Part of reviving the strenuous life meant self-sufficiency in the pre-industrial age, which in itself was an oxymoron as the entire activity was dependent on one of the most radical inventions of its age. Nevertheless motorists were determined to live simply off the land as their ancestors did. The modern man was alienated from the land and the natural state of man by his luxuries and comforts of technology. John Burroughs wrote, “Discomfort is, after all, what the camper-out is conconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.”
Searching for a symbol of struggle, the Progressive Era travelers found the dust itself their red badge of courage. Maxims such as “Pardon My Dust” or “Just a Little Dusty” prevailed over any standard of cleanliness. Tall tales of motoring developed on the roadsides. The pride of conquering mother nature was like nothing else of its age. The motorist was a man with a skill. The automobile was not the most refined technology of its day and certainly gave the drivers enough to talk about. The automobile became a comrade of the motorist. At night the car became a bed and in the morning the radiator, a grill. The mutual reliance of the motorist and automobile led to the naming of these new citizens of America, Lizzie, Bouncing Betsy, Galloping Goose.
This race of motorist were distinctively not tourists. Tourism had connotations of the Eastern or European and gentility. These sightseers and escapists were strictly travelers, from the root travail. They formed a community that banded together in its rejection of standards of living that most conformed to come Monday. Without road maps, guidebooks, weather updates, or roads for that matter, motorists had to rely upon the word of mouth news passed.
Very wealthy motorists like Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton fell into the romance of travel easily because they were assured that there would be a warm hotel bed awaiting them. Most other motorists were not so lucky. Because the price of the car, even at its lowest, was still a stretch for most middle class citizens, the emphasis on a thrifty vacation was important. Gas prices were reasonable as long as one stayed within a couple hundred miles of home. Those who traveled far west from the east coast were primarily of the leisure class. The country inn was a possibility; however, there were costs associated with that too. The hotel rubbed the wrong way with romantic motorists. Because there were very few country inns they filled up quickly during peak seasons. Also, dinner was served at 5pm and required a dress code that meant bathing beforehand for the dusty motorist. These factors meant that the meandering traveler had to exert a lot more attention to 'making miles'. This was bordering on the same strictness of railroad timetables. To make matters worse, some hotels served breakfast as late as 8am cutting severely into the early morning time when the roads were their driest and firmest. Moreover, lunch was served slowly in order to preserve graciousness, but many times restaurants were only open for an hour or two at noon. Many were never served. Hard-core motorists resented this scheduling that cut into their freedom. Many exclaimed, you might as well take the train.
This new outrage spurned a renewed emphasis on the benefits of outdoor camping. The autocamping arena became the thriving institution. It was free and encouraged comradery among travelers. They described the aura of the autocamp as profoundly anonymous but also intimate. Many believed that sleeping outdoors in fresh air was good for the nerves and settled the citified mind.
The autocamp also aided in reuniting the estranged family members. In the city, with the father and possibly other members at work all day, the family practically had to be reintroduced. Outdoor camping allowed the father to be the leader of the family. To camping there was a sport that could not exist in a hotel; fishing, golfing, camping, and cooking outdoors. The kids could play outdoors with their newly liberated mother. Breaking out of the Victorian mentality women no longer desired to live the idle lifestyle. The hotels also made the dusty motorist feel unwelcome. The disinterested staff and bellhops seemed only to be wanting tips. The dirt that was once there badge of victory became a badge of shame when the wealthier class looked down upon the filthy roadies. In the autocamping setting one could feel entirely comfortable in what was normally considered only appropriate in the backstage social arena.
These freewheelers adopted auto-kitchenettes and collapsible furniture to aid in their automobility. Why stay at a hotel when your Model T had all the same accommodations? Hotel food had pretentious European names but tasted mediocre at best. Moreover, the autocamp was free.
