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Wanted: Recreational Vehicle Historians

Recreational vehicle historians are few and far between. We need a few more.

A selection of leatherbound folders of Land and Water newpapers from the 1870s at the British Library in London

In a review of my book Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939, Emeritus Professor Harriet Edquist writes:

"No doubt Woodmansey's compilation of material from a part of western Europe and the Anglosphere is new and the abundant illustrations are a highlight of his book. Noticeable in these illustrations from the earliest years is the presence of women, such as the resourceful Rayner Sisters in the 1920s who recognised the new mobility that the caravan afforded them (174) suggesting one line of further research. But there are many others that the material gathered in Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 might give rise to, and this is a valuable legacy."

Emeritus Professor Harriet Edquist, Design and Social Context, RMIT University (Australia)

I couldn't agree more. A "valuable legacy" is something most historians would be happy to leave behind, but legacies only have value if they are discovered, interpreted and amplified by a historian's contemporaries and successors. The joy of writing about RV history, as Professor Edquist has hinted at, is that it unearths many new nuggets of our social, political and leisure past waiting to be dug up and have their value assessed. But we don't have enough miners.

I am listed as a mentor on RV history with the Organization of American Historians but so far no mentees have come forward.

A number of RV historians who have significantly advanced our understanding of early RVs are now retiring, leaving fewer of us to keep the candle burning. Those recently retired or no longer active in RV history circles include David Woodworth (US RV collector and historian, retired), Al Hesselbart (US RV historian, writer and former curator of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, retired), Roger White (Fellowship Advisor at the Smithsonian and RV author, no longer active) and Joel Silvey (owner of, no longer active). They leave their print and digital footsteps behind, but who will follow them?

Those continuing to do great work in this field are of course the museums, clubs and individuals who do the wonderful work of restoring and showing vintage trailers, caravans and motorhomes. But they need to be supported by RV historians who can tell them something about the history of their RVs as well as the RVs long since forgotten. RV historians who are still active include Douglas Keister (US teardrops and trailers), Andrew Jenkinson (British caravan history), Richard Dickins (Australian caravan and motorhome historian, active on Vintage Caravans Forum) and the members and staff of the Historic Caravan Club of the UK, the Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection at the UK's National Motor Museum, the Retro Camping Club de France, the Tin Can Tourists and Vintage Camper Trailers in the USA.

The volume of newly digitized newspapers, correspondence and photos have increased significantly in recent years, providing a rich vein of information to tap on both known and as yet undiscovered RVs. The influence of RVs on the transport, leisure and social histories of the countries where they have appeared has been profound. RVs have created homes on wheels for millions seeking leisure or work, enabled access to nature, discovery of remote places, brought good heath to the sick, created mobile showrooms, portable billboards, speaking platforms, offices and accommodation for followers of social causes, offered emergency housing and even mobile clinics for doctors, nurses and victims of war and natural disasters. Trains, planes and automobiles are all about the journey, RVs are about what you do when you arrive. They are liberators, freeing up the inner nomad in all of us. They deserve a prominent place in our transport history.

Here are some suggested research topics in and around the RV history field:

  • The search for good health and its role in the development of the RV

  • "Houses on wheels" in America: the first RVs (1870-1900)

  • RVs and politics: how RVs were used to get political messages across

  • How RVs helped to liberate women

  • The role of the horse-drawn wagon in RV history

  • The role of the lunch wagon in the birth of the mobile food movement

  • The travel trailer and the mobile sales person

  • How RVs have influenced and been influenced by design and technology from other industries

  • Research on early influential RV makers or owners from around the world (e.g. Dr. Gordon Stables, Bertram Smith, Charles Louvet)

"When someone completely removed from the RV world (well, not completely removed, my parents have one) hears the phrase “RV historian” it almost made me want to laugh. Admittedly, it felt almost absurd to have someone dedicate their life to an oddly specific topic."

As I hope I've shown in this and other blogs, RV history is not "an oddly specific topic". Rather it covers a wide field of human endeavor and features some fascinating maverick inventors and owners. Each one has a story waiting to be told.

Andrew Woodmansey

July 2024


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