The First Automobile Camping Trailer (USA, 1910)

With thanks to the Joplin Public Library for providing research material for this blog

The Sterling automobile and camping trailer of Dr. Charles A. Morsman (source Joplin News Herald, 29 Jan 1911)

The First Automobile Camping Trailers


The extensive research conducted by Joel Silvey on the early history of the American pop-up camper suggests that box-style trailers were first manufactured for general automobile use in Detroit from about 1913. Camping was suggested as one of these uses, but it was not until late 1914 that a patent describing a "combined camping outfit and box therefor" was applied for by Archibald and Lawrence Campbell of Los Angeles, showing for the first time a trailer purpose-built for camping. The patent was granted in June 1916 and became the Campbell Folding Camping Trailer. But self-builders were the true camping trailer pioneers.


'Auto camping' (essentially putting camping equipment inside a standard automobile) was a hobby as old as the automobile itself, but as the amount of camping equipment increased, the idea of a 'camping trailer' was conceived. Self-built automobile trailers for recreational use have been found as early as 1909, such as the 'picnic trailer' featured in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939. But this was used to carry picnic equipment rather than a full set of camping accessories.


The Camping Trailer of Dr. Charles A. Morsman


Thanks to the Joplin Public Library in Missouri, we now have evidence of a self-built, purpose-built, automobile camping trailer from 1910. The photo at the top of the blog is the earliest known photo of such a trailer, which is probably the first of its type in the world.


The trailer was commissioned from a local automobile shop by Dr. Charles A. Morsman, a dentist, motorist and keen fisherman from Joplin, Missouri in June 1910. The article below describing his trailer is significant because it goes into great detail regarding the trailer's design and confirms that it was constructed and used explicitly for camping.


The article is an extract and is taken from A History of Jasper County, Missouri, and Its People, Vol 2 by Joel T. Livingston (1912, available at HathiTrust). The article is not illustrated, so images of some of Dr. Morsman's camping equipment are inserted from camping equipment catalogues and adverts of the period.

 

"Dr. Morsman's various fraternal associations are with the Redmen, the Anti-Horse Thief Association, and the Motor Club, in all of which he finds much enjoyment. His politics are Republican, and he has given his heart and hand to the policies of that party since his earliest voting days. He has charitable instincts, his sympathies being ever enlisted with less fortunate brothers and he is very fond of society. He is a motor enthusiast, being known throughout the state as a daring driver. The following description of his remarkable car and the genuine pleasure he derives from motoring appeared in a local publication:


"An hour's spin in an automobile will carry one far from Joplin to regions wild and wierd, where game and fish abound, and where the beauties of nature are unsurpassed anywhere in the country. And if one's automobile be equipped with a camp trailer, ready packed for an outing, the trip may be prolonged days or even weeks. At an instant's notice of Dr. Charles A. Morsman, owner of the first and only automobile trailer in Joplin, could be ready for a jaunt from Joplin to New York. Dr. Morsman's trailer is unique. It is an invention of his own, is substantial and practical and made to withstand the roughness of usage. Many autoists of this district have admired his creation and as it is not patented, it is safe to predict that the coming spring and summer will see other automobile trailers introduced into Joplin amusement circles.


An Elkhart Sterling 40 automobile from 1911 (source Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal Jan-Mar 1911)

"Resembling a sturdy, two-wheeled cart, Dr. Morsman's trailer, attached with ball and socket connection to his big forty-horse power Sterling machine, cannot but attract attention as it reels down the highway in the wake of the whizzing automobile. It attracted unusual attention on its tour through Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma last summer, when Dr. and Mrs. Morsman and their little son and Mr. and Mrs. M.T. Miller journeyed into the wilds of the Rocky Mountains on a fishing expedition.


