was developing. The economist Roger W. Babson, famous for forecasting the crash of 1929, anticipated the constant migration of half the population in trailers, and the writer Gilbert Seldes said, “We are facing a movement of population beside which even the Crusades will seem like Sunday school picnics.” Lewis Mumford denounced the house trailer as a regressive expedient that destroyed family and community ties. Indeed, crowded, often unsanitary camps held more than one thousand trailers outside some towns, and trailer residents often stayed months at a time. They usually paid no taxes yet placed their children in public schools and took advantage of other municipal services. Local governments started to limit each trailer’s stay, and states searched for ways to tax the vehicles.

Proponents of the house trailer as mobile living quarters supported it as a defense against wage reductions, indebtedness, and deteriorating neighborhoods. The mobile person could always go where work was more plentiful. No longer threatened by rent increases, large utility bills, and high taxes, the trailer family could always make ends meet. Karl H. Dixon, editor of Trailer Travel magazine, regarded trailers as a “safety-valve for pent-up discontent” that might prevent social revolution; visionaries like R. Buckminster Fuller and William B. Stout went so far as to proclaim the trailer an evolutionary advance in housing that would liberate poorer Americans from decadent cities, inferior houses, and harsh climates.

Between 1940 and 1943 the federal government bought thousands of small, inexpensive trailers to rent to men and women who worked in newly built war factories. Workers themselves purchased thousands more. Basic trailers, turned out rapidly by elderly craftsmen not otherwise needed for the war effort, clustered in temporary trailer “cities” near the factories and made possible an instant, flexible supply of workers. Most of the trailers were cheaply built because steel and other materials were allocated to war products, but before the government curtailed its trailer buying in 1943, the trailer had become a legitimate choice for a home.

After the war, when veterans and others who dreamed of owning houses encountered high prices and long waiting periods, the mobile-home industry was born. The new mobile home was rarely mobile at all; it was actually a prefabricated fixed home designed along the lines of a house trailer—which had itself, ironically, been an imitation of a fixed home. By 1950 the demand for temporary housing eased, and workers, active servicemen, and retirees once again became the principal market for trailers and mobile homes.

Mobile homes far outnumbered vacation vehicles in the early postwar years as more Americans stayed put and started families, but by the late 1950s a growing number of affluent vacationers were taking to the road in updated, more luxurious trailers: the Shasta Airflyte, Yellowstone, Va-Ka-Shun-Ette, and others. Some purchased Volkswagen buses equipped with camping options or, after 1961, newly developed, American-built motor homes—big, buslike vehicles that were pretty close to ranch houses on wheels. The most successful motor home—the Winnebago—was introduced in 1966.