Why the American RV is not descended from the Conestoga Wagon or the Prairie Schooner
It is common for those delving into the early history of the American RV to wax lyrical about the role of the nineteenth century covered wagon in the birth of the hobby and the design of the first horse-drawn RVs. The historical romance associated with these wagons was such that America's largest travel trailer manufacturer of the 1930s, the Covered Wagon Company, was named after them.
The 'covered wagons' cited as ancestors of the American RV include the Conestoga wagon and the prairie schooner. But, with the possible exception of Oregon trail pioneer Ezra Meeker's 1916 Pathfinder (a one-off, promotional vehicle with a roof shaped like a Conestoga wagon), there is little evidence to support any design connection between these largely goods-carrying wagons and the early horse-drawn American RVs.
The Conestoga wagon, for example, was durable but heavy. It carried mainly goods, had rudimentary or non-existent suspension and a curved floor to keep goods from falling out, so would have been highly uncomfortable for any passengers. The lighter bow wagon nicknamed the ‘prairie schooner’ was used extensively along the settlement trails but was predominantly a goods carrier packed to its canvas roof with the family furniture, leaving nowhere to sleep. Tents and bedrolls were carried on these wagons but taken out for sleeping on the ground at camp. New European settlers may have had their first taste of camping in the company of a covered wagon, but very few will have used one specifically as mobile accommodation or for recreational purposes.
The earliest American RVs looked very different to the covered wagon.
The First American 'Houses on Wheels'
During the 1890s US newspapers began reporting on strange vehicles passing through local towns that they called 'houses on wheels'. These were some of the earliest RVs. They were box-shaped, horse-drawn wagons with solid roofs, flat floors and an elongated chassis to accommodate a covered driver's section upfront with one, two or even three rooms containing furnished accommodation behind. Their owners were by and large not new settlers but leisure travellers or health seekers.
Jonathan Olsen was one such traveller. A cutaway sketch of his elaborate house on wheels appeared in the New York Journal in 1897. The Journal reported that Olsen was planning a trip around the world in his three-roomed wagon with separate kitchen, bedroom, store room and a sliding door on one side. As with most other wagons of the period built for leisure, there was no sign of any bow-shaped canvas roof or curved floor.
It is not known if Olsen completed or even started his ambitious journey.
The Four Ancestors of the American RV
So if the first horse-drawn American RVs were not modelled on the covered wagon, what was their design inspiration? From research to date there appear to be four main wagon types that inspired the design of the first 'houses on wheels':
the ambulance wagon
the US army escort wagon
the Herdic carriage
the sheep herder's wagon
Let's look briefly at each.
The Ambulance Wagon
The first American horse-drawn vehicle used as accommodation along a rough trail was the ambulance wagon. It was box-shaped and had soft springs, reclining or removable seats and rear-loading, flat floors to carry wounded soldiers away from the battlefield. Although a number of two- and four-wheeled ambulance wagon designs were tested during the American Civil War of 1861-1865, ambulance wagons had been in existence well before then. The first US examples were based on the French ambulance volante or flying ambulance, first used in 1793 and later employed in conflicts worldwide. The 'Wheeling' or 'Rosecrans' ambulance shown above was used in the early part of the American Civil War. Note that it had both longitudinal and transverse springs for greater comfort.
Beyond the field of battle, it was health seekers who found a new civilian use for the ambulance wagon – as a way to travel long distances in relative comfort. It was the least bone-jarring wagon available at the time and so could be used to help health seekers escape the tuberculosis outbreaks along the eastern seaboard and reach the fresh air of the forests, mountains and lakes to the west. Designed for resting or sleeping on the move, the ambulance wagon also eliminated some of the discomforts of sleeping when halted. It afforded rest and provided shelter without having to erect and dismantle a tent each night. When a major destination had been reached, the comforts offered by the ambulance wagon meant that it was often used for local camping trips. Read more about ambulance wagons here.
The US Army Wagon
For hardier souls or for those who could not afford an ambulance wagon, converted surplus US army escort wagons were adapted for camping purposes. These were especially popular with hunters. Although less comfortable than the ambulance wagon, these used the same box shape and flat floors that better suited mobile accommodation when compared to bow wagons.
The Herdic Carriage
The Herdic carriage was named after its inventor Peter Herdic from Pennsylvania, patented in 1881. Similar to the ambulance wagon, the Herdic carriage was a lightweight vehicle with low floor and a rear entrance. It had more sophisticated suspension than rival coaches of the period and was therefore more comfortable. Bench seating was added for passengers along their sides. Herdic's original design was for a two-wheeled carriage, but this was later increased to four wheels to accommodate more passengers.
A number of elements of the Herdic Carriage were adapted by Alonzo J. McMaster for his radical McMaster Camping Car of 1889, which as far as we currently know was America's first, purpose-built RV.
The 1881 patent for the two-wheeled Herdic carriage can be viewed below:
The Sheep Herder's Wagon
Another vehicle that influenced early American RV design was the sheep herder’s wagon. This was a more elaborate American variant of the European shepherd’s hut. They were used, for example, to watch over the five million or so sheep in Wyoming at the start of the twentieth century. Reputedly invented by Wyoming blacksmith James Candlish in 1884, the sheep herder’s wagon was a remarkably efficient design with a transverse bed, table, benches, stove and washbasin. Although it used the bow-shaped canvas roof of the covered wagon, it was far more practical to live and sleep in. These compact wagons acted as the inspiration for a number of twentieth century American travel trailer designers. Restored or recreated versions are still in use today.
Other Early RV Influences
The Wanderer. Reports of Dr. Gordon Stables' British exploits in The Wanderer appeared in American newspapers of the late 1880s. These reports may have inspired some people to reproduce the design locally. With a weight of two tons however, it would have been highly unsuited to the rocky trails of America.
Gypsy caravans. Far fewer gypsies emigrated to the USA than to western Europe. Of those that did, very few will have taken their caravans with them. Nevertheless there are record of gypsy caravans being built locally. The Long Island Museum has a fine example from c1860-1885.
Self-built farm wagons. The self-built wagon would have been the starting point for many leisure campers of limited means in the late nineteenth century. These came in all shapes and sizes, but were typically rectangular with flat floors and open tops. Sides and a canvas roof would have been added in most cases to make the wagon habitable, but it is unlikely to have been comfortable.
The range of wagon types used as design influences for the first American leisure travellers demonstrate the rich heritage of the American RV. They show that with the arrival of the automobile at the turn of the century, powered RV designers were not confronted with a blank sheet of paper but instead built on the boxy designs of the RV's horse-drawn ancestors. In the USA as well as elsewhere, the RV had not been invented but had evolved over time from vehicles built for other purposes. It is fascinating to see what those purposes were and how each contributed to the development of the hobby.
Sources and Further Reading
Conestoga wagon photo: https://lccn.loc.gov/2012645749
Ambulance wagon sketch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MSHWR_-_Wheeling-Rosecrans_ambulance_wagon.png
US Army wagon photo: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018667087/
Sheep herder's wagon photo : https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017760549/
Herdic coach sketch: https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1880.18188/