Of course this idyllic setting could not last. These bohemians who began by taking the road less traveled were followed by money and institutionalization. The year 1920 began municipal autocamps, denomadicizing the masses. It was estimated that 9 million Americans would go autocamping in 1921 and the public officials were concerned about the growing number of trespassing cases. Enforcement of trespassing incurred and fees levied were higher. AAA encouraged “to autocamp upon others as you would have others autocamp on you.” The idea of establishing free autocamps appealed to both the motorists and the officials. Public sanitation and spread of diseases through polluted streams was very possible. They would also prevent campers from squatting where they were not wanted.
The autocamp was proposed to be the universal solvent between divided groups of class or demographics. All people rich or poor, urbane or bumpkins could gather together because everyone had a ticket, an automobile. Although American classes were hardly distinguishable by clothing in comparison to Europeans, in the motor camping realm everyone truly wore the same clothes. It was appropriate to be weather-beaten, but one must always be generous and friendly to strangers.
Free autocamps last from about 1920 to 1924, because 1923 marked the beginning of limited access autocamps. The myth of the camp as a melting pot, a kind of Randolph Bourne idea of squeezing the poison out of the roots of travelers (Transnational America, 1916). The 1920s marked the beginning of Ford's new partial payment plans which allowed more people to own automobiles. Many of the 19.2 million in 1926 were “good” middle class citizens, however many were socially and economically marginal whose automobile was a good investment as a home, too. The Model T became a permanent residence for some. This broke the social code of the wanderlust idealism, because one was never supposed to yield completely to the fever of vagabondage. It was understood that motorists would return to their jobs in due time. These marginal motorists were freeriding on the autocamps and merged into a class of “undesirables”.
The undesirables were the year-round tourist. Curiosities arose questioning the new race that arose with the car. Was the automobile to blame or the travelers? The intoxicating freedom that came with driving was difficult to overcome. For many it was more economically viable to live from a car all year, for many women it was liberating to be freed from housework. While middle class citizens did not necessarily want to associate with these tin can tourists, they did admire their independence and sense of community. However, it was the romantically defiant ones they admired. The charity cases often clashed too much with the Protestant work ethic that ran rampant through America. Belasco describes it as a traditionalist backlash. The problems of the increasingly crowded and dirty autocamps had to be blamed on someone - the flivver bums. Where people went to “get away from it all” were noisy all night because of engines, full of traffic, and new efficiencies proved impersonal.
New technologies also altered the natural setting. Radios and phonographs drowned out the chirping crickets and singing of birds. It was advertised as a camping “gadget” to break up the monotony of nature. But the music, alcohol, and rowdiness put off many campers who had old ideas of peaceful motoring. Also sanitation services were most of the time inadequate. The major dangers were dysentery, typhoid, and diarrhea. Touring journals and magazines again encouraged motorists to pay what they owe to the kind stranger who willingly provided a clean place to sleep at night. Paying for autocamping helped draw a distinction between respectable tourists and bums.
The pursuit of leisure travel, especially as it has been practiced in Southern California, has been a source of intense interest to historians and enthusiasts since it began more than a century ago. Few geographical regions can boast better weather, a more beautiful landscape, and finer recreation opportunities than the Southland. Combined, these attributes have made Los Angeles a consistently attractive destination to motorists, their families, and friends. The automobiles, trucks, and camp cars these fun seekers drove and the trailers they towed were among the world's earliest recreational vehicles and often made as much an impression on visitors as the sights they came to see.
Originally transported in covered wagons (many of which were built by pioneering automaker Studebaker long before they began producing cars), the first visitors did not come to tour, but to stay. Their journeys were arduous and had little to do with getting away from it all, but the opportunities waiting for them were judged to make the effort worthwhile. Literally “blazing the trail” from east to west, these pioneers established cities and towns in which to live and eventually became prosperous enough to afford to take time off. The wealthiest among them used their considerable free time to take trains and ships on extensive vacations throughout North America and abroad, but the large majority rarely ventured farther in a day than they could travel to and back again on a horse.
