Home in a Can: When Trailers Offered a Compact Version of the American Dream

People buy trailers to go camping in or to live in more permanently, but while the two living styles have diverged, the trailers they use overlap a lot. Tiny campers are used as permanent homes, while vacation travel trailers can be bigger than many site-built homes. Mike Closen and John Brunkowski are such trailer enthusiasts that they've written seven books on the subject, the latest being Don’t Call Them Trailer Trash: The Illustrated Mobile Home Story. Closen tells the story of how Americans fell in love with trailers.

Closen: In the late 19th century, we started having campgrounds and campsites in the U.S. and Canada, and tent campers were often delivered to the site via train. The wealthiest people in Canada and England continued to go on extended tours of the countryside by rail up until the late 1930s and early ’40s. Instead of using a travel trailer or tent, they would hire an entire lavishly appointed train car, and they brought their servants to attend to them. Their train car would be towed along, and then placed on a railroad siding for a period of time so the tourists could see the sights. Then the car would be picked up by another train and towed to the next location for a sizable sum of money. It was, again, a sort of mobile home. At least temporarily, these rich folk were living out of a train car.

When automobiles were first mass-produced in the United States around 1900, Americans who could afford vehicles began auto camping. You used your car as part of the camper. People would drive their car down the road, stop somewhere remote on the roadside, and then set up a tent-like contraption. Sometimes they attached a canvas sheet to the top of the car and then propped the other side up with poles. Sometimes they’d park two cars next to one another and stretch a canvas between the tops of the cars.

On the very earliest truck chassis, people would build shelters that had fold-out devices similar to today’s slide-outs that could be covered in tent canvas. By the 1920s, Americans were making their own trailers they could attach to the back of their cars and tow. These early trailers tended to be very short because you didn’t have a very powerful vehicle to pull it. They were rickety contraptions, built of every conceivable material, mostly wood and the sort of canvas that would have been used on a covered wagon.

Collectors Weekly: Where did the campers go?

Closen: They’d show up in established parks or pull over to the side of the road and camp on empty-seeming farmland, although certainly they were trespassing on private property. By the 1920s, a lot of municipalities figured out that all these people traveling along the roadways needed a place to go. Several thousand parks or camps sprang up along the highways of America. Those would’ve had primitive outhouse facilities, but not much more than that. With each passing year and decade, those facilities expanded and improved. Almost immediately, as building trailers to camp and reside in caught on, there was an instant parallel growth and development of places for them to go. They were called tourist parks, trailer parks, tourist camps, and fish camps—which, by the way, didn’t help. That was more of the trailer-trash stereotype: “Oh, there’s a fish camp down the road where you can stay.”

Along the way, the tourism industry grew up to serve the campers, and communities were established for more permanent mobile homes. Read the story of the trailer at Collectors Weekly.

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"vacation travel trailers can be bigger than many site-built homes."

Wait... What? The biggest travel trailers are only as large as small as studio apartments. Even depression-era homes were considerably larger. Where are these site-built houses of less than 400sq.ft.? Smaller than a 1-car garage. Is that even allowed by modern building codes? The CW article talks about mobile homes being larger than some houses, but certainly not travel trailers.
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