Updating American RV History – Part One

by Andrew Woodmansey

Part One – Health Seekers and Ambulance Wagons

Why does American RV history need to be brought up to date? Because over the last decade or so literally millions of old newspapers, photos and books have been digitised by libraries and museums around the world. This has allowed us to make new discoveries that can now be incorporated into what we already know about the early history of the North American RV. 

First of all, we need to update the romantic notion that the North American RV is descended from the covered wagon. Whilst we all know that the biggest US travel trailer manufacturer of the 1930s was called Covered Wagon, this name was simply the playful notion of founder Arthur Sherman’s children rather than an accurate reference to the DNA of early RVs.

Most covered wagons of the early settlers including the Conestoga wagon and the prairie schooner were designed to carry goods. When settlers slept on the trails they mainly did so under the stars, in tents or under their wagons. Instead, it was the converted ambulance wagon that is a much closer relative to the first North American RVs.  They helped thousands of so-called ‘health seekers’ to escape the consumption (tuberculosis) outbreaks along the east coast in the mid to late nineteenth century. It was the search for better health that sowed the seeds of recreational road travel in North America. This search still continues today.

A US Civil War ambulance (courtesy US Library of Congress)

The ambulance wagon had flat floors, soft springs and vertical walls that provided comfort and shelter along the trails. The first recreational ‘houses on wheels’ that started rolling through North American settlements in the 1880s and 1890s adapted or replicated the size and shape of the ambulance trailer rather than the covered wagon.

Second, we need to update the notion that the first ever RV was both American and motorised (the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau is often mentioned in this context). The term ‘recreational vehicle’ was not used by dealers until about 1940 and referred at the time to leisure vehicles with engines or towed by autos. But if we really want to understand where the RV truly came from then we should not ignore the horse-drawn RV. 

Leisure and health travellers along with hunters were taking trips into the wilderness in converted ambulance, farm and army wagons from the 1880s onwards, but the first North American, purpose-built, horse-drawn RV that we know of was the McMaster Camping Car of 1889. This came five years after Dr. Gordon Stables’ Wanderer built in England in about 1884.

The McMaster Camping Car (1889, courtesy US National Park Service)

McMaster built his camping car for personal use but when others saw it they were keen to have one too, including Yellowstone National Park camping tour operators Wylie & Wilson. Two McMaster Camping Cars were used in the park for the 1892 season, but this new form of competition was not welcomed by the park’s existing hotel and railroad operators. Despite alleged harassment by established operators, Wylie & Wilson discontinued the use of the camping cars after one season because they could not carry enough passengers to be profitable.

Further information and period photos on health seekerscovered wagons and the McMaster Camping Car are available at rvhistory.com

In the next blog we shall explore how North American RVs were not as commonly thought the first of their kind in the world.

Andrew Woodmansey is the Australian-based author of a new book on the early history of RVs called Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 available to purchase in all good bookshops both online and in the real world. He also has a blog at rvhistory.com.

3 comments

  1. I enjoyed this piece on the history of the RV much better than the interviews with new members. Thank you.

  2. I’d agree that Conestoga and other covered wagons going West hauled a lot of family possessions and the families mostly walked along side and camped out. It is said that about 70% of the wagons on the Oregon Trail were Studebakers.

    Airstream’s Wally Byam reportedly herded sheep as a youth and enjoyed the comforts of a sheep herders wagon. Around Baker, OR where he was born. The ones I’ve seen have four wheels but his may have had two. These had a Basic kitchen, stove, bed and were enclosed. I still see several around in the West

    Another early travel trailer was most likely the gypsy wagon. I suppose other chatauqua, carnival, circus, religious revival, medicine show, and traveling sales folk utilized some form of horse drawn traveling living quarters. Not sure if the cook slept in the chuckwagons that came into being for the post Civil War cattle drives.

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