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The History of Campers | How Campers & RVs Have Evolved

Posted on 2020-03-13

The RV is a classic symbol of travel and adventure. Whether you own one yourself or are interested in learning more about how a recreational vehicle managed to shape society, the history of RVs and campers provides a fascinating, unique look into America's past and present.

What Was the First Camper Ever Made?

the history of campers and rvs

It's difficult to say when the RV was invented or who invented it. Many believe that early RVs were inspired by the traveling nomadic Roma Caravans that existed in Europe during the 1800s. The first production RV — Pierce-Arrow's Touring Landau — made its debut at Madison Square Garden in 1910. Although a few single-production RVs and campers existed before then, the Touring Landau is considered the moment when RVs entered mainstream culture. Complete with a telephone and toilet, the Touring Landau reflected concepts of luxury and comfort and was a true novelty of the time.

Five years later, Roland R. Conklin, of New York, made headline news when he took his 1915 Gypsy Van — custom-built to hold 11 people, including a shower bath and folding lavatory — on a cross-country trip with his family to San Francisco. The Gypsy Van was 25 feet long and weighed 8 tons. The interior included a full kitchen and a hidden bookcase.

When Did RVs and Campers Become Popular?

Although function and availability fluctuated throughout the history of motorhomes, the popularity of campers and RVs never diminished. Americans have always been fascinated by the practical and recreational lifestyle that RVs offer.

A Practical Way to Travel

Even after the automobile was invented and cars became more accessible to the general public, traveling long distances was a very challenging thing to do. Travelers often stopped alongside the road to sleep if there were no hotels available. In many cases, even if hotels were an option, they were too complicated or too expensive for the average traveler. There were also very few places to stop for gas or to grab a bite to eat.

travelers can sleep alongside the road in their RVs

Additionally, there were no GPS devices and few directional road signs, making it very easy to get lost. As a result, many people invested in a travel trailer or RV for practical reasons: to get from point A to point B more easily. Now, families and friends could visit one another across miles, and travel for business became a less costly and time-consuming endeavor. Once the camper trend caught on and people began to experiment with what they could use an RV for, as well as what an RV could look like, practicality became only one component of many.

The Great Depression and World War II

During the Great Depression, many could no longer afford to keep their house and car. Campers allowed people to live and sleep in their vehicles, cutting their expenses in half. Living in their cars also allowed impoverished families to travel across cities and states, seeking work. Several years later, recreational vehicle production paused due to the need to conserve trailers and supplies for World War II manufacturing. Once the war ended, however, RV production saw a drastic increase when returning soldiers sought a simple, inexpensive way to vacation with their families.

Recreational Uses Increase

People have always been camping for fun, whether in tents or under the stars. As the RV trend caught on, many people began substituting their tents for covered, weather-safe campers that required no difficult setup or tear down. Soon, traveling groups emerged and started to rise in popularity. One of the most famous traveling groups to exist were the Four Vagabonds, which was a recreational camping group formed by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and John Burrough that traveled the country together. Their adventures became so popular that, after several years of media coverage, they ceased their expeditions due to the large, cumbersome crowds they were drawing.

RVs were popular for easy set up

By the 1960s and 1970s, travel to National Parks increased in popularity, music festivals became more widespread and people were traveling more for fun more than ever before, making recreational vehicles a permanent fixture in American culture.

View Other Vehicle History Guides:

The Evolution of the Camper

Campers and RVs have gone through significant changes since they became popular in the early 1900s. Some of the most iconic campers along the way include:

  • The 1928 Ford Model A House Car: The Ford Model A House Car emerged during the Great Depression as a solution for people who could not keep both their house and their car. The top of the House Car was made of roll-up canvas, which afforded more headspace when needed, and the tiny interior held a kitchen, stove, dining area and bed. Ford only made two of the Model A House Cars — one in 1928 and one in 1936 — and you can see the 1928 model at the Volo Auto Museum.
  • The Airstream: Few campers are as iconic as the shining metal Airstream RV, which was an idea originally conceived in the late 1920s and developed throughout the 1930s. The first Airstream motorhome was launched in 1979 and has captured the attention of road trippers since.
  • The 1932 and 1934 Covered Wagons: Covered wagon-style campers were popular in the early 1930s, and were the first factory-produced camper. Only six are known still today. You can see two of them — a 1932 and 1934 model — on display at the Volo Auto Museum. These Covered Wagons were small but practical for the time. Some even had plumbing and kitchens built in.
  • The 1929 Curtiss Aero Car: The Curtiss Aero Car was the first commercially built fifth wheel motorhome. These unique builds were created by an aircraft designer, which accounts for its lightweight, airplane-like design. The Aero Car was usually pulled behind vehicles like the old Hudson roadster.
  • The 1936 Masterbilt Scout: Masterbilt put out a series of trailers in the 1930s, including the Masterbilt Ranger, the Masterbilt Pioneer and the Masterbilt Scout. At 17 feet, the Scout was the largest and most luxurious of the three. Masterbilt was only in production for a few years, so these trailers are very rare.
  • The 1949 Airfloat Land Yacht: With iconic yacht-style round windows, The Airfloat Land Yachts were so popular that many celebrities — even James Dean — owned one. 
  • The 1949 Spartan House Bus: Volo Auto Museum offers an authentic look at a custom-ordered Spartan House Bus, which is a true testament to the aesthetic of the '50s and '60s. Take a walk through the camper and see for yourself the untouched period features and interior finish.
  • The Shasta: The Shasta is the most well-known of the "canned ham" style travel trailers, though later models were eventually more square in shape. The company got its start with RVs in 1941, when they started producing travel trailers that could be used for mobile military housing. Shasta still holds its place as one of the top recreational vehicle manufacturers today.
  • The 1961 Trailorboat: The 1961 Trailorboat — one of the most unique pieces in the Volo Auto Museum Vintage Camper exhibit —  is very rare, and only about 200 were produced. This RV was the outdoor enthusiast's dream: a travel trailer and boat two-in-one. The interior of the camper was designed with built-in sleeping quarters and a storage area, with a detachable roof that doubled as a weather-safe fiberglass boat.

