In the final blog of our five-part series on early RV history we cover the years of 1938 and 1939, when the RV industry collapsed in the USA but thrived elsewhere.
USA (1938-9): From Boom to Bust
During the late 1930s unease grew around the number of Americans living permanently in trailers. Whilst numbers varied, it was estimated in 1938 that as many as 250,000 trailers were in existence in America occupied by a million people. The trailer industry estimated in 1939 that around 10% of new commercially manufactured trailers were being bought as full-time housing. Adding together home-built trailers and there were probably 75,000 trailers used as full-time dwellings. One newspaper columnist of the time joked that soon half of America would be living in trailers.
Concerns over full-time trailer users centred around the non-payment of taxes or rent and the less quantifiable issues of childrens’ education (or lack of it) and crime. Terms such as “gasoline gypsies” and “auto tramps” that had been around since the early 1920s began to be used in the media in a more derogatory sense, with denouncements of the pitiful and unhealthy state of some ad hoc trailer parks, the existence of which also affected real estate values. Writer Nancy Isenberg commented, “to live in a shack, a hovel, a ‘shebang’ or in shedtown or in a trailer park is to live in a place that never acquires the name of ‘home’. As transitional spaces, unsettled spaces, they contain occupants who lack the civic markers of stability, productivity, economic value and human worth”.
In 1936 the Federal Government began attempts to regulate trailer parks, focusing on land use and using court cases to decide whether a trailer was a vehicle or a house. In response, the trailer industry set up an association to defend what they saw as an attack on their industry. The outcome was the introduction of a series of measures to regulate the industry. Restrictions were imposed on the length of stay in trailer parks, some imposing a period as short as 30 days. Trailer licensing fees were applied and national standards for trailer parks were introduced in 1939. Trailer dealers worked with the more reputable park operators to secure places for their customers, and some became park owners.
Following these measures, by the end of the 1930s the trailer was seen by most in the industry as a recreational vehicle, not a permanent dwelling, and treated accordingly. It was somewhat ironic therefore, by the time of America’s entry into the World War Two in 1941, trailers were required by the Federal Government on a massive scale to house workers involved in war production and agriculture. As a result, instead of accounting for 10% of production, trailers for long term occupation accounted for 90% of production by the early 1940s. This was the start of the “house trailer” concept that would create a new post-war industry in America, but that would exclude nearly all of the travel trailer manufacturers who had revelled in the short but intense boom of the 1930s.
Below is a slide show of ten photos taken between 1939 and 1941 from the wonderful collection at the Library of Congress. They show how trailers were used during the pre-war period and vividly portray the bleakness of trailer camps of the period used to accommodate thousands of farm, construction and war workers.
(All images from the US Library of Congress)
1. Trailer of migrant family, Edinburg, Texas, Feb 1939, photo by Russell Lee
2. Child of white migrant going into covered wagon trailer, Wagoner County, Oklahoma, Jun 1939, photo by Russell Lee
3. Trailer for sale, Red Wing, Minnesota, Oct 1940, photo by John Vachon
4. Signs and trailer with tattoo artist on highway near Fort Beauregard, Louisiana, Dec 1940, photo by Marion Post Wolcott
5. Trailer for sale on No. 165 highway to Fort Beauregard, Louisiana, Dec 1940, photo by Marion Post Wolcott
6. Farm Security Administration trailers, Washington DC, Mar 1941, photo by Royden Dixon
7. Trailer at tourist camp, Washington DC, Mar 1941, photo by Reginald Hotchkiss
8. Untitled, possibly FSA camp, Erie, Pennsylvania, Jun 1941, photo by John Vachon
9. Trailer in trailer court, San Diego, California, Jun 1941, photo by Russell Lee
10. Trailer camp, Hermiston, Oregon, Sep 1941, photo by Russell Lee
The late 1930s was a time of innovation in the British caravan market. The homely, oval-shaped caravan still dominated, but some makers sought to exploit the growing power of automobile engines by providing increased space or facilities or by using new materials. Experimentation with the US 'toaster-shaped' trailers did not meet with any success – they were seen as too utilitarian for British tastes.
Slide-outs started to appear during this period and even pivoting extensions:
It is not known if this idea went into production.
