America’s early RV users began to get organized in 1919. The ‘Tin Can Tourists’ was America’s first RV club. They formed at Desoto Park in Tampa, Florida in 1919 in order to ‘unite fraternally all autocampers’. A secondary objective was to clearly distinguish those who camped by choice from those who travelled due to economic hardship. The confusion between the two groups caused much frustration to early recreational campers.
According to current Tin Can Tourist ‘Royal Chief’ Terry Bone, the group was named after the Ford Model T used by many members and known affectionately as the Tin Lizzie. Members’ vehicles would be recognized by a tin can on their automobile radiators which qualified them for discounted fuel at selected gas stations. Joining the group required learning a secret handshake, password and the organisation’s song. The head of the organisation was called the ‘Royal Can Opener’ which was changed to ‘Royal Chief’ in 1935.
Meetings of ‘Canners’, known as Homecomings, Winter Conventions or Going Home meets, were held around the country, with the Winter Convention taking place in Florida each year. By 1921, the organisation had 17,000 members in the USA and Canada which swelled to over 100,000 in 1924. Initially regarded with some scepticism by local communities and the media, the Tin Can Tourists were by the 1930s broadly welcomed. During the 1930s, trailer manufacturers would often attend the Canners’ camps in order to sell their trailers.
The major contribution of Tin Can Tourists to RV history in America was the creation of a community of like-minded people who could come together regardless of the type of RV they owned. They cemented the RV as a recognized, democratic and enjoyable leisure pursuit, creating in the process an important social and photographic record of camping with vehicles during the 1920s and 1930s. The organisation continued to hold meets into the 1980s and was re-formed in 1998.
from Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 by Andrew Woodmansey published by Pen & Sword Books.
Andrew Woodmansey is an RV historian based in Sydney, Australia. His book Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939 is published by Pen & Sword and is available to buy here. Andrew also has a blog at rvhistory.com.