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Through the Years: The History of Campers and RVs Explained with Photos

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RVs and trailers have been around longer than one would think, but how exactly did the concept start? Let’s dive into the history of RVs and trailers and find out. 

The Very First Home on Wheels 

Today, when we think about RVs and trailers, we immediately go to the luxurious life on wheels that includes a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living area. Our modernday lives have made RVs and trailers just as quaint and comfortable as our homes.  

But the first concept of a home on wheels wasn’t as dreamy. As early as the 1800s, people were living in covered chuck wagons that took them from one area to the next to settle. As the days wore on, automobiles came to be and would soon be pulling chuck wagonstyle trailers behind them, too. 

A Journey Through RV and Trailer History 

1900-1910

Private Rail Cars or Nothing

Before motorhomes and pull-behind automobile trailers, many travelers were chained to the railway system’s schedule. Those that wanted to travel more efficiently had to reserve their own private railway cars on trains as they headed East or West, only at the mercy of train station stops that may or may not have been each travelers’ destination. 

DIY Campers

To avoid this problem and as the quality of life began to improve, naturalists and car enthusiasts came together to create custom cars that featured personal storage, water tanks, and sleeping areas. Though the roads weren’t optimal for travel during this period, many still wanted (and needed) the luxury of sleeping on the road as travel was still relatively slow. At least now, travelers could get where they needed to go without being tied to a train schedule. 

First Camper Manufacturers

Companies like Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers began manufacturing trailers, then known as auto campers or camping trailers, in 1910 to meet the demand of travelers. Before 1910, most trailers and motorhomes didn’t offer a bathroom, but that would soon change as Pierce-Arrow would debut a fancy new style of camper van that included one in the same year. 

Fun Fact: The firstever “true” motorhome was made in 1909. At 6.5 feet wide and 28 feet long, it slept 11 people, and it had a salon, toilet, and icebox.  

1911-1929 

A CenturyOld Trailer 

In 1913, the Earl Travel Trailer made its debut. This stout little trailer offered a sitting area and table, as well as storage cubbies and a convertible sleeping area. Today, you can find an original Earl Travel Trailer at the RV/MV Hall of Fame in Indiana. 

1913 Earl Travel Trailer - tjelser.wordpess.com
1913 Earl Travel Trailer - tjelser.wordpess.com

The Great Depression

Though it sounds like most of the first RVing days were fun, many turned to live on the road during The Great Depression out of necessity as many could no longer afford their homes and land. This, despite being an unfortunate situation for most families, would help the RVing trend boom just a few years later. 

The Tin Can Tourists

Tin Can Tourists - messynessychic.com
Tin Can Tourists - messynessychic.com

By 1920, the “Tin Can Tourists,” an auto camper club, was formed. This was the first RV club in America even though it wasn’t technically for trailer camping or RVing at first. The Tin Can Tourists were known for driving their “Tin Lizzies” (better known as a Ford Model T that was often customized as a home on wheels) across the country, camping alongside the road, and eating food out of tin cans. This trend, though not exclusively for trailer or RV camping travelers, started the boom of other related clubs that would also become part of RV and trailer history later. 

1930’s – 1940’s

Aircraft-Style Trailers

As travelers found their way out of the Great Depression, the RVing trend became even more popular. After World War I, large manufacturers like Ford, Winnebago, and Airstream began producing aircraft-style trailers to meet the demand for travel trailers.

During this time, trailers were more reliable, durable, and even featured electricity and running water. Airstream trailers became very popular during this time as they were the first fully self-contained trailers on the market. Families were now looking for more freedom to travel on their own time during this period and manufacturers were listening.

Check out a few of the first “aircraft style” trailers of the 1930s:

Curtiss Aerocar

An early Buick Coupe pulling the Curtiss Aerocar Trailer - theoldmotor.com
An early Buick Coupe pulling the Curtiss Aerocar Trailer - theoldmotor.com

Airstream Clipper

The Airstream Clipper Travel Trailer - airstream.com
The Airstream Clipper Travel Trailer - airstream.com

Jungle Yachts

World War II Aluminum Shortage

After World War II began, RV and trailer manufacturing came to a halt. A shortage of aluminum during this time made it impractical for manufacturers to continue production for the public, although trailers were still made for prisons, hospitals, and the like. 

