Recently my wife and I purchased a 27′ travel trailer and submerged ourselves into the nomadic lifestyle. And while it seemed as much like tiny house living as our actual tiny house trailer we soon realized it came with its own culture, own nuances, and own history; and a rich history at that!
In 2010 the recreational vehicle turned 100 years old. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), about 8.9 million households now own RVs. The typical RVer was 48 years old and earned a median income of $62,000. Among those under the age of 35, ownership rates are steady at 4.9%. According the last publicized study – a 2005 study at the University of Michigan – about 450,000 of typical RVers are full-timers. But there remains some undercurrent controversy about whether or not an RV is a tiny house.
Says Ryan Harris, tiny house builder, blogger, and outspoken tiny house enthusiast, “A home is anywhere you hang your hat and feel comfortable and secure, so in that sense, an RV could certainly feel like a tiny home. Unfortunately, most RV’s [off the lot] are built very poorly, with flimsy materials and are not usually customized to the owner or by the owner, so in reality, for most people an RV makes a poor substitute for a tiny house and will never feel like a true home.” Not a glowing endorsement for RV living but a valid point and one held by a number of tiny house enthusiasts. On the other hand Kristin Snow who together with her husband Jason both lives and works out of a renovated and personalized 1965 Airstream Overlander notes, “We absolutely consider our Airstream to be a tiny house – just one that moves around more than most! Our goal in renovating and moving into our trailer was to embrace minimalistic living and simplify life as much as possible. Being able to use it for economical travel was the deciding factor in going with an RV versus a tiny house for now. Seeing as much of the country as possible for a few years will help us in deciding where, if anywhere, we want to settle down someday – probably in a tiny house!”
Whatever side of the debate one rests on the fact remains that drivers began making camping alterations to cars almost as soon as they rolled off the line. The first automobile marketed as a recreation vehicle was Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau, which debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1910. The Landau had a back seat that folded into a bed, an on-board chamber pot/toilet, and a sink that folded down from the back of the seat of the chauffeur, who was connected to his passengers via telephone. Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers also rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910. By the start of the Roaring 20’s, dozens of manufacturers were producing what were then called auto campers. Before then people camped in private rail cars that were pulled along train routes by commercial engines. RVs allowed a certain freedom not yet seen. They allowed people to go where they wanted whether a rail existed or not!
NOTE: The Tin Can Tourists (a named derived from their habit of heating tin cans of food on gasoline stoves by the roadside) formed the first camping club in the United States. The club grew to include over 150,000 members by the mid-1930s. They had an initiation ritual, an official song, “The More We Get Together;” and a secret handshake. They can easily be seen as the predecessors of the Good Sam club of today as well as other niche groups that cater to RV make/model enthusiasts.
RV camping and RVs in general really became popular though thanks to a group of men who called themselves Vagabonds. “The men – Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs – caravaned in simple cars on annual camping excursions from around 1913 to the mid 1920s.” (Smithsonian.com) Their adventures solicited national attention. The trips were well covered by national media outlets and in turn sparked interest in other motorists to go car camping. With the funds to match their sense of adventure, the Vagabonds took such camping to new extremes bringing with them a custom Lincoln truck outfitted as a camp kitchen. While the men slept in tents they were showing that life lived on the road could be as fun and glamorous as life in the penthouses of New York and mansions of everywhere in between. They were the initial advocates of the RV lifestyle. The nation was being overtaken by the notion of taking your home with you and stopping wherever you wanted without sacrificing the comforts of your own home. The movement would become so popular in fact, that CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt would later capture this road romance with his “On The Road” series that began in 1967 and lasted some 25 years, causing him to wear out several motorhomes and cover some million miles.
As Wall Street crashed in 1929 the Depression had its way with the RV lifestyle as well. Finding their way off the road some people began using travel trailers, which could be purchased for as little as $500 to $1,000, as inexpensive homes. This is the first time the United States becomes familiar with the notion of full-time living in a rather unconventional home.
War time rationing in the 1940s stopped production of consumer RVs, although – like many other types of companies – some trailer companies converted to wartime manufacturing, making rigs that served as mobile hospitals, triages, transports and even morgues. This usage didn’t last long after the war as returning soldiers on limited incomes craved the outdoor life as well as inexpensive vacation methods. The Interstate Highway System, having begun construction in 1956 offered all Americans a relatively safe and fast way to travel further than trains ran and causing a renaissance in the RV market.
By the late 1950s motorhomes began to find their way to the market (albeit a far less popular one) due to price and availability. They were seen as more of a luxury though and even for the upper-middle class exclusively. That completely changed in 1967 though when Winnebago began mass-producing motorhomes labeled “America’s first family of motor homes” – between 16 to 27 feet long – which could sell for as little as $5,000 ($34,400.00 by today’s standards.) By this point heating and air conditioning had been introduced into RVs as well as on-board refrigeration and sanitation stations. No longer was camping considered a roadside novelty for families living on a dime. They had become more like homes than ever! Homes on wheels!
Perhaps though the most notable part of RVs is that they have changed design as technology has changed. Motorhomes and travel trailers on the market today include such amenities as satellite television, washers and dryers, shower stalls, work desks, and even fireplaces. They are more like a sticks ‘n bricks home than ever. And while they are completely portable and in a very simplistic way they still offer RVers what they want the most; the feeling of home and the ability to explore the open road.
The dress code is casual. The drinks are always cold. The bathroom is but a door away. And the amenities of a larger sticks ‘n bricks are included by simplified in a mobile and tiny way.
Authors Note: Historical parts and timelining gathere from the Smithsonian.com.