top of page

American Houses on Wheels

The Forerunners of the American RV

Early sketches of North American 'houses on wheels' (1890s, source Library of Congress)

Before the construction of the first American, purpose-built recreational vehicle in 1889 came a range of other horse-drawn vehicles that foreshadowed the development of the North American RV.

They contained movable accommodation but, prior to the time when recreation became a social phenomenon, were used for other purposes such as hunting, road building, exploration and health. Towards the end of the nineteenth century this group of vehicles came to be labelled 'houses on wheels' by newspaper journalists of the period, mainly because they didn't know what else to call them.

These peculiar vehicles show that, as in Europe, the American RV was not 'invented' but instead evolved over time from a range of other forms of transport.

The Search for Comfort (1840s)

From the late 1840s there were attempts in North America to make long-distance trail travel by horse and wagon more comfortable. One of the earliest 'beds on wheels' was built for fur traders and was called the Santa Fé Wagon:

" A considerable trade had sprung up (in the 1840s) with Santa Fé and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company stations. The goods were packed on the backs of mules or horses, or hauled in strong wagons drawn by three, four or five pairs of oxen or mules. Some of the traders, to escape the tedium of riding in the saddle or in these heavy wagons without springs, devised what was known as the "Santa Fé Wagon", having four good wheels, a strong coupling, and a square body with roof and sides of canvas, set on three elliptic springs: two behind and one forward, and with three seats, so arranged that their backs could be let down, the whole forming a bed. Such a wagon was intended to be used as a tent by day and a bed by night. These were hauled by four mules. The same or similar wagons are now used on the Plains, but none to-day are superior to those used in 1846-50."

from The Hub Nov 1884

We know that the prairie schooner and Conestoga wagon were not ancestors of the RV - this explanation (and this blog) tells us why. In a nutshell, they were most uncomfortable.

The Search for Health (1860s)

Joining the fur traders and hunters on the trails in the west were the 'health seekers'. On the advice of their physicians, thousands of eastern seaboard residents travelled west to escape or recover from consumption (tuberculosis). This large migration began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth. Many health seekers used an unusual form of transport designed to remove wounded troops from the battlefield - the ambulance wagon.

Mamie Bernard Aguirre was one such person - she travelled on the Santa Fé Trail in 1863:

"We rode in ambulances which were as comfortable as carriages, costing $500 apiece and built so they could be turned into beds at night just as a 'sleeper' seat is arranged on trains nowadays. They had boxes in the back seat for clothes, pockets on the sides in the doors which opened as hack doors do; in these pockets were brushes, combs and a looking glass. Under the front seat was another and there were two seats facing each other inside so that six people could be comfortably seated."

from Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail 1822-1880 by Mark L. Gardner

The soft suspension, flat floors and folding seats of the ambulance wagon would become hallmarks of the early horse-drawn American RVs of the 1890s.

Towards the end of the century, we see health and recreation starting to be mentioned in the same breath:

"Tent-life in Southern California is peculiarly agreeable, if one does not mind the dust, because no provision need be made for rain-storms during eight months of the year. From April to November one may camp with the certainty of finding good weather every day. Camps may be located at any point from sea-level to extreme altitude, and the various climactic conditions selected as detailed in other chapters. House-wagons are serviceable, and provide a very enjoyable way of seeing the country and regaining health."

from Two Health Seekers in Southern California by W.E. Edwards and B Harraden, 1897

The development of the RV in North America was influenced by one motive over all others - the search for better health. This blog provides further detail.

The Search for Work (1870s)

As in the UK, so-called 'living vans' were used in North America to accommodate road and agricultural workers from the 1870s to the 1920s. They were rudimentary wooden huts on wheels with a stove and bunks. They were invariably towed by steam traction engines to an outdoor work site such as a road or field where they could be used as shelters by workers until the job was done. American reporters called these 'houses on wheels' too.

A Fowler traction engine and living van (UK, courtesy Steam Plough Club)

One example of their use was the construction of a road in Maryland in 1871:

"The road from Baltimore by Ellicott's Mills as far as Carroll's Manor, was made wholly, as before stated, at the expense of the owners of the Mills; from the Manor to Frederick all the engineering and management rested with them, but after leaving the Manor they encountered individuals whose plantations lay on their route who were willing to unite with them in the charges.

