Editor’s Note: The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) released the following “white paper” last week during the 47th Annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., to help kick off the industry’s centennial celebration in 2010.
A century ago, the popularization of the automobile, improving roads and America’s passion for exploration gave rise to mass-produced, manufactured recreation vehicles, and the RV industry was born.
In 1910, William Howard Taft was president, Ty Cobb won the American League batting title, Jack Johnson was heavyweight boxing champion of the world and the Boy Scouts of America was founded. There were few gas stations, few paved roads and no highway system. But there were RVs. Through war and peace, booms and busts, fuel lines, fads and the cyber revolution, the RV lifestyle has endured and is still going strong, even in today’s challenging economic times.
“Think about how far we’ve come in the past 100 years in terms in technology, yet the reasons to RV remain the same,” says Richard Coon, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. “RVing has been able to thrive and grow because people still enjoy the freedom that it provides.”
The industry will celebrate its centennial in 2010 with a series of events that highlight its proud past and bright future.
“Recognizing and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the RV industry is a unique opportunity to tell our story to the media and public,” says Coon. The industry’s anniversary will showcase today’s innovations and new products while emphasizing America’s century-long love affair with RVs.
The roots of RVing are as old as pioneers and covered wagons. But 1910 is the year that America’s leading RV historians — David Woodworth, Al Hesselbart and Roger White — cite as the true beginning of this uniquely American industry.
“The first motorized campers were built in 1910,” says Woodworth. “Before then, people had private rail cars that were pulled to sidings along train routes. The year 1910 brought a new freedom to people who didn’t want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go where they wanted, when they wanted.”
Hesselbart, archivist for the RV/MH Heritage Museum in Elkhart, Ind., also pinpoints 1910 as the birth of the RV industry. “Camping has been around for centuries, but 1910 is when the first auto-related camping vehicles were built for commercial sale.”
Known as auto campers a century ago, these motorized vehicles were a forerunner of today’s modern motorhomes.
“There were one-offs [individual units] being built prior to 1910,” says White, associate curator division of work and industry for the Smithsonian Institution. “But 1910 is a good benchmark for the industry.”
“The 1910 RVs offered minimal comforts compared to today’s homes-on-wheels,” says Woodworth. “But they did provide the freedom to travel anywhere, to be able to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy home cooking. One notable exception to today’s RV was the bathroom. In 1910, it was usually either yonder tree or yonder bush.”
Hesselbart points out that one brand of auto camper in those days was equipped with a bathroom onboard. “Pierce-Arrow’s ‘Touring Landau’ had a potted toilet,” he says. A version of today’s Class B van camper, the Pierce-Arrow “Touring Landau,” was unveiled at Madison Square Garden in 1910.
In addition to Pierce-Arrow, there were several other companies or auto-body builders producing motorized RVs. These companies and innovative products were featured in a Popular Mechanics issue in 1911, but Woodworth says the motorhomes highlighted in the article were actually built in 1910.
Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp Trailers also rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910. Hesselbart says the earliest RV on display at the RV/MH Museum is a 1913 trailer, ancestor of the contemporary travel trailer.
Photos of 1910 RV models appear in White’s book on the history of RVing and exist in both Woodworth’s and Hesselbart’s libraries. RVing travel author Harry Basch lists 1910 as the beginning of the “first mass-produced RVs” in his Frommer’s Guide: “Exploring America by RV,” published in 2008.
“Celebrating our centennial will create excitement and pride throughout our made-in-America industry and provide an opportunity for manufacturers, dealers, suppliers and campground owners to unite under one banner,” says Coon. “For 100 years, we’ve been helping Americans explore their scenic treasures and heritage more comfortably, affordably and enjoyably. That’s something to celebrate as a nation.”