RV History:The Tin Can Tourists
They called themselves “Tin Can Tourists.” They braved the dust and mud to drive their tin lizzies across the United States before transcontinental roads were paved, camping by the side of the road, heating tin cans of food on a gasoline stove, and bathing in cold water. They dressed in their Sunday clothes in the days before jogging suits and running shoes. A photograph of one 1920s camping club shows owners in front of their Weidman Camp Body vehicles, the men in fedoras, suits, and ties, and the women in dresses, cloche hats, stockings, and high-heeled shoes.
It took ingenuity to travel across the country in those days before the first motel, which opened in 1925 in California. In 1921, for instance, Lee Scoles of Fort Wayne, Indiana, converted his 1916 Federal truck to “a house on wheels” and drove it on an 8-month, round-trip journey to San Francisco with 11 relatives aboard. Such additions as solid rubber tires, a canvas awning, cots, a stove, and washtubs added to their comfort, according to his granddaughter Alice Worman, herself a motor home owner, who chronicled the story in Lifestyles, one of many such publications dedicated to RVing.
According to a story in RV West magazine, the family of Charles Ulrich set out for California in 1929 in a General Motors truck body mounted on a Ford chassis, with built-in bunks, overhead wardrobe storage, and a dining table with six folding chairs. The interior was polished mahogany and on the rear was a caboose-type open platform with iron railings. After their “once-in-a-lifetime” trip, which continued on to Hawaii aboard a Matson Line cruise ship, the Ulrichs stored the camper until the 1960s, when it was purchased by a group of hunters to serve as a forest base camp.
Originally, auto camping was regarded as a rich man’s hobby. The well publicized outings of auto manufacturer Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, naturalist John Burroughs, and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, who called themselves “the four vagabonds” as they camped in America’s parks, had paved the way. Interestingly, it was the affordability and popularity of Henry Ford’s Model T, which made its debut in 1909 that helped bring auto camping to the average American.
- The first campgrounds were free, built and maintained by cities and towns hoping to attract affluent travelers who would spend money while they were in town. In the days before World War I, only the affluent had the time and money to go auto camping. When Ford’s Model T made auto camping affordable for everyone, campgrounds started charging fees to discourage some of the overflow crowds.
- One early pair of auto campers was a couple who were fearful their new travel trailer might pull the rear end off their car, so the husband drove the car and the wife sat in the trailer for the entire journey watching the car’s rear end to make sure nothing happened to it.
- Highways were notoriously bad in the early days. Quotes from the memoirs of some 1924 auto campers who termed themselves “Modern Gypsies” and wrote about a local resident telling them, “That’s a good road; somebody just made it through there yesterday.” Later, he says, the travelers commented, “When we left New York for Chicago, we were motorists. When we left Chicago for California, we were pioneers.”