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Lessons from RV History

This article first appeared in the May/June 2022 edition of Escapees magazine

The Wanderer caravan of Dr. Gordon Stables (1885, Source: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

“ To enjoy caravanning don’t be taciturn. Be affable and agreeable, wear a smile on your face and talk freely to those who are similarly disposed, and you will never find the road dull”.

This quote is over 100 years old. It’s from a 1914 book called Caravanning and Camping Out by J. Harris Stone, the first Secretary of the UK Caravan Club. At the turn of the twentieth century he and a few other RV pioneers had the task of promoting the brand new hobby of ‘caravanning’ to a conservative, home-loving audience who thought anyone roaming around the British countryside for fun was either a crackpot or a thief. Society’s perceptions of RVers may have long since changed (at least let’s hope so), but this and other insights of these early ‘RV philosophers’ are still relevant today.

In North America the covered wagons of the early settlers are often romantically associated with the birth of the RV hobby. Thanks to new research we now know it’s more likely that the first users of accommodation on wheels on any scale in North America were the ‘health seekers’ escaping the consumption (tuberculosis) outbreaks of the east coast in the mid to late nineteenth century. Many thousands of health seekers used converted ambulance wagons to reach the forests, lakes and mountains prescribed as a cure for consumption by the physicians of the day.

A Moses ambulance wagon (1858, source: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (USG Printing Office, 1870-88) - Moses ambulance and tent - part III vol 2)

The flat floors and soft suspension of ambulance wagons, originally designed to carry wounded or dead soldiers away from the battlefield, were much more forgiving than the bone-shaking prairie schooners or Conestoga wagons designed to carry mainly goods. Ambulance wagons became the forerunners of the ‘houses on wheels’ built by early American leisure travellers of the 1890s. So what do we learn from this? That the RV hobby in America probably began with ‘escapees’ searching for good health. Does that sound familiar?

We also learn from early RV designs that ‘small is good’. When roads were poor and engines lacked power, the best type of RV was short and light. We may have heard of the luxurious Pierce Arrow Touring Landau of 1910 or Roland P. Conklin’s double-decker ‘Gypsy Van’ of 1915, but these were cumbersome anomalies. When writing of the highly-equipped camping trips undertaken by the famous ‘Four Vagabonds’ (Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs) between 1915 and 1924, Burroughs wrote in 1921, “It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort”.

Roland Conklin's Gypsy Van of 1915 was a cumbersome anomaly in the development of early US RVs (Source: Library of Congress)

The well-publicized expeditions of the Four Vagabonds, with up to 50 vehicles in their convoy, probably started the trend of taking a fully-equipped mobile home into the forests and mountains for vacations. In contrast, the most popular North American RV of the 1910s and 1920s was the lightweight tent trailer, mainly because it was low cost, could readily access newly established national parks and could be towed by a Ford Model T. As the RV industry today moves slowly but inevitably towards electric propulsion, where range depends largely on weight, it will be interesting to see whether our RVs will once again go on a diet.

A Warner Auto Trailer (c 1916, courtesy Joel Silvey)

Allied to size and weight, we also learn from history that everything carried in an RV should have two uses. Alonzo J. McMaster’s Camping Car of 1889, probably North America’s first, purpose-built, horse-drawn RV, had a sofa bed, a combined driver’s seat and oil stove and a ladder slung under the wagon that also served as a bed for the driver. Amphibious RVs have cropped up throughout RV history, but none became mainstream. In 1932 one self-built Australian motorhome had a toilet seat that also acted as a chessboard, although that’s one idea we may not want to copy.

The foremost British ‘caravanner’ of the late nineteenth century, Dr. Gordon Stables, tells us in 1886 that we should all own a ‘tender’. By ‘tender’ he was extending the maritime analogy of a ‘land yacht’ and meant in this case a tricycle that rode alongside his caravan. It was used by his valet (most people had one in those days) to warn other road users of The Land Yacht Wanderer’s impending arrival and to scout out potential ‘pitches’ or camping sites along the way. Stables added, “But the main pleasure in possessing a cycle lies in the opportunities you have of seeing lovely bits of scenery, and quaint queer old villages, and quaint queer old people, quite out of the beaten track of your grand tour”. Of course today our ‘tenders’ are more likely to be e-bikes or small automobiles, but the advice remains sound.

The Ranelagh tricycle used by Dr. Gordon Stables' 'general factotum' Mr. Harman (1886, source Leaves from The Log of a Gentleman Gypsy by Dr. Gordon Stables)

From the early RV clubs we learn they did not discriminate between horses and horsepower. The first ever RV club, the UK’s Caravan Club of 1907, welcomed caravans, motorhomes and horse-drawn vans. Even though horses largely disappeared as a source of RV power when millions of them failed to return from the First World War, powered RVs of all types were welcome in the first RV clubs. The aim of the Tin Can Tourists in 1919 was “to unite fraternally all autocampers”. Today every RV type has its own ‘tribe’ that provides a sense of belonging, but it may be worth remembering from time to time why and not just how we travel.

Other lessons from RV history continue to be brought to light as newspaper reports and photos of our RV ancestors are digitised by archives around the world. We learn to be ‘shipshape’, to stick to a schedule, to make an early start each day and to share our RV ideas and designs with others. We learn from J. Harris Stone that RVs are great for creativity: “Artists, anglers, photographers and entomologists too are numerous in the ranks of the modern Gypsy; while not a few writers, like the late Dr. Gordon-Stables, find they do their best work on the road in a van”. So if you’re working out of your RV today, you’re not the first.

Above all we learn that the first users of RVs were health seekers, mavericks, creatives, thinkers and nature lovers. If any of those labels rings a bell with us, we can take comfort in the fact that we are following a long tradition begun by others with similar motivations who started this hobby about 150 years ago. And as we drive across the country on our RV travels, we may wish to keep in mind the words of Dr. Gordon Stables, writing in 1886 about the importance of the right attitude for a ‘caravannist’:

“A caravannist must not be above talking to all kinds and conditions of men. If he has pride he must keep it in a bucket under the caravan”.

So our final lesson for today is that we should all make sure we carry a bucket.

Andrew Woodmansey

May 2022


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