As you’re cruising down the highway, enjoying your driving zen, have you ever wondered how this wondrous RV lifestyle began? Who made the first RV, what did the first RV look like, or what was the first RV ever made? In our RV History series, we’re going to walk you through the significant periods of camper history, showing you how RVs evolved into the motorhome or travel trailer your using today.
As we walk through the timeline, we’ll draw parallels to current RVs on the road, not only as points of reference but also to show you how long ago the concepts are still relevant today. You’ll also learn about the earliest influences that date back centuries ago.
Come with us as we journey back to as we walk through the Early Times (Pre-1910) and the Antique Era (1910-1944).
RV History – Early Eurasian Full-Timers (Pre-1910)
Long before Europeans discovered the American continent, the Romani Culture traveled Europe, Scandinavia, and the Middle East. As a non-accepted culture in Europe, the Roma People (also known by the term “Gypsy,” which they consider derogatory) developed enclosed covered wagons they could call home. The horses or mules would come from strays they happen to come across.
As technology advanced, the wagons became more elaborate. The Romanichal (the derivation of the culture’s name in the U.K.) of England created highly decorated exteriors with bright colors and intricate carving. Traveling shows like the circus and higher-end vaudevillian companies would find inspiration for their wagons from the Romani (since a significant portion worked in the industry).
These Vardo Romani Wagon interiors had cabinetry, cast iron cooking stoves, a chimney stack, bunks, and full-size beds. The door was usually up front for security measures. If someone needed space to work, the beds were movable. There was enough space for a table and seats too.
The Eastern European cousins wouldn’t go to these elaborate lengths because they focused on hiding themselves from the gadjo (the term used for outsiders in the Romani language). In the 21st century, a significant portion lives in stick and brick homes, but some have traded the wagon for RVs.
An Lucht Siúil (The Walking People) of Ireland
The Mincéirs (a.k.a. Pavees or Travelers) People of Ireland are another nomadic culture that lived the covered wagon lifestyle. While they worked many different trades, most became experts in the various metalworking professions. The Mincéirs would be known as Tinkers or the insulting term “Pikey.”
Since many of their cultural norms were similar to the Romani, and the public considered both groups unacceptable, the Travelers were often called gypsies. While the walking people’s origins are unknown, scholars theorize they date back well before 1100 B.C.E.
The Travelers’ wagons either had a house-shape or a round barrel form. Exteriors were mostly green with red, yellow, or other colors to accent the look. The interiors, like the Romani, had stoves with chimney stacks. Storage space would double as bench seating or sleeping space. Interiors would have the same intricate carvings as the exterior.
Today’s Mincéirs keep to their walking traditions, but their covered wagons are motorhomes and travel trailers. While the main population still resides in Ireland, there is a healthy population of Irish Travelers in the U.S., Canada, and England.
American Expansion in the 19th Century
The expansion into the western territories of the United States wasn’t for everybody. Leaving the established East’s safety with its cities, farmland, and what was known kept many Americans with their feet planted where they were. Those who could step out of their comfort zone to explore the unknown for a dream would create the western frontier’s future.
Whether it was the free land races that led to the Homestead act of 1862, the mining boom towns, or other golden opportunities, it didn’t take much for the dreamers to seek their fortune. The “RV” of the time was a four-wheeled wagon that was either covered or uncovered. It had one or two horsepower (depending on how many horses the family could afford). The most popular security system was the family-friendly, loyal American Pit Bull Terrier.
The wagons were primarily utility vehicles. Besides the driver’s bench, the most upgraded wagons may have had side benches for the family to ride on. The leaf spring was invented in 1804 by British inventor Obadiah Elliot. By this time, purchasing a wagon with the suspension technology was worth the upgraded cost to make the long journey smoother.
Once the family settled on their land, if the farmer or rancher didn’t keep the cart to move goods, the wagon was torn down and repurposed for various other uses. That’s why you see wagon wheels lying around Spaghetti Western Movie sets.
The Fifth Wheel Hitch Redefines Heavy Hauling and RV History
While others were racing to find their dream, loggers were busy supplying the country with essential timber. The companies working the hills and slopes of the Appalachian Mountains were losing time and money because the six-horse teams could haul a limited amount of wood. Hitches would break or stick because they couldn’t handle a tight turn or angle.
In 1850, Edward and Charles Everett patented the first fifth wheel hitch for heavy haul wagons. The name “fifth wheel” comes from the idea that it’s an additional wheel after the four wagon wheels because of its design. The new hitch allowed the horse team a greater turning radius on the horizontal axis. It also distributed weight differently so the driver could take larger loads without overtaxing the horses.
Activating the Dormant Seeds of Camping in America
Camping in the United States isn’t a new invention. Since the pre-Revolutionary War Era, fur trappers and other early Americans were sleeping under the stars for weeks at a time (Of course, let’s not forget the Native American Nations that roamed the land). As cities developed, people established a society that relied on farming and crafters that kept them within society’s borders. Hunting professions, while useful, weren’t essential for existence.