For the accommodation of laborers engaged in the service, they built a house on wheels which was drawn from place to place by horses, being the first movable building seen in Maryland; it contained conveniences for cooking everything but bread, which was always baked and forwarded from the Mills, from the kitchen of John Ellicott, one of the members of the firm, and whose dwelling, still a pleasant home, may be seen with 1772 on one of its gables. This movable building besides the means of cooking, contained beds and bedding, and was besides a shelter for the men in rough weather. All these laborers were from Pennsylvania, such as were married had houses in the village of Ellicott's Mills, and many of them were members of the Society of Friends."

from A Brief Account of the Settlement of Ellicott's Mills, 1871

The Search for the Outdoor Life (1872)

We begin to see recreation emerge as a reason for travel in the 1870s. With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the country was gradually becoming more peaceful and could be thought of as a place to spend a few hours away from busy towns and cities. Picnics were one way to enjoy the countryside for a brief time:

"A few days ago, I was talking to a private gentleman who has devoted a deal of attention to fitting up carriages for picnic purposes. He has fitted up his own carriage with every apparatus for cooking, which consists of a series of steamers fixed one above the other, the whole of which are suspended over a spirit lamp, and by his contrivances he tells me he has served up a hot dinner in the middle of a wood, with three or four different vegetables, entrées, etc., in an uncommonly short period of time. Every member of the picnic party is provided with a thin cushion, made of leather cloth, stuffed with cork shavings, which rolls up like a music roll, and is easily carried in the hand to the place of rendezvous. These ingenious contrivances would make valuable additions to those of Messrs. Hooper, and would certainly increase the delights of picnicing."

from The Hub, November 1872

Camping as a leisure activity began to attract people in large numbers following the publication of an 1869 camping guide called Adventures in The Wilderness; or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks by church minister William H.H. Murray. The stampede of campers who followed Murray's advice to go camping came to be known as "Murray's Rush".

A self-built 'picnic kitchen tender' of 1909 (source Motor Magazine, Dec 1909)

Later, small 'picnic trailers' were some of the first trailers to be towed behind automobiles. These were light enough to be towed behind the first, low-powered automobiles and were the forerunners of the tent trailer.

The Search for Freedom (1875)

During the 1870s we begin to see 'houses on wheels' being used as a lifestyle choice - the very first 'van lifers':

"According to the Courier-Herald of Jackson, Tenn., a man in that town, tired of renting and not disposed to invest in a city lot, has built himself a dwelling house on wheels. Procuring an old-fashioned log wagon, he has erected on it a house 10x20 feet, and seven feet from floor to ceiling. The house contains two rooms, one entrance, and that in the end from the wagon tongue, and four small windows. This house he proposes to move from place to place in the city, or even out of it, as the exigencies of his business or convenience may demand. His family, consisting of himself, wife, and three children, will lodge, feed and sleep in this little house on wheels."

from the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 6 Feb 1875

As well as moving around for work, some early 'van lifers' used 'houses on wheels' for creative purposes. Boston artist W.M. Hunt was one example:

"During August 1875, the late W. M. Hunt (the celebrated Boston artist) was very busy in the construction of what he called his "Van" - a large, covered sketching wagon, commodious enough to live in while on a sketching tour; built, as he said with great glee, "by a man who builds gypsy wagons." It had all kind of drawers in it for pots, kettles and painting utensils, and was to be drawn about to eligible sketching locations by a span of horses...

He said that the Van was so easy, that driving in it was like being up in a balloon, and gave the pleasantest possible proof of his assertion, one afternoon later, by driving us twenty-five miles in it. The drive was delightful, as any drive with Mr. Hunt was sure to be, but it left a consciousness for a day or two that an experimental drive of twenty-five miles, even in a Van, is rather long.

It is doubtful if he found the new carriage as pleasurable and serviceable as he anticipated. Perhaps this would have been impossible, but as it was not spoken of much after a few weeks, we inferred that it was found to be a more cumbersome vehicle than he liked."

from The Atlantic Apr 1880

Clearly in 1875 these early houses on wheels still had some way to go to provide comfortable travelling experiences for their owners.

