|March 2002||Volume 27 - Number 8|
RV Industry Heritage
The Evolution of the Travel Trailer in America
About the author:
Al is available for consulting services, speaking engagements, and research assignments. You can reach him via e-mail (email@example.com).
The travel trailer industry began in America about 1910. It grew rapidly out of the camping activities that were popular from the earliest days of our country. As the automobile began to grow in acceptance after the turn of the century, auto camping dramatically increased the range and equipment capacity of campers from what they could take as hikers or on horseback. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and their many woodsmen brethren were simply RVers born 200 years too early. These early trailers were primarily homemade or custom made and very few brand name products were known until well into the 1920s. As camping equipment grew to fit the capability of auto campers to carry gear, they began to outfit trailers to haul more gear. The earliest trailers were simply permanently erect tents stretched over a wooden or steel pipe frame on a platform that provided a mobile bedroom with the capacity to haul other equipment. Auto travel was at 10 to 20 miles per hour so there was no need to collapse the tent for travel. About 1913, some individuals began to build, or have built, solid sided "tents" which were able to provide more room and carry more permanent cabinetry, tables, wardrobes etc. It wasn't until the later teens that kitchens began to move inside. Early campers all cooked over wood fires and the thought of building a fire inside our tent (solid or otherwise) in order to cook took some evolution.
As the twenties approached, camping trailers were still mostly only 8 10 feet long. Towing capacity of the auto was still very small. White gas and kerosene stoves were in use in rural homes and they began to be miniaturized for use in these early campers which became known as "house trailers" because we prepared food, ate and slept in them. Materials used to cover trailer exteriors were originally canvas, plywood, leatherette, homosote, masonite, and in some cases, steel. Roofs were covered in tarpaper topped by canvas which could be stretched in one piece over the entire roof and created no seams to leak. The canvas was then treated with Kool Seal, an aluminized sealer which kept it waterproof. It was necessary to renew the sealer two or three times a year. Many of the early autos also had canvas roofs that required periodic sealing so people were used to that maintenance requirement. As more "household" amenities became common in trailers, their size grew with the ability of automobiles to tow larger loads. By the late 1920s, trailers of 15 to 20 feet in length were common and some "giants" up to 25 feet long were seen.
By the mid 1930s, iceboxes, full white-gas kitchen ranges, sinks with running water, fuel oil heaters, and even toilet facilities were being introduced. Holding tanks for black waste were not yet in use and these early toilets were either commodes over a chamber pot or direct drops into a bucket or hole placed under the trailer as it was set up. Interior lighting was provided by a combination of 110 fixtures, battery (6 volt wet cell) operated lights, and gas or oil lamps. Many manufacturers provided a mixture of all three styles to fit the available service wherever the unit was parked. These amenities continued as state-of-the-art up to World War II.
Following WWII came the separation between "house trailers" and mobile homes used as permanent living quarters, and campers used for recreation. In the early 1950s, refrigeration began to replace iceboxes and butane or propane stoves replaced the white gas ranges for cooking. Fuel oil heat continued as the common appliance through the 50s in those units where heat was even an available option. Air conditioning was still to come and campers simply went and jumped in the lake or stream, if one was available, to cool off. This was the period when the term "recreational vehicle" began to be heard to describe the travel industry.
In the late 50s and early 1960s, pressurized water systems replaced the gravity tanks in use for fresh water storage. These gravity tanks were installed in cabinets directly over the kitchen sink and running water was provided by gravity flow. Refilling the tanks generally required a stepladder to reach the filler cap, which was outside near the roof line of the unit. The pressurized systems requir-ed an air pump or a stop at arequiredion to use the tire filling air supply to maintain air pressure to force the water into the fixtures. The dependable on-demand electric water pumps were still to come. Flush toilets and black water holding tanks were provided for when city water hookups were available.
In the late 60s, one piece molded fiberglass roofs became known and many of the leak problems were solved. Gasoline powered generators began to appear in other than very high line units and more electric appliances including roof top air conditioners began to become popular. The common units were still "campers" and identified as such. Living room amenities were mostly unknown. We prepared meals, ate, and slept in the camper but we lived and interacted in the great outdoors rain or shine. Many campground facilities still banned the use of radios or limited their use to daytime hours and TV, VCRs, and telephones were part of what we were trying to escape. Units did, however, continue to get larger and larger as towing power and lighter weight technology continued to improve.
In the 70s, dependable water pumps, microwave ovens and other modern appliances began the marked adjustment from camping to Rving. All household conveniences crept into the units and living rooms began to take over much of the space. As we left the terrible gas lines and astronomical interest rates of the 1970s behind and entered the 80s, along came the newly popular lifestyle we call Rving. Recliner chairs, TVs, VCRs, full home entertainment systems and all the "comforts" of home took over the campers and families began to go afield only to stay cooped up in their mobile house if the weather didn't turn out to be absolutely perfect. Thousands of families were attracted to this new outdoor lifestyle that would never consider going "camping" with the implication of roughing it and bugs and all sorts of other critters around. Suddenly we couldn't cram near enough room even into rigs over 35 feet long and we began to increase the living space with 2, 3, and sometimes 4 slide-out sections.
The modern RV lifestyle is a far cry from the 1930s when most practitioners were outdoorsmen, hunters, and fishermen who had no modern plumbing in their homes and saw no need to clutter up their campers with toilets and such. Today's RV family enjoys the independence of being able to carry the comforts they desire and go where they wish to go without relying on commercial transportation or public living facilities. The change from campers to RVs has brought thousands of new customers to our industry.
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