In 1869, William H.H. Murray’s book, Adventures in the Wilderness; Or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, was America’s best-seller as a camping guide. His idea of “roughing it” (his words) allowed people to escape the noise and effects of urban life. Returning to nature for a while would help the reader restore their spirit, health, and sense of belonging (was he America’s first New-Ager?)
In 1875, John B. Bachelder’s book Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them expanded on the camping idea with his three camping categories:
- On foot
- On horseback
- With a horse-drawn wagon
The higher the level, the more gear you could bring, but each level came with cost requirements. As time continued, camping accessories made the experience better. The best example was W.C. Coleman’s smokeless lantern in 1901.
U.S. National Parks Create an Unexpected RV Boom
In 1915, the U.S. Federal Government debated the future of the land protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The support for a National Park System was rising, but not enough to pass a Congressional vote. Union Pacific Railroad saw a vast potential to increase revenue with train stations at these parks’ front door. To demonstrate this, the railroad company went all-in at the international fair in San Francisco.
In 1915, The Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrated the Panama Canal’s completion. It had been nine years since the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, so the city used the Expo to mark its recovery officially. Union Pacific’s $500,000 pavilion was over two acres in size. It had a replica of what would become Yellowstone National Park and The Old Faithful Inn to one side. The designers made the model geysers shoot real steam to give onlookers the full effect.
News quickly spread about the model, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916 that established the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. Americans loaded up the train cars to visit Yellowstone, the first U.S. national park, and the many other parks.
Unfortunately, the Union Pacific hadn’t considered the potential of the automobile. As Henry Ford’s Model T and others replaced horse-pulled wagons, people started designing camping trailers. The 1910s had a slow start for the infant RVs, but the “Roaring 20s” saw decreased train ticket sales and a rise in car and RV revenue that changed RV history forever.
Third-party vendors would taxi people from the train station to the National Park’s gates by carriage. As motor vehicles became more accessible, those vendors would sell their horses and equipment for cars to drive train passengers back-and-forth. If train passengers brought tents with them, they’d eventually camp near someone who drove themselves.
The Rise of Influencers in RV History
When you begin to study RV history, you wouldn’t think much of the Antique Era RVs. You have to remember; everything was new. The concept of a fold-up table, bench with storage, or other innovation existed elsewhere, but putting these features into these first RVs took inspirational thought and engineering.
You’ll also be amazed at how much of the technology continues today. Modern RV manufacturers have enhanced them, but the convertible dinette has been a staple since the beginning. As we explore these early models, remember we look with our eyes, not our hands, and no, we’re not giving out free samples.
The tent camper was a trailer that you set up a canvas tent in. The low sidewalls held the posts for the tent. Companies like Detroit Trailer and Campbell Folding Camping Trailer Company were the first to hold patents for these tent and trailer combinations. Tent campers became the forebearers of the modern-day pop-up campers.
Before them, some companies, like L.F. Shilling’s Auto Camp, sold extensions people could put on their Model T to use as sleeping space. While Shilling’s hung from the sides of the car, his product would best compare to today’s SUV tailgate tents like the Ozark Trail SUV Tent.
Some had bunks that folded up and either side out of the main cargo area, giving owners designated space to sleep and central space to set up a table. A great modern-day example would be the SylvanSport GO. While the GO has modern technology and engineering, you can easily see similar floor plan features between it and the 1916 Cozy Camper Tent Trailer.
1910 Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau
Visitors at the 1910 San Franciso Admission Day Festival World Fair had the opportunity to see the first RV-like vehicle. The Touring Landau made by Pierce-Arrow was a high-society vehicle meant for urban life. The automaker would go on to complete with Packard and Peerless through the 1920s and 1930s.
Wealthy owners could use the on-board telephone system to call up front to the driver for easy communication. The rear seat folded down so the passengers could get some rest on longer trips. A fold-up sink supplied water, and the car came with a chamber pot. Most of the Landau models made were limousines, so the RV features didn’t make it into most of them.
Pierce-Arrow became the luxury vehicle everyone had to have, but few could afford it. Studebaker bought out the company in 1928 but declared insolvency in 1938. Very few of the RV-featured models came out of the production line. For a complete history, you can learn more from the Piece-Arrow Society.
Early RV History – The 1913 Earl Travel Trailer
If you take a trip to Elkhart, Indiana, don’t forget to stop by the RV Hall of Fame. One of the many historical RVs you’ll see is the Earl. Experts consider this coach as the first non-tent travel trailer. It was custom built for a California Institute of Technology Professor and his family. The coach houses a U-shaped bench with a table that collapses to form a sleeper for two. Behind the double doors is cabinetry for personal storage. The upper sidewalls have screens that an outside tie-down flap can cover.
