December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
A hankering for house cars—and trailers and motor homes—has diverted Americans for more than seventy years
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The market for travel trailers and other recreational vehicles grew steadily in the sixties and exploded between 1967 and the gasoline shortage of 1973. Vacationers and retirees once again traveled in familiar surroundings, this time with color televisions, microwave ovens, wall-to-wall carpeting, air conditioning, and other new conveniences. At the same time, the homemade house car made a comeback of sorts as hippies took to converted school buses and eclectic houses on trucks, with wooden sides, stained-glass windows, and potted plants.
If there is a common road down which all these vehicles have traveled, it is a dual highway of security and independence. The suburban house, with its comforting array of furnishings and devices, has always been the paradigm for vacationers in homes on wheels. They have felt secure because they carried that house with them wherever they went, even while pretending to be escaping it and all its responsibilities. In a century during which radio and television have gradually brought the whole world into the home, house cars, trailers, and motor homes have enabled the home to move out into the whole world.
While the portable home has combined security and independence, home and away, in an entirely unprecedented fashion, it has hardly bound together levels of society so neatly. Recreational vehicles have always been symbols of status and increased leisure time; vehicles used as residences have almost always been associated with a second-class way of life. Americans cherish mobility, but only when the journey has an uplifting purpose and ends up safely, at home.