The Search for Health and Pleasure (1875)

Foreign influence, particularly from Britain, played a role in the design and development of North American 'houses on wheels'. The health-giving qualities of the North American west and mid-west were well known to Victorians in Britain. One, Mr. James Newcombe, went to extreme lengths to improve his health by travelling overseas - he visited North America nine times:

"Yesterday we had a pleasant interview with an English gentleman who is travelling through Nebraska spying out the land. We are used to the "prairie schooner" in which home-seekers from the States across the river penetrate every nook and corner of the prairie, but in these day of 'Pullman' it is a novelty to find a gentleman mounting his house on wheels, and nightly pitching his bachelor establishment a day's nearer to the setting sun...

We found the vehicle in front of the store of of Mr. Franklin & Son's - a roomy, comfortable covered conveyance, bed room and kitchen in one, with a little cooking stove, and glazed windows, and a due compliment of carriage lamps. The two horses were good and sturdy Canadians, three-fourths blood; and they travel at the rate of 20 miles a day, drawing 2,200 pounds. The owner of the "trap" - as an Englishman would call it - was in Mess. Franklin's store replenishing his commisariat. He is (a) kindly, well informed and manifestly companionable gentleman, "hailing" from beautiful north Devon, and here in search of health and that pleasure which attends health. He said that this is his ninth visit to the States; and that he thinks that he knows the map of the country as well as that of his native land. When he proposed this trip his friends discountenanced the idea. There are the railroads, they said, why not travel at ease? He answered that he wanted health, and that railroad travelling and railroad eating are rather too horrid for an invalid who would journey as the Quakers worship - when the spirit moves him, and for this journey he could be his own master and not put himself under the control of a conductor. A wilful man has his own way, and Mr. James K. Newcombe accompanied by his son, started last spring by Allen steamer for Quebec. Thence he proceeded to Toronto, and had his wagon "fixed" and from that point his journey has been at his own sweet will, paddling his own canoe, or rather, handling his own lines, boiling his own coffee pot, broiling his own steak or wild game, making up his own bunk, and grooming his own horses."

from The Nebraska State Journal 12 Nov 1875

We should recall that Mr. Newcombe's ninth trip to North America took place ten years before Dr. Gordon Stables' maiden UK trip in The Wanderer in 1885, although we cannot say that Mr. Newcombe's wagon was (unlike The Wanderer) 'purpose-built'.

A Camping Tour to Yosemite (1884)

Houses on wheels were also used for exploration. By the 1880s, wagon manufacturers had recognised the need for a new type of vehicle to explore the country's new national parks. The 'camping wagon', described as a 'novelty' in the 1884 article below, was available for hire to intrepid campers and explorers.

Below is an account by Professor I. L. Kephart of a camping tour in Yosemite:

"We hired a regular double-decked camping wagon for which we paid twenty dollars for the round trip, to be made in from twenty to twenty-five days. As a camping wagon is a novelty, it may not be amiss to describe this one.

The running gears are moderately heavy, very compactly built, and thoroughly ironed. The spindles are annealed wrought iron, and a first-class brake (one of the essentials) attaches to the hind wheels. The bed is twelve feet in length, mounted on first class springs, and covered with a high oil cloth covering, supported by well rounded bows. In the hinder half of the wagon-bed there is a second floor raised eighteen inches above the first floor. This constitutes the "double-deck". The lower apartment, thus set off, constitutes a "stow-away", in which are placed nearly all the articles that belong to the culinary or commissary department.

On the second floor are placed a straw ticking moderately filled with straw, pillows, blankets, and bed comforters, and this constitutes the ladies' sleeping apartment. Around the sides of this apartment, on hooks provided for the purpose, are hung their hats, shawls, small satchels, etc. Immediately in front of this chamber is placed the seat occupied by the ladies; and in front of this the seat occupied by the Professor and myself. These seats are also mounted on springs, thus giving the advantage of the action of a double set of springs, which effectually breaks the jolts occasioned by rocks in the road.

If, during the day, the women become weary with the journey, as they often do, they retire into their sleeping chamber, lie down and take a nap, while the wagon pursues its weary way up and down the immense hills, and across the yawning canyons. Each night the seats were removed from the wagon and a bed made in that part of it, where the Professor and I slept as snugly as if we were in a palace."

from Wilford's Microcosm, Oct 1884

Van conversion enthusiasts of today may think that placing a bed above a 'garage' used for storing camping equipment and clothing is a clever, space-saving idea. It certainly is, but it's not new. This description shows that the idea was in use in 1884.