"The wheels of the trailer are forty-two inches in diameter and are equipped with the best of rubber tires and rotate on the best auto steel bearings. The bed or box, in which is carried the camping equipment, is five feet long, twenty-eight inches high and three feet wide. A portion of the bed has been converted into an ice box with a capacity of one hundred pounds of the congealed liquid. Another partition, adjoining the ice box, has a capacity of seven gallons of water, while a faucet in the rear permits the thirsty excursionists to draw forth a goblet of the icy, sparkling water with the loss of only a moment's time.


"If stranded in a scorching desert, with miles of quivering sands stretching level as a checker board in every direction, the traveler, if equipped with such a trailer, well stocked with drink and provisions, could laugh in defiance at the apparent peril of the situation. Or, if the day be biting cold and the little camp stove be out of fuel, still the wayfarer would not be forced to munch on cold food, for the trailer is equipped with a three compartment fireless cooker, and the victuals in the cooker will be as steaming hot at nightfall as they were when placed, smoking, into the compartment in the early morning.



Examples of Gold Medal camp furniture (from Sioux City Tent & Awning catalogue 1915)

"The trailer also contains a gasoline stove, with two burners, a Kamp Kook outfit with equipment enough for six persons, two Thermos bottles for carrying steaming coffee or tea, frigid lemonade, or other frosty thirst quencher; a Gold Medal furniture outfit, consisting of six cots, three chairs, four stools, a folding table, two tents, – one seven by nine, the other seven by seven feet.


Wilson's Kamp Kook Kit (Carpenter and Co. catalogue 1903)

"Gas pipes are used as poles for the tents. Disconnected these tents take up very little room. There is plenty of room in the trailer for bed clothing, pillows, provisions, fishing tackle, hunting outfit, axe, spade, and folding canvas boat, the latter being an "Acme" eleven feet long and capable of carrying three persons, providing they do not weigh more than three hundred pounds apiece.


An ACME Folding Boat advert (Shield's Magazine 1906)

"The lid of the trailer opens upward and outward, in two parts, when, presto, it ceases to be a lid and becomes a table, solid, rigid and ready for cooking utensils, just as convenient, just as practical and just as artistic as the sliding shelf of wife's cooking cabinet.


"And so it is that life in the dreary stretches of No Man's Land is modernized; so it is that all the comforts of home may be had in the twinkling of an eye, no matter if the scene be the mountain fastnesses (sic) of Colorado, or the sweeping, windy prairies of Kansas."


 

Accounts of Dr. Morsman's travels appear in a number of local newspapers between 1910 and 1911. Once account reports that the trailer was not as successful as initially hoped:


"Dr. Morsman and Auto Return from Western Trip


"Dusty, mud covered and bedraggled the Morsman car, that pretty blue creation that left Joplin last month returned last night from a 1,500 mile trip in Colorado. Unlike the morning that Dr. Morsman's machine left Joplin, it was minus the trailer. Instead of the heavy rubber tired box, only a large crate nestled on the back of the motor car.


"The trip was a hard one and the tourist found every thing to contend with. Mud, break downs, bad weather married (sic) the trip. The trailer, which Dr. Morsman loaded with foods, an icebox, hot and cold water, and a fireless cooker, was abandoned early on the trip."

Source Joplin News Herald 23 Aug 1910


But undeterred by this setback, Dr. Morsman had the trailer repaired and by April 1911 all was well again with the trailer. The Joplin News Herald of 3 Apr 1911 reported that Dr. Mosman had received his trailer back from a repair shop in Kansas City and was ready for use.


Additional research indicates that Dr. Morsman had mining interests in the town of Joplin and would organise regular outings for members of the Anti-Horse Thief Association. In 1919 he also very generously allowed the public to use a swimming pool on his property that was fed by a natural spring.


So we may thank Dr. Morsman for leaving behind important accounts and a photo of his automobile camping trailer and for not patenting the idea so that others could develop the concept further. It was probably the first of thousands of auto camping trailers that would cross the nation in the next 20 years.


Andrew Woodmansey

August 2022