RVing has been imprinted on the heart of Americans since the country was born. Before the appearance of recreational vehicles nearly 100 years ago, adventurers set foot on this land with a passion for exploration and freedom. The original traveling vehicles were European caravans (defined as a “camper equipped with living quarters”) used by gypsies and circus travelers. Likewise, American settlers used covered wagons to traverse west during the late 1800’s migration. With adventure being a part of the inherited American spirit, it was only a matter of time before modernization paved the road for a new era of discovery.
The 20th century witnessed a breakthrough in recreational travel when the automobile industry commercialized and a more efficient road system began to develop in the US. With it, the idea of traveling with automobiles began its transformation from a pioneer instinct into a recreational hobby. While camping was not a novel concept to Americans, many had found themselves limited to short distances and constantly searching for a way to explore the land at their own pace.
1910 accurately marks the birth year of the RV industry. Almost as soon as the automobile hit the road, free-spirited Americans began using it for addressing their travel needs. The earliest documented RVs were mom-and-pop operations and consisted of trailers or towables that could attach to another vehicle (does Airstream sound familiar?) This same year witnessed the commercial beginnings of what became known as “auto-campers” or “camping trailers,” a forerunner to the modern RV that provided freedom to travel anywhere with the benefits of home amenities. The first motorized vehicle, unveiled at Madison Square Garden, was Pierce Arrow’s Touring Landau, a class B ancestor complete with a fold-down bed and sink, and a chamber pot toilet. Following this innovation, dozens of manufacturers would soon follow with their own versions of camping trailers and self-contained motorhomes. The RV industry had ignited.
Through the 1930’s, recreational travel continued to popularize as the RV industry grew larger. National parks and campsites grew in attendance, and more Americans sought a life of mobility in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II. Some of the earliest manufacturers of recreational vehicles include Ford, Winnebago, and Airstream. The latter earned a strong following for its innovations in aerodynamic techniques and iconic aluminum shell that carries on to this day. Winnebago began mass production for numerous types of inexpensive motorhomes that allowed for affordable travel apart from the traditional travel trailer. The RV industry expanded as people began to realize the appeal of this new, mobile lifestyle.
Tin Can Tourists were a noteworthy group in the 1920’s and 1930’s for forming the first camping club in the US. Earning their name for heating canned foods on gas stoves alongside the roads, these RVers drew national attention for the RV lifestyle and inspired the development of various camping clubs around the country, including the famous Vagabond group. The four members consisted of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone.
Many tend to think of RVs in the 1960's when the Volkswagen Type 2 Microbus was a favorite amongst participants in the counterculture movement. Young activists enjoyed painting vibrant murals on the sides, camping out, and associating their RV with ideas of "peace, love, and all things free." In this way and others, RVing became a cultural symbol of the American lifestyle.
Today, the number of recreational vehicles residing in US households has peaked to over 9 million! While used for just about anything, they have become extremely popular for long distance travel. There are over 16,000 privately owned campsites in the US, many of them specifically designed for motorhomes. Some people have even taken to full-time Rving, many of who still make an income, a concept known as “workamping.” Many vacationing families now choose across America, and who can blame them; it’s an easy and affordable way to see the country!
In addition to the original camping trailers, the industry now offers a variety of motorhome types, including Class A motorhome, Class C motorhome, travel trailer, 5th wheel towable, and truck camper. One can find numerous other household features beyond the basic accessories, such as a washer and dryer, high definition TV, fireplace, GPS, and even a dishwasher. While the specifics of RV travel continue to change over time, it is no doubt that Americans have proved that their love of travel and desire to explore their country will never disappear.