covered wagon-style camper

Today, modern motorhomes are divided by classes, and travel trailers are separated by the features they offer.

  • Class A: Class A motorhomes are RVs that are large, luxurious and rounded. These are the motorhomes most commonly used by celebrities or musicians on tour.
  • Class B: Class B RVs are known as "camper vans" and "sleeper vans" because they are similar to old-school RVs that were built-in to a vehicle. These motorhomes are small but are equipped with all essentials.
  • Class C: Class C RVs are rigs that have been built into a truck chassis, usually offering some sort of lofted sleeping or storage area as a result. These are larger than Class B RVs, but typically more affordable and easier to handle than Class A.
  • Pop-up: Pop-ups are small travel trailers that have tent-like sides that fold down when not in use and pop out for additional storage and sleeping areas when parked.
  • Toy hauler: A toy hauler is a travel trailer with a large, built-in storage area for "toys," like bicycles, kayaks or other outdoor sports gear.
  • Travel trailer: Standard travel trailers refer to any trailer that can be pulled behind a vehicle, and are available in several sizes, uses and designs.
  • Fifth wheel: A fifth wheel is a large RV that is only towable by a heavy-duty truck. Fifth wheels are often designed to provide optimal space, making them ideal for full-time RVers.

It is important to note that, although these modern campers are often more spacious and comfortable than their early counterparts, many travelers today prefer the look and feel of old fashioned rigs for their colors, simplicity and vintage style.

Vintage Campers vs. Modern Campers

As technology has evolved, so have the furnishings and amenities inside of RVs. Old-school RVs rarely had plumbing, though some had features like telephones and woodburning stoves to heat the camper and cook food. Today, there is no limitation on the features you can choose for your camper, including televisions, air conditioning, showers, refrigerators, connectivity and more. Today's luxury RVs can sell for millions of dollars and come with features like king-size beds, multiple floors, built-in surround sound systems, fireplaces, rooftop decks, built-in e-centers and more.

Modern campers use their RVs for a variety of things, including:

  • Homes: The RV lifestyle has seen another boom in recent years: people who are ditching their brick and mortar homes for the freedom of the open road. More than a million Americans live in their RVs, and most of them do so full-time. RVs have inspired many movements in "tiny living," including converting vans into motorhomes, tiny houses on wheels and more. As the tiny living trend continues, and generations continue to seek living arrangements with fewer ties, the popularity of vintage campers will likely continue to rise.
  • Camping: According to a 2019 camping report, camping is more popular than ever before, with more than 78 million Americans considering themselves campers. As the popularity of camping for fun has increased, thousands of new travel groups have formed, including destination campgrounds that offer community-based social events for campers to enjoy together.
  • Travel: The popularity of the American road trip has not diminished, and neither has the RV's role in it. As people continue to travel from coast to coast and seek affordable, convenient lodging, the need for RVs will continue. Campers and campgrounds offer a more affordable, convenient form of lodging and provide outdoor amenities that most hotels cannot.
  • Tour buses: Today, many bands and group performers travel from city to city on a tour bus or in a luxury motorhome rather than staying in hotels during their tour. Tour buses are a convenient way to transport both the gear and the performers quickly and securely.

For many, RVs have become more than a recreational vehicle — they have become a way of life. Some people have forged a living for themselves by documenting their experiences living in an RV. Retirees have given up large, empty houses for a simpler life on the road. Campers have revolutionized the way we attend festivals, fairs, events and reunions. Regardless of how they are used, it is clear to see that owning and using both modern and vintage RVs has become a symbol of freedom and a love for adventure. 

See the History of RVs at the Volo Auto Museum

Learn more about the history of RVs and campers at the Volo Auto Museum, a 35-acre destination fit for the whole family and focus of the History Channel TV Series "Volo, House of Cars." Plan to spend your day exploring more than 33 unique exhibits, including antique kiddie rides, cars from TV shows and movies, a carousel museum and more. We curated our Auto Museum with families in mind, which is why you can enjoy a slice at our on-site pizza parlor or take in a show at one of our mini-theaters. The Volo Auto Museum is open year-round, rain or shine.

see the history of rvs and campers at Volo