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Early RV History (Part 1)


This four-part blog presents the findings of a five-year investigation into where the RV came from. It is an abbreviated version of the more extensive history of the RV included in the book Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 by Andrew Woodmansey, to be published by Pen & Sword Books in early 2022.

For the purposes of this blog we will define an RV as 'a road-going vehicle with sleeping facilities designed for leisure purposes'. There are many other possible definitions, but importantly this one allows us to include horse-drawn RVs, which are often overlooked in RV histories. It excludes any 'recreational vehicles' that ran on rails or over water.

This early history of the RV goes up to 1939. It covers the main RV developments around the world in roughly chronological order. Many of the RVs or manufacturers featured in these blogs have their own dedicated articles elsewhere on this site.

Part One: The Horse-Drawn RV Era

RVs were not 'invented', but instead evolved over time from vehicles designed for other purposes. Horse-drawn wagons used for sleeping on long journeys were important forerunners of the modern RV. Unlike goods wagons they had to accommodate passengers, so were often enclosed for weather protection and had flat floors and some form of suspension to provide comfort. One of the earliest was a Roman wagon used from about the first century AD called the carruca dormitoria, or sleeping carriage, which provided shelter and basic sleeping facilities for long-distance travellers.

A 'carruca dormitoria' reproduction (Source: Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, Germany)

Entertainment Caravans (Europe, early 1800s)

The first groups of people to use horse-drawn wagons as mobile accommodation in any numbers were the menagerie and circus owners of Europe in the early 1800s. Menagerie owners slept in caravans to watch over their exotic animals as they toured the towns and villages of Europe.

A caged animal forming part of a travelling menagerie (1856, source unknown)

When spectators grew weary of just looking at the caged animals, menagerie owners taught their animals tricks and incorporated them into travelling circuses. Unfortunate humans with disabilities or 'deformities' were also regarded as 'entertainment' in the travelling shows of Victorian Britain. Horse-drawn caravans were an essential part of the travelling circus - some were highly decorative to advertise the coming of the circus to town. Their main purpose however was to provide mobile accommodation for circus members as they travelled across the country.

The caravan of Mrs. Jarley, waxworks proprietress, from Charles Dickens' novel The Old Curiosity Shop, is an early fictional example of a caravan from 1840. It was used to accommodate Mrs. Jarley as she displayed her waxwork exhibits in the towns and villages of England. Missionaries, quacks and travelling salesmen soon joined the ranks of people with no fixed abode on the roads or trails of a number of countries.

Public, fee-paying 'caravan' services were offered between towns and cities of Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These caravans were slow, rudimentary and uncomfortable. With the advent of the railways in about 1830, these services declined and most of the caravans used by these services were sold off to itinerants.

Gypsy Vardos (Europe, mid-nineteenth century)

European gypsies were next to use horse-drawn caravans, doing so from the mid-1800s onwards. They began by using simple wooden caravans alongside their 'bender' tents, but over time the gypsy caravan or vardo became highly elaborate status symbols for gypsy families.

The Buckland Caravan, UK, date unknown (Source: unknown)

When a vardo's owner died, his or her vardo would often be burned at the same time, leaving very few examples remaining. The gypsy vardo and the gypsy lifestyle were important influences on the group of (mainly) 'gentlemen gypsies' who took to the country lanes of Britain in the late nineteenth century. They were the first recreational caravanners.

American Heath Seekers

In the USA the development of the horse-drawn RV was not influenced by the gypsy lifestyle, but rather the search for better health.

Ambulance wagons were a late eighteenth century French development to remove wounded soldiers from the battleground. They were in use in the USA prior to the American Civil War from about 1850 in both wartime and civilian settings. Converted ambulance wagons were used by so-called 'health seekers' of the eastern seaboard to escape the disease (especially 'consumption' or tuberculosis) and pollution of the new settlements. They headed westwards along settlers' trails. The soft suspension, lightweight construction and flat floor of the ambulance wagon proved ideal for the long journeys of health seekers. These features were carried over into later American RV designs, suggesting that horse-drawn ambulance wagons are an important ancestor of the modern RV.

Baron Larrey's 'Flying Ambulance', France, 1797 (Source: National Library of Medicine)

Ironically, in the UK many second-hand public service caravans were acquired by the poor, homeless and itinerant, to the point where caravan users became social pariahs and caravans themselves were called 'travelling fever houses'. So early British caravans were not used to escape disease, instead they incubated it.

Nevertheless from the early 1870s, hunters and wealthy individuals began to use adapted circus, ambulance, farm and gypsy wagons for hunting, fishing and camping trips on both sides of the Atlantic.

Living Vans

Living vans, sometimes called sleeping vans, were pulled by steam traction engines and used in the UK as accommodation for road and agricultural workers from the 1870s onwards. Over time their use spread overseas to British colonies and to the USA.

Cutaway of a Fowler Living Van (Source and date unknown)

Living vans provided very basic accommodation with wooden beds, a stove and little else. Early models had poor ventilation, sometimes leading to the asphyxiation of occupants as they tried to keep warm in winter. Having somewhere to sleep on the road meant that traction engine teams (always in teams of two) could move more quickly from job to job. A number of UK living van manufacturers came up with their own designs. From these the outlines of some of the first horse-drawn RV designs can be seen.

The Wanderer

None of the early forms of road-based accommodation on wheels were specifically designed for leisure. There are newspaper reports of horse-drawn caravans being conceived specifically for leisure purposes (mainly camping and hunting) from 1872, but we have to date no evidence of them being built.

The first purpose-built RV that we know for sure was built (because it still exists today) was The Wanderer, conceived by Dr. Gordon Stables and built to his design by the Bristol Wagon Works Company of the UK in about 1884.

A former naval surgeon forced into early retirement through ill health, Stables was a strong believer in the health-giving properties of an outdoor life. He commissioned The Wanderer to provide such a life in some comfort.

The Wanderer's interior (UK, 1891)

Stables' important contribution to the history of the RV is covered in other blogs. What we can say here is that Stables can rightly be regarded as 'The Father of the Recreational Vehicle' because of his influence through his caravan designs, travels and writings on countless others.

Gentlemen Gypsies

Stables was the first of a group of people in the UK who came to be known as 'gentlemen gypsies'. These were generally wealthy men and women who commissioned beautifully-designed horse-drawn caravans for periodic leisure trips into the British countryside.

A four-wheeled caravan called 'Blue Bird', date unknown (Source Caravan Magazine)

Many were supporters of both the Arts and Crafts movement and gypsy culture. They sought to escape the ills of the Industrial Revolution by preserving handicrafts and returning to a simpler, healthier way of life. By the turn of the century this group would number in the hundreds. They would also form the first caravan club in 1907. They continued their recreational activities until well after the First World War when the motorized RV assumed dominance.

The McMaster Camping Car (USA, 1889)

In the USA, following the publication of the first-ever camping guide by William H.H. Murray in 1869, there was something of a camping stampede to the Adirondacks region called 'Murray's Rush'. This was soon followed by the creation of the first national park (Yellowstone) in 1872 and greater railroad access to America's wilderness areas.

The McMaster Camping Car, USA, 1892 (Source: US National Park Service)

The first US purpose-built RV that we know of was the McMaster Camping Car, patented by Alonzo J. McMaster of Lockport, New York in 1889. McMaster had operated a hire fleet of Herdic carriages in Lockport in the 1880s and his Camping Car was based on this design. He used the camping car on his own trips and sold a small number to others.

Two McMaster Camping Cars were purchased by Yellowstone National Park tent-camp operators Wylie & Wilson for hire to more independently-minded clients in 1892. However the trial was not extended because the operators could not achieve sufficient economies of scale with the vehicles to make money. There was also open hostility to the idea from existing hotel and transportation companies. The McMaster Camping Car was an idea before its time.

'Houses on Wheels' (USA, 1890s)

There is a romantic notion that two iconic horse-drawn wagons used in the settlement of America, the Conestoga wagon and the prairie schooner, played an important role in the development of the American RV. There is however no evidence to suggest that this was the case. Both were used to carry goods rather than people, so settlers would sleep in tents or under the stars alongside these vehicles. Another type of vehicle, the sheep herder's wagon, did however play a role in the design of early horse-drawn RVs.

In the USA during the 1890s a number of 'houses on wheels' were built or commissioned by independent travellers. These were generally box-shaped, horse-drawn wagons built along the lines of the ambulance wagon.

Most notable of these 'houses on wheels' were the various wagons built by Morgan Lasley for his trip across America from 1894 to 1898. This trip was documented by Lasley in his 1898 book 'Across America in the Only House on Wheels', available from the Library of Congress.

Lasley's account of his 'house on wheels' (Source: Library of Congress)

The horse-drawn RV era continued in most countries until the First World War, after which a shortage of horses combined with the advent of the automobile led to its steady decline.

The next phase of the history of the RV is the early motorized era.

Links to the other blogs on early RV history are below:


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