Ideas

Ideas | Terence Young

When Americans realized that roughing it stinks, the RV was born

1937 Covered Wagon at the Gilmore Car Museum in Indiana. CREDIT: Greg Gjerdingen
Greg Gjerdingen
A 1937 Covered Wagon at the Gilmore Car Museum in Indiana.

On August 21, 1915, the Conklin family departed Huntington, N.Y., on a cross-country camping trip in a vehicle called the “Gypsy Van.” Visually arresting and cleverly designed, the 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance had been custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company to provide a maximum of comfort while roughing it on the road to San Francisco.

For the next two months, the Conklins and the Gypsy Van were observed and admired by thousands along their westward route, ultimately becoming the subjects of nationwide coverage in the media of the day. Luxuriously equipped with an electrical generator and incandescent lighting, a full kitchen, Pullman-style sleeping berths, a folding table and desk, a concealed bookcase, a phonograph, convertible sofas with throw pillows, a variety of small appliances, and even a “roof garden,” this new mode of transport was a marvel of technology and chutzpah.

For many Americans, the Conklins’ Gypsy Van was their introduction to recreational vehicles, or RVs. Ubiquitous today, our streamlined motor homes and camping trailers alike can trace their origins to the time between 1915 and 1930, when Americans’ urge to relax by roughing it and their desire for modern comforts first aligned, via a motor camping industry that could deliver both.

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Over the next 30 years, camping slowly modernized. In a paradoxical twist, this anti-modern, back-to-nature activity has long been technologically sophisticated. As far back as the 1870s, when a new piece of camping gear appeared, it was often produced with recently developed materials or manufacturing techniques to improve comfort and convenience. Camping enthusiasts, promoters, and manufacturers tended to emphasize the positive consequences of roughing it, but, they added, one didn’t have to suffer through every discomfort to have a satisfying experience.

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Around 1910 the pace of camping’s modernization increased, as inexpensive automobiles began appearing. With incomes rising, car sales exploded. At the same time, vacations became more widespread and the middle class started to embrace camping.

A car camper had to erect a tent, prepare bedding, unpack clothes, and establish a kitchen and dining area, which could take hours. The motor-home camper could avoid much of this effort. According to one 1920s observer, a motor home enthusiast simply “let down the back steps and the thing was done.”

In spite of their comforts, motor homes had two distinct limitations, which ultimately led to the creation of the RV’s understudy: the trailer. A camper could not disconnect the house portion and drive the automobile part alone. In addition, many motor homes were large and limited to traveling only on automobile-friendly roads, making wilder landscapes unreachable. As a consequence of these limitations and their relatively high cost, motor homes remained a marginal choice among RV campers until the 1960s. Trailers, by contrast, became the choice of people of average means.

Tent trailering, however, had some drawbacks that became clear to Arthur G. Sherman in 1928 when he and his family headed north from their Detroit home on a modest camping trip. A bacteriologist and the president of a pharmaceutical company, Sherman departed with a newly purchased tent trailer that the manufacturer claimed could be opened into a waterproof cabin in five minutes. Unfortunately, as he and his family went to set it up for the first time, a thunderstorm erupted, and claimed Sherman, they “couldn’t master it after an hour’s wrestling.” Everyone got soaked. The experience so disgusted Sherman that he decided to create something better.

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The initial design for Sherman’s new camping trailer was a masonite body standing 6 feet wide by 9 feet long and no taller than the family’s car. Inside, Sherman placed cupboards, icebox, stove, built-in furniture and storage on either side of a narrow central aisle. By today’s standards, the trailer was small, boxy and unattractive, but it was solid and waterproof, and required no folding. Sherman had a carpenter build it for him for about $500. The family took their new “Covered Wagon” camping the following summer of 1929.

That fall, Sherman built two additional Covered Wagons. One was for a friend, but the other one he displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1930. He set the price at $400, which was expensive. By the end of the show, he had sold 118 units, the Covered Wagon Company was born, and the shape of an RV industry was set.

Sherman was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. Detroit was at the center of the Great Lakes states, which at that time contained the country’s greatest concentration of campers. Southern Michigan was the hub of the auto industry, so a wide range of parts and skills were available, especially once the Depression dampened demand for new automobiles.

Between 1915 and 1930, Americans’ desire to escape modern life’s pressures by traveling into nature intersected with their yearning to enjoy the comforts of modern life while there. This contradiction might have produced only frustration, but tinkering, creativity, and a love of autos gave us recreational vehicles instead.

Terence Young is professor emeritus of geography at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Heading Out: A History of American Camping.” This piece was adapted from Zócalo Public Square.