An RV with this floor plan would complete well with inTech, KZ, or nuCamp’s full height teardrops in today’s market. The limited features of the convertible dinette and storage without any utilities is typical for a lower-end teardrop. Yet having the ability to stand in the coach is a great advantage seen in the inTech Explorer, KZ Sportsmen Classic 100SB, or nuCamp [email protected] lineups.
1915 Conklin Gypsy Van
What’s the best way to move you and your family from New York to San Francisco without using the train? In 1915, according to Roland and Mary Conklin, build an 8-ton housecar (the term used for the first motorhomes) on a bus chassis and drive. Oh yeah, don’t forget to alert the media… nevermind, once they see you coming into town, the editor will take care of that.
The Gypsy Van measured 21-feet long by 7.5 feet wide. It had two levels with a garden on the roof. As the family and three hired employees traveled through each town, news photographers would capture the bus and taxi magnate’s opus from every angle.
The early motorhome had a full bathroom with a commode and shower, a gas-powered generator, and padded benches to sleep or sit on. The collapsable awning on top would protect the garden from harsh weather and act as a sunroom.
If you ever get into the discussion of the best engine for a motorhome, you can confidently say that the first motorhome was a diesel. Not only was it a diesel, but it was also a bus conversion (sort of). The chassis, engine, and frame came from Conklin’s bus plant, but everything else was custom-built out of wood. If you’re interested in building a low-cost motorhome, check out this suggested book from RV Life.
Antique Era Accessories and Traditions in RV History
Tent campers, hardshell travel trailers, and housecars evolved through creative innovations and new accessories during Prohibition. 1920s RVs focused on enhancing the technologies over significant leaps. Accessories had their time to innovate due to the gear needed for World War I.
W.C. Coleman made his fortune in 1901 when he developed the smokeless lantern. The Coleman company later developed a portable single-burner stove our boys could carry with them in The Great War. The stoves were perfect to heat up a can of food, no matter where you were. If you clean out your attic and you find an original lantern or stove, more than likely, they still work.
The sleeping bag dates back hundreds of years. Sewing animal skins together was a simple solution to staying warm at night. As technology advanced, lining, insulation, and fabrics improved the concept. The 1930s introduced down and synthetic fiber insulation into the bags.
Most Antique Era accessories came from the needs of the military. Like the RV industry, soldier backpacks had to balance weight with necessity. Coleman and other companies had the engineering know-how to develop the essential accessories every soldier needed. After the war, many of those designs translated well into the camping and RV world.
If you’re telling your grandkids stories about the Antique Era around the campfire, you can tell them that the S’mores came from this period. Roasting marshmallows started in the Northeast around 1890, but s’mores originated in 1927 from Girl Scout Troop Leader Loretta Scott Crew.
The treat was originally called a “Some More” in the Girl Scout recipe book, Tramping and Trailing With the Girl Scouts. People would shorten the name to “S’mores,” and the recipe book followed the masses after 1971.
1930 Sherman Covered Wagon
In 1929, scientist Arthur Sherman of Detroit decided to take his family camping in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The trip was a complete disaster. It rained the entire time, soaking everyone and everything. His tent camper didn’t survive the storm.
To solve the problem (and convince his wife to go camping again), he hired a carpenter to help him create a new style of travel trailer that could survive Michigan traveling. Using the name his kids gave it, his Covered Wagon Travel Trailer stamped its place in RV history and was the “Belle of the Ball” at the 1930 Detroit Auto Show.
The Covered Wagon had a four-person dinette in the rear that converted to the master bed. It had a kitchen section with a sink, cabinetry, stove, and oven. The front living room had a jackknife sofa for additional sleeping and a recliner lounge chair. Sherman even placed a bathroom with a sink and commode.
The exterior shell used a zinc-coated steel pressed onto plywood, Arthur named “Shermanite,” to keep the RV waterproof. The company would set the standard of making electronic brakes standard (does any of this sound familiar?).
By the time the show ended, Sherman had more orders than he could handle. He set up shop in Mount Clemons, Michigan, and was in full production despite the Great Depression. Like every proud American, when the Second World War came, his factory retooled for the war effort.
After the war, the board of directors decided it was more fiscally responsible to sell off the company rather than getting back into production. Today, the original factory houses the city’s utility plant.
What makes Sherman’s Covered Wagon so special is the fact that his design is the source of every travel trailer made afterward, including the one you’re sitting in reading this article.
1930 Curtiss Aerocar Land Yacht
If you’re a fifth wheel fan, we haven’t forgotten you. The last time we mentioned fifth wheels, we talked about how the 1850 hitch for heavy haul carriages developed. In 1914, the Freuhauf Company patented the floating fifth wheel hitch (with help from a partner) modern semi-trucks and fifth-wheel RVs use today.
