The year 1910 has been adopted by many as the year the American RV was 'born'. US RVs were in fact created much earlier.
An online search to uncover the history of the RV will quickly reveal 1910 as an apparently pivotal year. This is because 1910 was the year in which the 'first RV', the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau (above), was first manufactured. Was 1910 then the year that the RV was 'born'? Read on.
Yes, a Pierce Arrow was built in that year (probably just one), but it was not the first touring limousine in America, let alone the world. The Welch Motor Car Company of America produced a touring limousine for actor Nat Goodwin in 1909. The touring limousine concept was first seen in France, with De Dietrich first manufacturing its Voiture de Route in 1904. Daimler of Germany produced a similar vehicle in 1906.
The Pierce Arrow had a copious rear seating area and lots of luggage space, but was not specifically designed for sleeping in - its few wealthy owners were expected to stay in hotels en route. Rather than being manufactured, it was custom-built in very small numbers to the order of wealthy clients. So was it even an RV?
Defining an RV
Online commentators talk loosely about 'the first RV' without defining terms. Invariably they are discussing the first American RV and in most cases the first motorized RV. Research conducted for Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 reveals that the earliest purpose-built RVs came from the UK and France. America had an important role to play in the development of the RV, but this came later. So first let's define terms.
The phrase 'recreational vehicle' is indeed American in origin. It was in use by American vehicle salesmen by 1940 to describe the increasing range of vehicles available to consumers for leisure use, which at the time included travel trailers, house cars, camping autos, tent trailers and teardrops. This group of vehicles might contain an engine but might not, came in all shapes and sizes and were made of a wide range of materials including steel, aluminium, wood and canvas. Taking these variables into account, rvhistory.com defines an RV as:
'a road-going vehicle with sleeping facilities designed for leisure'.
'Road-going' to exclude anything on rails or on water, in keeping with the usage of the term today. 'Vehicle' because it may be powered or unpowered. 'Sleeping facilities' because these are the minimum required for ongoing leisure use. And 'designed for leisure' to exclude vehicles designed for other purposes.
Applying this definition, RVs did not suddenly appear when the internal combustion engine was invented. Some of the earliest RVs (from France) were in fact steam-powered and the very first RVs were horse-drawn. So although the term RV is quite recent, it is not unreasonable to extend this convenient term back in time to any road-going leisure vehicle regardless of its power source.
Many early powered RVs owe their heritage to their horse-drawn ancestors.
Don't Forget the Horses
The first American RVs appeared on roads and trails at least 20 years before touring limousines of the early 1900s. Horse-drawn wagons, often adapted from former ambulance or army wagons, were used by American health seekers and hunters from the mid-nineteenth century.
Settlers' vehicles such as Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners are not RVs based on our definition. They transported mainly goods and had no sleeping facilities. As such they are not closely related to the US RV, as this blog explains. Towards the end of the nineteenth century self-built or commissioned 'houses on wheels' began to appear on the trails. These were box-shaped, larger and had more home comforts than their wagon predecessors, including beds and stoves. The first known, purpose-built, American RV was McMaster's Camping Car, patented in 1889.
The Lasley family built two or three 'houses on wheels' for their journey across America between 1894 and 1898. A journey that began as a search for work later became recreational. Their travels are documented in a book written by Morgan Lasley.
The First US Motorised RVs
At the turn of the century, the new automobile was put to many uses including leisure. There are some reports of early automobiles and trucks being adapted for leisure camping and hunting in the early 1900s. The best recorded of these are the three 'camp cars' of Roy Faye and Freeman Young built for hunting purposes between 1904 and 1906.
The arrival of the Ford Model T in 1908 allowed many to adapt these vehicles for camping at relatively low cost. These were ideal for use in the country's newly-established national parks. The touring limousines made by Welsh and Pierce-Arrow in 1909 and 1910 respectively served the long distance travel needs of a wealthy few.
The first US RVs towable by automobiles and manufactured on any scale were lightweight 'pop-up campers', easily towed behind the Model T. Although self-built versions began appearing around 1909, manufacturing of pop-up campers at scale started in 1913 with the Detroit Trailer Company. The history of the American tent trailer has been extensively documented by historian Joel Silvey.
One-off, self-built or commissioned 'house cars', or motorhomes, began to appear in the mid 1910s, growing in numbers with the arrival of the goods-carrying Ford TT in 1917. Camping autos, which were specialized camping vehicles with folding beds, followed from about 1918 onwards.
For the Record
Based on currently available evidence, what we can say in terms of 'RV Firsts' is the following:
the earliest known, purpose-built RV in the world is The Wanderer, a horse-drawn caravan commissioned by Dr. Gordon Stables in the UK in 1884
the earliest known, purpose-built RV in the USA is the horse-drawn McMaster Camping Car, commissioned by Alonzo J. McMaster and patented in 1889
the earliest-known, purpose-built, powered RV in the world is the steam-driven Grande Diligence of Prince Oldenburg of France of 1896
the earliest-known, purpose-built, powered RVs in the USA are the three camping cars commissioned by Roy Faye and Freeman Young between 1904 and 1906
the earliest-known, purpose-built RVs to be manufactured in significant numbers, both in the USA and worldwide, were the pop-up trailers manufactured by the Detroit Trailer Company in 1913.
This is the state of play in 2021. As and when more information comes to light, we may find other RVs that are earlier. If you known of any, please get in touch.
Sources, Links and Further Reading
Pop-Up Camper History by Joel Silvey
Across America in The Only House on Wheels by Morgan Lasley