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From Horse-Drawn Carriages to Cars to Motorhomes: RVs Throughout History

By Emmalee Rice

We have all seen some kind of recreational vehicle (RV) while driving down the freeway. We see a variety of trailers, fifth wheels and motorhomes. We do not necessarily notice these traveling behemoths as they have become so commonplace. However, when a friend or family member purchases one, we celebrate with them as they have taken the first steps towards new journeys and adventures. It is an exciting time for them, and we anticipate not only hearing of their adventures, but also maybe being invited to join them. It may lead some to thoughts of purchasing an RV for themselves, especially because RVs are something that have become synonymous with travel and adventure in American culture.

RVs have come a long way since they were first introduced, from rugged camping vehicles with the bare minimum of comfort to luxurious vehicles dressed to the nines for an exquisite glamping experience.  It took many iterations of the RV through decades of redesigns and upgrades to get to the customized creations that we now see on the road. To gain a better appreciation of RVs, where they’ve been and where they’re heading, let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

In the beginning

Motor vehicles did not replace horse-drawn vehicles until the early 20th century. With this technological advancement people saw the potential to travel long distances without having to pay for a room or provide supplies for a hungry horse. As early as 1910, people began modifying their cars into rudimentary motorhomes. Many would just turn their car into a kind of tent, imitating the covered wagon that was quickly losing popularity against the new cars. Others took what could be considered a more modern approach. They would add fold out beds, chamber pots, sleeping areas and even running water. With these they could venture out into the wilderness with many of their creature comforts to accompany them on the road.

Introducing camper trailers

With the rise of the 1920s came the rise of the camper trailer as well as the continuation of the motorhome. Many were finding that it was easier to work with a custom trailer that they could easily store when not in use rather than customizing their only vehicle into a RV. The use of the trailer also allowed for more accessibility as the roads were not as accommodating to large vehicles as they are now. These two advantages drew many people to the camper trailer in addition to its lower price range. However, those that could afford it found that the luxury of the new motorhomes could be comparable to their permanent living situations. It was a chance for those who could afford it to travel without needing to stop in dedicated areas for sleep.

The 1930s and 1940s saw continuations of both iterations of RV up to the start of the second World War. During this time period, people began to see the designs that would lead to the RV styles that we know today. Though production of RVs ground to a halt as all available manufacturing companies began producing supplies for the war, many continued to use their beloved vehicles. Some even helped with the war effort offering their RVs for prisoner transport, morgues and traveling hospitals. RV sales did not stop with the slowing of production as the military bought some of the newest and biggest models as homes for enlisted men and their families. 

Post-war designs and hello hippies!

Following the war, starting around the 1950s and continuing to the 1970s, there was a boom in discovering comfortable and durable designs for RVs, and more people began purchasing them. During this time, well-known brands such as Airstream and Winnebago began to emerge though it was not until the 1960s that modern models began to truly emerge. This saw the advent of slide-out technology that expanded space and enhanced comfort and convenience. 

In the 1970s, camper-vans stole the hearts of many Americans. Volkswagens became the vehicle of choice for the hippie generation, offering them a sense of freedom and the ability to set up camp wherever they wandered, be it alone in the woods or via a traveling commune from one Grateful Dead concert to the next. 

Designs of today

Following the camper-van surge, RV designs took off in numerous directions, such that in the into the 2000s and continuing to now, RVs began to be a practical permanent option for many people. It became the home-away-from-home that we all know today. Retirees were able to downsize while also being given the ability to travel in a way that would allow them to keep their necessities with them. Younger people, single, married and/or with kids found it to be a cheaper housing option. They like the idea that the great outdoors is their backyard–a place of sanctuary or adventure. Families with school-age children cherish the concept that the nation’s changing landscape offers the greatest opportunities for children to learn and grow, the best alternative to keeping kids cooped up in classrooms. 

Throughout history, RVs have become synonymous with the American Dream. People use them to explore the country, visit family and friends, to minimize their lives in the most meaningful way. RVs allow people to have adventures while staying comfortable, affordably.

Throughout the pandemic, droves of people sought sanctuary through RV travel, and a huge number of the population realized that spending time in nature brought them peace of mind and a sense of renewal. They realized that life is sweeter with scenic views, that it’s more rewarding to spend quality time with close ones in the great outdoors. 

This revelation has refueled interest in purchasing RVs. All ages are attracted to the lifestyle that RVs provide. Some choose them for a permanent living situation, while others use them for getaways of all kinds. They allow people to go further than they otherwise might be able to. RVs  give people the freedom to hit the road without leaving anything behind. Who said, “You can’t have it all?”

Emmalee Rice is a university student with a passion for doing research that can help others.

Diamond, M., & Olito, F. (2020, July 30). The most iconic RV from every decade. Insider. Retrieved July 13, 2022

Leah, L. (2021, May 19). A Complete RV history. RVshare.com. Retrieved July 13, 2022

Magazine, S. (2018, September 4). A brief history of the RV. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved July 6, 2022

O’Dea Meghan O’Dea is a writer, M. (2020, March 18). Types of rvs & their evolution in American culture. The Dyrt Magazine. Retrieved July 6, 2022

Perry, D., & Jaeger, D. (2022, January 11). The history of rvs. History Cooperative. Retrieved July 13, 2022

The amazing history of rv-ing in America. loveexploring.com. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2022

Quilt.AI. (2020, November 24). RVs and America: An enduring love story. Medium. Retrieved July 13, 2022

 

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