Health before Recreation

The first RVs were not designed for pleasure but to escape disease.


In these hustling days caravanning naturally appeals with increasing force to the contemplative and the seeker after rest. Our doctors are also finding that patients with a consumptive tendency, or afflicted with certain brain troubles, or forms of paralysis, derive much benefit from a life on the road.

from Caravanning and Camping Out by J. Harris Stone (UK, 1914)


Who invented the recreational vehicle? In fact no-one, since RVs evolved over time from a number of different vehicle ancestors. Why were they developed? As an escape.


Today, escaping to nature for recreation is a driving force behind many RV trips. We may be escaping from the pressures of modern life or simply seeking recreation in natural surroundings. But before recreation became widespread in developed countries, vehicles were created to escape something else: death and disease. Because these vehicles offered long-distance travel in relative comfort, they became the forerunners of the horse-drawn RV.


Baron's Larrey's ambulance wagon (France, 1797) Source: National Library of Medicine

A key design feature of most modern RVs is the incorporation of undercover sleeping accommodation. Building a flat sleeping area into any vehicle is not straightforward - it consumes space and is hard to make comfortable. Most horse-drawn coachbuilders of the nineteenth century were not accustomed to designing vehicles for prostrate humans unless they were dead.


The Ambulance Wagon


Ambulance wagons were one exception to this rule. They were used to carry the wounded away from the field of battle. Developed for use before and during Europe's Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) by French surgeon Baron Larrey (known as 'Larrey's Flying Ambulance'), ambulance wagons were lightweight wooden boxes on wheels with a flat floor to accommodate one or two wounded soldiers.


This idea was later exported to America and a range of modified ambulance wagon designs were tested or used before and during the American Civil War of 1861-65. The new ambulance wagon designs incorporated to varying degrees flat floors (to allow stretchers to be loaded easily), soft suspension (to make life more comfortable for occupants), folding benches for those treating the wounded, cabinets for medical supplies and attachable awnings to create an emergency operating theatre. As it happened all of these features would later find new uses in the emerging hobby of recreational camping.


A US ambulance wagon showing its comfortably large leaf spring suspension (Source: National Library of Medicine)

Tuberculosis in America


In the mid to late nineteenth century, the eastern seaboard of the USA became an economic powerhouse, but it also became a haven for disease, in particular tuberculosis (TB) or 'consumption'. The crowded east coast settlements of European migrants had limited to non-existent waste and sewage systems, providing fertile ground for TB. The only known 'cure' widely prescribed by physicians of the day was fresh air. So thousands of 'lungers', as they became known, headed west to mountains and lakes for extended periods of recuperation. Many travelled in used or converted ambulance wagons, since the levels of comfort they offered on the bumpy trails of the west far exceeded that offered by the more rustic, goods-carrying Conestoga wagon or prairie schooner.



Whilst there is no doubt that early American recreational campers would have used a wide range of horse-drawn vehicles including used army wagons and farm wagons, the first American RV patents for 'camping wagons' and 'hunting wagons' of the late nineteenth century, as well as the first-known, purpose-built American RV (The McMaster Camping Car of 1889), take much of their DNA from the American ambulance wagon.


The Brown Hunting Wagon Patent (USA, 1894)

Escaping the Industrial Revolution in Britain


Across the Atlantic the first recreational caravanners of late nineteenth century UK were also seeking an escape - from the ills of the Industrial Revolution. Mass migration from the countryside to the cities caused illness and stress, exacerbated by shocking working, living and sanitary conditions.


Unlike America however, in the mid nineteenth century the UK already had a not insignificant mobile population living in caravans, consisting mainly of the poor, the homeless or those whose livelihoods were mobile such as circus and menagerie owners. Whether based on fact or prejudice, the homes of these mobile communities were called 'travelling fever houses' by one journalist because of the frequent sickness of their occupants.


Undeterred by the negative image of caravanning, the UK's so-called 'gentlemen gypsies' began to travel Britain's countryside in horse-drawn caravans in the late nineteenth century. The pioneer of this trend was undoubtedly Dr. Gordon Stables, who as a former naval surgeon and early retiree due to ill health was keenly aware of the health benefits of an outdoor life. In 1886 he described a long list of ailments that caravan life was likely to mitigate:


Ailments Likely to be Benefited by Caravan Life.


“I can, of course, only mention a few of these, and it must be distinctly understood that I am not trying to enforce the merits of a new cure. I am but giving my own impressions from my own experience, and if anyone likes to profit by these he may, and welcome.


I. Ennui.

II. Dyspepsia.

III. Debility and enfeeblement of health from overwork, or from worry or grief.

lV. Insomnia.

V. Chronic bronchitis and consumption in its earliest stages.

VI. Bilious habit of system.

VII. Acidity of secretions of stomach, etc.

VIII. All kinds of stomachic ailments.

IX. Giddiness or vertigo.

X. Hysteria.

XI Headaches and wearying backaches.

XII. Constipated state of system.

XIII. Tendency to embonpoint.

XIV. Neuralgia of certain kinds.

XV. Liver complaints of a chronic kind.

XVI. Threatened kidney mischief.

XVII. Hay fever.

XVIII. Failure of brain power.

XIX. Anaemia or poverty of blood.

XX. Nervousness."


from The Cruise of The Land Yacht Wanderer by Dr. Gordon Stables (UK, 1886)



Early British horse-drawn caravan design was inspired by a mix of influences such as gypsy vardos, railway carriages and living vans, whilst the poorest would simply adapt the second-hand public caravans made redundant by the advent of the railways. Inadequent ventilation of wooden stoves would sometimes cause overnight asphyxiation of inhabitants or even burn a caravan to the ground. Nevertheless a significant number of gentlemen (and women) gypsies remained undeterred and became the vanguard of a recreational caravan movement that grew slowly before and rapidly after The First World War. The search for good health was an important factor in their journeys into nature.


Ambulance Trailers


The advent of RVs pulled by a motor vehicle rather than a horse also saw their design influenced by the treatment of the sick. British RV manufacturer Eccles, the first to build caravans on any scale from 1919 in Birmingham, was influenced in their early caravan design by motor-drawn ambulance trailers, possibly those designed by E.M. Tailby, also from Birmingham.


A UK Ambulance Trailer during World War One (UK, 1917, Library of Congress)

Repaying the Favour


In a twist of fate, the RV industries of a number of countries have been able to repay their design inheritance from the health sector by converting vehicles to life-saving uses during times of war or pandemics. These include caravans and trailers converted to ambulances, mobile health centres and emergency operating theatres.


So if you are contemplating an RV trip for health reasons, you will be part of a long-standing tradition that inspired the design of early RVs and that is almost two centuries old.


Andrew Woodmansey

August 2021