Coventry Steel was a British manufacturer that experimented with both steel and aluminium-built RVs in the late 1930s:
Neither material found favour with British consumers. Eccles meanwhile continued to stick to traditional materials, covering all bases in its product range, from the luxury 18 ft. Eccles Senator down to the basic £130 Eccles National:
Remarkably, new caravan manufacturers were still trying their luck against the established makers of Eccles, Winchester, Car Cruiser and Cheltenham, such as this strangely-named Mushroom Folding Caravan from the Foldavan Company of Glasgow, Scotland:
But towards the end of 1939, thoughts of British caravan owners were forcibly turned away from innovation and towards camouflage and ambulance transport as war approached:
Articles appeared in the press on the advantages of a caravan in wartime, including portability, discreet size and even the ability to absorb bomb shocks. Thousands of London-based children were evacuated to the countryside – many of them stayed in caravans.
Due to material, labour and money shortages, post-war British caravans would look very different to and in many ways less attractive than their pre-war counterparts. The glory days of the British caravan industry finished in 1939.
As a latecomer to caravans and motorhomes, the late 1930s saw the Australian RV industry still thriving. The state of Victoria became the dominant caravan manufacturing centre with Melbourne as its focus, taking over from South Australia, with Sydney and New South Wales a close second. Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania also had a small number of makers. Motorhomes continued to be built as one-off projects by coachbuilders or enterprising individuals.
Caravan builders such as Propert, Caravan Park and Jennison of Sydney, Don and Windmill of Melbourne and Paramount of South Australia are mentioned in my book (Propert, Caravan Park and Jennison also have their own blogs), but other Australian makers of the late 1930s included Caravan Construction and Hire Co. Ltd., Brindle Caravans, Romany Road and Nomad Caravans.
An extensive list of makers along with photos and newspaper articles of vintage Australian caravans and motorhomes assembled by a passionate group of vintage caravan specialists can be found on the Vintage Caravans Australia Forum here.
Like Australia, New Zealand's caravan industry was booming in the late 1930s. New caravan clubs had been formed, caravan parks were established across the country and at least a dozen home-grown manufacturers were making caravans from Auckland to Dunedin. Even the US trailer maker Schult formed a joint venture with a local partner to try to offset the sales decline in the USA. The Moore-Schult caravans of New Zealand looked very different to Schult RVs in America:
The Caravan magazine of the UK was eager to illustrate the growth of caravanning in the 'colonies' in the late 1930s, but was also quick to point out any perceived weaknesses:
The Caravan comments attached to the above photo were: "A New Zealand built caravan at home in the bush. Notice the different number plate on the van, which is licensed separately. The plate itself is the licence and is changed annually. Caravanning is growing fast in New Zealand, there is a thriving local industry, clubs have started, and many towns have municipal sites; but this owner has evidently not yet learned the art of perfect neatness on the pitch."
Although Germany's aggression was the root cause of the demise of the European caravan industry in 1939 as well as many other industries, it would be churlish not to mention the somewhat surprising activity of the German RV industry in the late 1930s. A separate blog on three lightweight German caravan manufacturers of the 1930s (Dethleffs, Berger and Hirth) offers some insights into the country's contribution to small caravan design, but there were several other active German makers including Kali, Keutgen, Westfalia and FLH:
Clockwise from top left: Kali (date unknown), Keutgen (1938), FLH (date unknown), Westfalia (1938)
It will be an interesting research topic to discover whether and how German caravans were used during the Second World War.
This blog covering the early history of the RV around the world had to be divided into five parts to cover the wealth of material now available on the topic. I hope they have been of interest. As with Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939, these blogs have hopefully demonstrated both the ingenuity and the tribulations of the early RV pioneers and their wonderful vehicles. I also hope they have shown not just how but why some of these vehicles came about.
What of the post-1945 period? For the first five years after the war, material shortages led to a decline in RV quality. Those who could afford RVs wanted cheap ones. This combination in the author's view led to a period of uninspiring, low-quality RVs being produced, that with a few exceptions failed to match pre-war RVs in passion or originality. Matters improved somewhat during the 1950s, but RV manufacturing had by then lost most of its maverick builders and inventors, with price being the only factor separating a small number of bulk builders.
So it remains to be seen whether there will be a second volume of the book, but for the time being there is still much of the pre-1939 period to uncover around the world.
Links to the other blogs on early RV history are below: