Americans, it seems, have been destined to be RVers since the earliest days that explorers set foot on this continent. Adventurers at heart, settlers came in search of freedom and opportunities to grow and discover. And discover they did – first by ship, then by horse, in groups by Conestoga wagon trains and, ultimately, by motorized vehicles that ushered in the RVs of today.
A century ago, the popularization of the automobile, improving roads and America’s passion for exploration gave rise to mass-produced, manufactured recreation vehicles, and the RV industry was born.
The Birth of the RV Industry
In 1910, there were few gas stations, few paved roads and no highway system. But there were RVs. 1910 is the year that America’s leading RV historians – David Woodworth, Al Hesselbart and Roger White – cite as the beginning of what has become the modern RV industry.
“The first motorized campers were built in 1910,” says Woodworth, a preeminent collector of early RVs and RV camping memorabilia. “Before then, people camped in private rail cars that were pulled to sidings along train routes. The year 1910 brought a new freedom to people who didn’t want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go where they wanted, when they wanted.”
Hesselbart, archivist for the RV/MH Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Indiana, also pinpoints 1910 as the birth of the RV industry. “Camping has been around for centuries, but 1910 is when the first auto-related camping vehicles were built for commercial sale.” Known as “auto campers” or “camping trailers” a century ago, these vehicles were a forerunner of today’s modern RVs.
“There were one-offs [individual units] built prior to 1910,” says White, an associate curator for the Smithsonian Institution. “But 1910 is a good benchmark for the industry.”
The First RV Models
Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910. A version of today’s Type B van camper, the Pierce-Arrow “Touring Landau,” was unveiled at Madison Square Garden that same year, complete with an on-board bathroom. The 1913 Earl was an ancestor of the contemporary travel trailer.
“The 1910 RVs offered minimal comforts compared to today’s homes-on-wheels,” says Woodworth. “But they did provide the freedom to travel anywhere, to be able to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy home cooking."
The Tin Can Tourists
RV camping clubs date back to the Tin Can Tourists of the 1920s and 1930s. The Tin Can Tourists were RVers who braved dust and mud to drive their Tin Lizzies across the U.S. before transcontinental roads were paved. They camped by the side of the road, heated tin cans of food on gasoline stoves and bathed in cold water.
RVs sold in the 1930s used aircraft-style construction and came equipped with beds, dinettes, electricity and water. After World War II, the RV industry flourished as more Americans sought mobility.
From tiny do-it-yourself kits to plush 30-foot models, travel trailers came into their own as true towable RVs by 1950. Many of today’s RV manufacturers started production in the 1950s and 1960s. The RV’s evolutionary path included advances in aerodynamic design and interior comforts.
1970 and Beyond
Through war and peace, booms and busts, fuel lines, fads and the cyber-revolution, the RV lifestyle has endured and is still going strong, even in today’s challenging economic times.