The trailer evolves

  • Early car camper

    photo courtesy The Smithsonian Institution
  • Old-fashioned trailer

    photo courtesy RV/MH Heritage Foundation
  • Old car pulling a trailer

    photo courtesy RV/MH Heritage Foundation
  • Bob's Quality Housing factory built house

    Michelle Nijhuis

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Early car campers raise their tents off the ground with simple platforms on wheels, creating the first tent trailers. Since few cars top 15 mph, most people leave the tents standing as they pull their trailers home.

A carriage company in Los Angeles builds the first non-tent trailer, called a "towable bedroom." Designing a vehicle for people to lie down in presents a challenge, but the company hits on the perfect model: a horse-drawn hearse. Image problems plague the trailer, though, and only one is produced.

Trailer camping becomes more popular, and more hard-sided models are available. Some enterprising do-it-yourselfers build removable trailer bodies to fit Ford chassis, exchanging their car body for a camper body each Friday afternoon.

The first "snowbirds' gather for the winter at DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg, Fla., and in 1919, park regulars found the Tin Can Tourists trailer club. Members are recognized by the tin cans soldered to the radiator caps of their cars. The club grows to 100,000 members by 1963.

Trailers begin to have more of the comforts of home: kitchens, living rooms, and screened windows. Good paved roads make trailer travel more practical. The industry starts to manufacture both "part-time" and "full-time" trailers, and some seasonal workers and avid campers move into their trailers for good.

Arthur Sherman, a Minnesota bacteriologist, designs a hard-sided trailer called the Covered Wagon after trying to set up a tent trailer in a rainstorm during a family vacation. He begins mass-producing the trailer, and according to Wheel Estate by Allan Wallis, sells them at the relatively affordable price of $395. By 1936, Sherman is the largest manufacturer in the industry.

Although most trailers are expensive, some more than half the price of a house, full-time trailer residents are stereotyped as gypsies and ne'er-do-wells. The first trailer caravans are organized for practical reasons, since breakdowns are common and passersby often unwilling to help. By the mid-1930s, many cities and towns have passed ordinances to restrict the growth of trailer parks and get rid of trailer travelers.

Full-time trailer living gains social acceptance at the end of World War II. Mobile homes had been built around wartime weapons plants and shipbuilding factories and some of the first double-wide trailers are built to house workers at the Oak Ridge Labs in Tennessee. They are the obvious solution when "half a million men come home wanting to make babies and there aren't enough houses," says Al Hesselbart from the Mobile Home Heritage Foundation in Elkhart, Ind.

The industry stalls in the early '50s, but gains new life in 1956, when trailers more than eight feet wide are first allowed to travel on U.S. highways. More spacious 10- and 12-foot wide trailers soon become popular for both part-time and full-time living, and some trailer manufacturers get actively involved in building new trailer parks. The Park Service also begins to use trailers for seasonal staff housing.

Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream Trailers, Inc., leads an Airstream trailer caravan on a tour of Central America. His widely reported travels through Africa, Europe and North America lead to the founding of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, which counts its members in trailers, not owners. Today, the club has about 19,000 "member trailers."

Modular homes that attach to foundations are first produced. "Panelized" homes - houses assembled on-site from manufactured sections - also become a part of suburban life. Industry organizations like the Trailer Coach Association in Los Angeles promote quality standards, making trailers more popular as permanent residences. "Until this point, they were beer cans," says Al Hesselbart. "They were made to be used up and thrown away."

In an effort to revive the slumping domestic tourism industry, Lynda Bird Johnson spends the summer traveling from Arizona to New Mexico in a silver Airstream trailer. The publicity stunt works: trailer travelers flock to national parks.

The federal Office of Housing and Urban Development classifies mobile homes as "manufactured housing," requiring the units to meet residential standards for plumbing and electrical systems. By this point, the "mobile" in mobile homes is often a misnomer, since most mobile homes are only mobile while they travel from the factory to the construction site.

Two-story prefab homes hit the market. As housing prices increase, factory-made units begin to appeal to a wider audience, and a manufactured housing boom begins.

Immobile mobile homes continue to multiply throughout the West, becoming a familiar part of Western urban sprawl. Part-time trailer living also continues to flourish, especially in the Sun Belt cities of southern New Mexico, Arizona and California. Snowbirds and other trailer travelers can now belong to any number of recreational vehicle associations, including a revived version of the Tin Can Tourists, a group called RVing Women, and a singles group known as Loners on Wheels.