RV and trailer production would resume shortly after World War II soldiers returned home from war, as families were again looking for affordable ways to travel or staying in temporary housing. 

Post World War II, veterans setup temporary RV homes on MU campus - mizzoumag.missouri.edu
Post World War II, veterans setup temporary RV homes on MU campus - mizzoumag.missouri.edu

1950’s

Until the 1950s, most mobile homes were pull-behind trailers or campers. It wasn’t until this decade that motorized RVs were manufactured for the general public. Winnebago offered several options including do-it-yourself kits to large trailers up to 30 feet in length. Not only did these RVs offer more space, but they combined both car and living areas along with more luxuries like much-needed plumbing!

This decade is where many of the RV brands you know well today began their first rounds of production.

1960’s – 1970’s

1960 GMC Camper/Bus - Carsforsale.com
1960 GMC Camper/Bus - Carsforsale.com

The 1960s were the era of the conversion van as more DIY kits were offered to allow individuals to convert vans and buses to their needs. By the 1970s, the peace and love era brought even more attention to RVs and campers as many spent their free time traveling to music festivals and political rallies.

1971 Airstream Overlander Land Yacht - Carsforsale.com
1971 Airstream Overlander Land Yacht - Carsforsale.com

Airstream trailers continue to grow in popularity as the manufacturer offers more models during this time. Camper vans like the VW Bus are fan favorites and represent this era to this day.
Some popular trailers, vans, and buses of the era include:

The Furthur Bus

1980’s – 1990’s

By the 1980s, trailers and RVs become even more affordable for the average person. Aluminum, although a great material for durable trailers and RVs, could be expensive. Most trailers during this period were made of less expensive materials and could be produced on a much larger scale because of this.

1997 Fleetwood Bounder - Carsforsale.com

1997 Fleetwood Bounder – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Fleetwood on Carsforsale.com

In the 1990s, motorhomes were now larger than ever before and are made in lengths up to 40 feet. Travelers can now experience all of the luxuries of a custom home with a full kitchen, showers, and sleeping areas for almost any size family.

2000’s

If longer rigs weren’t enough, the early 2000s gave RVers even more space than what meets the eye. Pop-up and pop-out trailers become the norm and allow travelers to expand their living or sleeping space wider than the original motorhome structure.

2007 Thor Industries Vortex 2850 - Carsforsale.com

2007 Thor Industries Vortex 2850 – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Thor Industries on Carsforsale.com

Campgrounds become abundant during this time and there are more and more RVs and trailers on the road than ever before.

Early 2010’s

A shift in trend happens in the early 2010s as travelers no longer want to own an RV that is only drivable during vacation. Trailers begin to trend upwards again as people with trucks and cars want to make use of their four-wheeled investments.

2014 Little Guy Silver Shadow 5x10 - Carsforsale.com

2014 Little Guy Silver Shadow 5×10 – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Little Guy on Carsforsale.com

Ultra-light and small trailers rise in popularity as more people wanted to be on the go and away from town with some luxuries, but also wanted to disconnect from the busy everyday life of the city. The best part about these trailers is that you don’t have to have a big truck or hauler to tow them, which makes them less expensive and easily accessible for many.

Late 2010’s and On

2015 Excel Limited L36SDM - Carsforsale.com
2015 Excel Limited L36SDM - Carsforsale.com

As the 2010’s went on, RVs, trailers, and camper vans continued to trend upwards. With #VanLife and #RoadLife coming back into style alongside the ever-popular social media, more individuals chose to live in their vehicles and travel as much as they could. Though not as popular as the traditionally rooted home living, more and more people took to converting their own vans, trailers, and RVs to fit their active and on-the-go lifestyles.

Both small and large recreational vehicles exist on highways today, but many have chosen to start small and convert their own rig to avoid buying new RVs and trailers that offer more modern, but expensive amenities.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published June 2014 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Erin Maxson

Erin loves nothing more than a good road trip. To her, getting behind the wheel is one of the biggest adventures you can take because it can lead to anywhere. Alongside her Toyota Tundra, you'll find her co-pilot pup, Rory, and a 1976 Airstream Argosy in tow. Her motto: Life is a scenic road, take your time and enjoy the ride.

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