Two 'Land Yachts' (1884)

Design ideas for 'houses on wheels' continue to be imported from the UK during the 1880s:

"Two "land yachts" in which their owners recently made a trip through New-England, are large, stoutly built Vans, containing all the requisites for camping out. The travelers thus journey along comfortably until they come to a delightful spot, and then make a stay of such duration as their fancy fixes upon. Each vehicle is fifteen feet long by seven wide, with a cover like a tent, but lined with felt as a protection against bad weather, and roofed with zinc. In transit the sides collapse, and everything is packed snugly. Four servants are taken along, and the cookery is all that skill can accomplish, and the stock of horses includes two for the saddle. These Vans were imported from England."

from The Hub Jan 1884

This is one of the first mentions of a collapsible 'house on wheels' and an early reference to the term 'land yacht' to describe the similarities between yachting and RVing. It is likely that the term 'land yacht' as used in North America during the following decades to describe large and luxurious RVs was imported from England in the 1880s.

Both the idea and the phrase caught on. Later in 1896, the Topeka State Journal writes:

"(Land yachting) is a peculiarly American way of taking a vacation, and while it is almost unknown in the north it is widely popular in the southern states. In Georgia, Florida and Alabama the farmers often take this way of spending the idle summer months, when, after the orange trees are trimmed and the crops gathered, they have nothing to do until fall.

At such times the farmer gets out his land yacht, furnishes it for a six weeks' or two months' voyage, loads in all the family, hitches up a pair of mules and starts. Sometimes he goes to visit a relative in a distant part of the state or in an adjoining state, and sometime he has no particular port in view, but just cruises around, seeing the country and stopping for days, perhaps, in the neighborhood of some city or place where there is something to be seen.

The interior of the covered wagon that he calls his land yacht is fitted up to form a sleeping place by night and a sitting room by day. The cooking is done on a light stove which is carried in the wagon. It is a sort of gypsy life that the farmer's boys are particularly fond of and that the old folks seem to enjoy quite as much."

from The Topeka State Journal 26 May 1896

It is interesting to note that the author of this article, Sewell Ford, believed that the 'land yachting' hobby began with southern state farmers. Their 'land yachts' would have been in the main converted farm wagons. But just as many of the reports of 'houses on wheels' during the 1890s came from the north and west.

Ford also mentions earlier in the article that this form of vacation was more difficult in England: "Over there, where the great estates swallow up all the unimproved land, there is no such opportunity for camping as we have." This was partly true, but the large private landholdings of the British aristocracy did not stop the Gentlemen Gypsies (and Ladies) of Britain camping in fields from the 1890s onwards - with the permission of the landowner, of course.

The Search for Sheep

A final influence on the early RVs of North America is the sheep herder's wagon.

"A large sheep owner of Eastern Nevada has a house on wheels in which he camps and travels. In this house are parlour, dining-room, bed-room and kitchen. He is as well fixed as a snail; has his house with him wherever he goes. - [Exchange. That's our friend, James Sampson, of Spring Valley.]"

The White Pine News 4 Aug 1883

A sheep herder's wagon, Montana (1939, Source Library of Congress)

The sheep herder's wagon was an important design influence on the American RVs of the twentieth century, because they were ideal for towing behind the early low-powered automobiles. They were also cleverly designed to make maximum use of their living and sleeping spaces. These will feature in a future blog.

The 1890s

During the 1890s the accounts of people travelling for leisure in 'houses on wheels' proliferate in the North American press. We start to see the first sketches of these vehicles, some of which are reproduced at the top of this article. Their design features are varied, but what they have in common is a flat floor, vertical walls, solid roofs and (where described) folding furniture.

The first purpose-built RVs in America then, took ideas from the Santa Fé wagon, the ambulance wagon, the living van, the camping wagon, the picnic wagon, the sheep herder's wagon and the land yacht. Together known as 'houses on wheels' they are the ancestors of the modern American RV and together they demonstrate the hobby's old and diverse origins.

Andrew Woodmansey

July 2022


bottom of page