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RV History:  How Did We Get Here?  A Look at the RV Past

RV History: How Did We Get Here? A Look at the RV Past

Learning about the past is, they say, the best way to prepare for the future. When it comes to the RV lifestyle, gaining an historical perspective can heighten appreciation for the journey into today’s RV experience.

More than a century ago, at about the same time the automobile was becoming engrained in American culture, the first recreational vehicle debuted in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The year was 1910 and the model was the Pierce-Arrow “Touring Landau,” an early equivalent to the Type B Camper of today.It boasted a backseat that could be turned into a bed, a fold-down sink and a chamber pot – Spartan amenities to be sure.

There were many reasons that served as the incubator for this now popular American pastime and lifestyle, including the passion for the automobile, early 20 th century programs to build and improve roads, the establishment of national parks and global affairs that ignited Americans’ desires to explore this continent instead of Europe, according to legendary RV historian David Woodworth in an article on the history of RVing published online. There had also been decades of awareness raised about the appeal of getting out into nature, profiled by the well-known, such as President Theodore Roosevelt or the experiences of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs, all of whom honed friendship and innovations on a series of camping trips from 1915 into the 1920s. The “Four Vagabonds’” exploits are chronicled at the Henry Ford Museum.

The early recreational vehicles were nothing fancy, at least not in comparison to today’s models. Many of these were homemade, providing a mobile kitchen, and a place to sleep, as well as easier access to America’s Great Outdoors. Only the basic necessities were included in these early versions, but these designs provided a welcome step up from roughing it in the traditional camping experience.It was a means for less affluent families to vacation, given the high cost of train travel and pricey stays in resort hotels.

One group noted for their camping excursions were the Tin Can Tourists, one of the first camping clubs in the United States. The name is derived from these campers’ practice of heating canned foods on gasoline stoves as well as the hood ornament featuring a tin can placed on the exposed radiator cap of their vehicles. Formed in 1919, membership numbers totaled 150,000 in the 1930s, according to an article written by Jim Morrison for Smithsonian Magazine’s tribute to the RVs 100 th anniversary in 2010. It is still active today, with members focusing on the display of their now-vintage style of camping.

RVs also literally became some American families’ home away from home as the Great Depression forced foreclosures on family homes across the nation, leaving many homeless or displaced. Travel trailers cost between $500 and $1,000 at that time, which made these attractive as an inexpensive home. But the economic conditions of from 1929 through the 1930s also marked one of the first downturns in RV manufacturing history.

A second slowdown occurred during World War II as materials used to manufacture travel trailers was channeled to the war effort.Some RV units were adapted for military use, to serve as mobile hospitals and morgues, or prisoner transport.

There were also boom times in the history of RVing, such as after World War II, when the appeal of travel trailers spoke to the demand to provide an inexpensive way for young families to vacation and travel.That is still a motivating reason for many first-time RV buyers. The average cost of a vacation for a family of four today is $4,850 which includes airfare, accommodations, food and associated fees and taxes.Traveling in an RV is substantially less, with reduced costs for accommodations and food and eliminating the expenses of plane tickets.

The motor home arrived on the RV scene in the 1950s and was considered luxury items with a corresponding price tag. Winnebago opened up these vehicles to a larger population group in 1967. Pricing for these started at $5,000 and featured refrigeration – a modern camping marvel for the times.

The Smithsonian Magazine marked the century mark for RVs in 2010. Citing a 2005 study by the University of Michigan, Smithsonian Magazine writer Jim Morrison noted that 8.2 million American households owned an RV at the turn of this century.Shifting demographics show that the average RV user today is 48 years old, married, and has an above-average annual household income of $62,000, according to a 2011 study by University of Michigan and commissioned by the RV Industry Association. Industry experts note that the RV lifestyle is popular among younger age groups, as well as still being a staple for the over 55 crowd.

RVs, much like everything else in American culture, have evolved. From the now-considered primitive models of the 1920s to today’s luxury motor homes, RV manufacturers have consistently embraced new technology, incorporating it into designs and changing the way American families enjoy their leisure time. Campgrounds and even public parks have come along with the growth, adding spaces as well as amenities so those who hit the road in their RVs don’t miss the comforts of home.

After all, the road less travelled does not have to be a nod back to the dusty dirt roads of the 1900s and the early days of travel trailers. It can be paved with comfortable places to relax and respite as well as provide access to the world – all without venturing too far away from your RV model of choice.

Aug 10th 2018 Lois Tomaszewski

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