The beginnings of long distance automobile travel were characterized by bad roads that were poorly marked and featured few facilities for motorists. Originally called “motor touring,” exploring the countryside by car for even a short distance was at first considered a daring adventure. Early in the twentieth century, most cars were unreliable, underpowered, and not sturdy enough to hold up to the rigors of towing a trailer or carrying heavy luggage and camping gear. During this time only the wealthy could afford to tour by car, which would almost certainly have been driven by a chauffeur. Far more expensive, larger, and powerful than the workaday Curved Dash Oldsmobiles and other low priced cars that were becoming popular, some of these vehicles were equipped with picnic tables, running water, hidden commodes, and other travel conveniences for the comfort of occupants. Roof racks, running boards, and rear mounted folding trunk carriers accommodated the inevitably large amount of luggage they took to such destinations as luxury hotels, lodges, or other forms of fashionably civilized accommodation.
Now well known for his wildly successful Model T, Henry Ford had a strong desire for all Americans to see and explore their homeland so that they could appreciate it as much as he did. By building a car affordable enough “for the great multitude,” he made it possible for average workers to buy automobiles that would allow them to venture farther from home than they could have imagined a short time earlier. As this new “and newly mobile” class of city dwellers became nostalgic for their rural roots, they took to the road in greater numbers (whether in Ford vehicles or those from other manufacturers), forming numerous camping clubs. One such club was the “Tin Can Tourists,” an organization whose name was derived in part from its strong initial connection to Ford's ubiquitous “Tin Lizzy,” the Model T.
By 1920 steadily improving roads and more powerful, reliable, and affordable vehicles made driving ever greater distances to one's destination practical. Since trains and hotels of the day were costly and required travelers to adhere to rigid schedules, autocamping offered an economical alternative that gave vacationers the flexibility to explore America at their leisure. As the popularity of auto camping increased, “roughing it” was the norm since working class vacationers were not able to take with them all but the most basic comforts of home. Candles were used for lighting, rocks and tree stumps were used for sitting, and campfires for cooking and heating. There were no radios, televisions, or other electric appliances and few thought to take with them the recreational sports equipment that became popular during the 1950s and 1960s. There was precious little time to indulge in pursuits such as pleasure boating in the summer and tobogganing in the winter when there was a tent to assemble, a campfire to start, and dinner to catch.
Already known for its year-round good weather and substantial share of interesting tourist destinations such as the beaches, mountains, and deserts, California also soon came to be celebrated for its acres of orange groves, peaceful character, and Hollywood mystique. When word spread about these attractions, people from all over the country began to motor to the area driving, carrying, or towing behind them some of the most distinctive and creatively engineered recreational vehicles and equipment of all time. Thanks to the spirit of innovation among manufacturers, a number of which were based in Los Angeles, Southern California soon became as well known for the ingenious vehicles used by vacationers on their journeys as it was for its natural beauty. This rise in the popularity of motor touring prompted the establishment of designated camping areas that were financed by municipalities hoping to attract tourists away from illegal, unsafe, and unsightly temporary camping areas by providing them with basic amenities. By the end of the 1920s, most of these free municipal autocamps gave way to better furnished private campgrounds and the practice of setting up camp became less demanding.
The increasing number of vacationers traveling by car eventually created a burgeoning market for specialized recreational equipment. Large and spacious canvas tents were preferred by those seeking to maximize their temporary living space while a number of manufacturers made specially adapted mattresses that unfolded to transform a touring car into an acceptable form of overnight lodging for one or two adults. Buyers seeking more comfortable housing that did not need to be assembled and disassembled at every stop were obliged to buy regular production cars or trucks and have them custom built and equipped at considerable expense or modify them themselves to save money. Called house cars, the dual-purpose vehicles they created resembled small bungalows on wheels. At first built primarily of wood, they were prohibitively expensive because of the large amount of specialized work required to design and assemble them.