An aircraft engineer, Glenn Curtiss, designed a luxury-class RV that used a pneumatic hitch in the fifth wheel method. The Aerocar Land Yacht had the best leather, velvet, and woods during the Depression. Curtiss partnered with a car company, so customers could choose between a coupe or roadster explicitly designed to tow the RV.
The Land Yacht measured 22-feet in length. It had a water closet with a commode and sink. The kitchen had a sink, stove, oven, and icebox. It could sleep up to six people. Curtiss designed it for day use and comfortable traveling. The hitch had a six-axis rotation, and the driver had a built-in compass.
Curtiss sold the company to Detroit Aerocar five years later to pursue other goals. In 1991, the last Aerocar Land Yacht parked for good. In Florida, a business executive used it to chauffeur his clients to various real estate holdings and use it for vacation purposes.
Teardrop Campers Help Shape RV History
While the Rockefellers enjoyed their Aerocar Land Yacht and other wealthy Americans enjoyed the RV Life through the Great Depression, those hit the hardest still had their opportunities. Magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular HomeCrafts, Mechanix Illustrated, and others published Do-It-Yourself RV articles on building teardrop campers.
The teardrop-shaped camper became a hit with the public. It gave shelter to those who became homeless due to the financial crash, aided those seeking work a place to stay as they traveled, and allowed people to escape their daily lives temporarily. One of those designers from California would later found the most popular RV brand in American History. You can learn all about Wally Byum and Airstream in Alumination, a documentary film by Eric Bricker.
The design of the 1930 teardrops and modern RVs are essentially the same. Both have internal sleeping space and is an RV with outdoor kitchens in the rear hatch. Modern teardrop campers now come in different shapes and have many features, but you could easily use one of these 1930s blueprints today. Adding today’s features to these Antique Era RV layouts wouldn’t require any significant design alterations.
1939 GM Futurliner
In 1936, GM launched their Parade of Progress. That first year, they used eight vans and 57 college graduates to tour the country, showing industry’s progress and innovation. To a populous devastated by the Great Depression, it was reminiscent of a traveling circus and a way to inspire home (it didn’t hurt to promote GM either).
The second parade started at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. GM learned a lot from the first tour. Instead of vans, the company built 12 art-deco vehicles. The Futurliners were 11 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 33 feet long, weighing 8 tons. The sides had 16-foot doors that hinged up. Inside were displays of televisions, rockets, and other cutting edge technology. The GM Futurliner interior driver’s cockpit had enough space for a central driver and two people to sit behind.
The second Parade of Progress had a massive tent with 26 exhibits and over 44 vehicles, with the Futurliners leading the way. Even though the tour had to stop short due to World War II, it still visited 251 small towns and had over 12 million visitors. GM had a successful run in 1953, but the 1956 tour never happened.
You couldn’t live inside a Futurliner, but the vehicles’ design contributed a lot to the motorhome and trucking sectors. Be careful what you say in a crowded area; to RV collectors, the Futurliner is the crowning achievement. The few times one of them have been auctioned, collectors have paid $4 million. It would be an awe-inspiring sight to see all twelve cruise in one last Parade again (like many RV history enthusiasts, we’d love to be one of the drivers).
Since the Futurliners were no longer needed, they were sold offer or left to rot. Today, each one has a different fate:
- Resides at the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan
- Fully restored by a collector in Salt Lake City, Utah
- Being restored in Maine
- Turned into a flatbed hauler
- Stored by a bus company
- Stored by a bus company
- Owned by a private collector in Sweden
- Was in an accident and is beyond repair
- The highlight of the National Auto and Truck Museum (NATMUS) in Auburn, Indiana
- Owned by a private collector, but the sale proceeds went to the Armed Forces Foundation.
Blanking the Slate
During World War II, the RV Industry retooled its manufacturing plants to supply both fronts. The act of stepping up to aid America in its time of need became a tradition within the RV World. Unfortunately, the majority of companies went out of business after the war. A lot of factors contributed to the demise of the Antique Era RV companies.
When the troops came home, they wanted to settle down and start families. The general public wanted RVs that were better suited to family camping with more home-like features. The WWII veterans weren’t ready to hitch up and set out for a camping adventure as soon as they returned home, so there were a few years where RVing slowed down while the veterans were establishing their civilian lives.
The incredible innovations of the Antique Era didn’t go to waste. Our next discussion shows you how the RV Industry re-invented itself in the Vintage Era (1945-1970). To check your Camper Smarts, can you answer these questions:
- What RV company supplied military housing during WWII?
- How do processed meat and a famous snack cake connect to RVs?
- How did a U.S. President change the way RVers travel in the Vintage Era?
- Who made the first mass-produced motorhome?
- How did one decision made by a small-town Chamber of Commerce forever affect the RV Industry?
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