For enthusiasts unable to afford a motorized camping vehicle, the travel trailer was a desirable “and far less costly” alternative. Either rigid or collapsible, trailers provided the convenience, cleanliness and comfort of a cozy cabin, yet could be unhitched so that the tow car could be used for day trips and other outings. Unlike canvas tents, trailers did not have to be laboriously assembled from scratch at every stop and their mostly rigid construction gave occupants an important level of security. Smaller trailers (normally equipped with one axle) usually had a compact stove, icebox, sink, and dining area, while most large trailers (usually fitted with two axles) also featured showers, chemical toilets and multiple bedrooms for greater utility and convenience. Regardless of their size, virtually all trailers had opening windows, wood paneled walls, and sofas that converted into beds.
Virtually unknown to Americans before 1932 (but already common in England), travel trailers became popular so quickly that trailer manufacturing had become one of the fastest growing domestic industries by 1936. One year later, an estimated 400 firms, located primarily in Michigan and Ohio, were in the trailer building business. Not wanting to be left behind, automakers like Pierce-Arrow and Elcar diversified into building house trailers as did auto body suppliers such as Hayes and the Bender Body Corp. Even pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss expanded his operation to include the manufacture of luxurious and expensive travel trailers that were among the first fifth-wheel rigs in the industry.
One of the best known makes of travel trailers, Airstream debuted in 1934. Built in Los Angeles, it was the brainchild of Wally Byam whose dissatisfaction with the do-it-yourself plans offered in magazines of the day prompted him to design and build his own trailer. At first difficult to distinguish from its rivals, Byam's Airstream took on its current airplane-like, shiny aluminum look in 1936, the year after he absorbed the bankrupt Bowlus firm, also based in Los Angeles, and updated the design by changing the location of the door from the front (over the tongue) to the right side.
Whether rigid or foldout, teardrop or full-size, there was a trailer suitable for virtually any need and budget. And although vehicle manufacturers rarely offered trailer towing packages and other specialized options for motor touring prior to World War II, aftermarket firms made such equipment available. In doing so, they enabled autocampers to enjoy comfortable and convenient accommodations long before the establishment of nationwide hotel chains.
As the pursuit of long-distance motor touring grew in popularity, a number of books and magazines were published to educate enthusiasts about the finer points of autocamping such as how to cook, what to wear, what furnishings to bring, how to keep children entertained, and what specialized equipment was being developed to suit their needs. In his 1923 book Autocamping, F.E. Brimmer went so far as to suggest a code of ethics that emphasized the importance of civilized behavior regardless of how uncivilized the surroundings may have been and an understanding of the natural world that would be appreciated by environmentalists even today.
The expansion of America's network of interstate highways slowly evolved throughout the 1930s, enabling visitors to easily access some of the West Coast's most talked about scenic destinations, such as the mountains, deserts, and, with the completion of the Pacific Coast Highway, the beaches. These routes rapidly became dotted with restaurants, motels, parks and campgrounds, the vast majority of which were designed to accommodate sightseers traveling by automobile. To further meet the needs of motorists, many organizations, most notably the Automobile Club of Southern California, increased their range of automobile travel services by offering personalized trip advice, insurance, reservations, and emergency roadside repairs. Along with those from state and national travel and tourism associations, the maps and guidebooks they provided soon came to be regarded as essentials.
The boom in motor touring led to the production of domestically manufactured trailers that, like American cars of the day, steadily grew in size, weight, and luxury. Their spaciousness and civilized trappings led many experts to predict that millions of Americans would be living on wheels by mid century. But by the early 1940s, concerns about impending involvement in the war brought about a sharp drop in the sales and civilian use of recreational vehicles and related equipment of all kinds. When World War II began, gas and tire rationing and patriotic concerns about conserving important resources for the war effort brought about a considerable decline in automobile-related recreational activity. In early 1942 American automakers shifted from producing civilian automobiles to building tanks, jeeps, battleships, bombers, and other war related products. Yet while the golden age of recreational travel appeared to be over, a new era dawned in 1945 when a return to peace signaled a return to the road.