Hitch Up to Luxury
By Diane DeBlois
The first enthusiasts for camping with an automobile spent much ingenuity devising ways to incorporate tents, cookstoves, and other gear into running boards and rumble seats. Elton Jessup's The Motor Camping Book of 1921 was full of the conviction that "the fun of motor camping" was the way "to health and happiness" while following "the gypsy call of nomadic ancestors." Jessup passed on a myriad of nifty ideas including designs for auto-tents.
But even Jessup included a chapter on more luxurious auto-camping: with a trailer. He recommended the Adams Motor Bungalo - designed by Glenn H. Curtiss and named for G. Carl Adams, his partner and younger half-brother. Curtiss, after his success with airplane design, wanted more comfort than a tent for his hunting and fishing road trips, and created the Adams trailer using aircraft building techniques. The Bungalo had: two full-length dustproof clothes closets; storage for a gun and fishing pole; food lockers that opened from inside or outside; a water tank; an ice chest; "absolutely insect proof" screens; a steel kitchenette; table seating for six; felt mattresses; and an electric light. Advertising promised the driver could break camp in three minutes.
A more modern trailer manufacturer called one model the Conestoga - but the pioneer wagon of the plains was more an ancestor of the U-Haul van than the progenitor of the luxury camper. That distinction might go to a special hunting coach built for Medora, Madame de Mores, an aristocratic confederate of Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota badlands. Her husband, a Marquis, went to great lengths to provide luxury in the 1880s wilds and, since she was a better shot than he, brought her on expeditions - in her specialcoach equipped with folding bunks, kitchen, china, silver, and linens.
Curtiss, too, upgraded his idea for comfortable camping. Only about 100 Bungalos were sold, and the business folded in 1922. But Carl G. Fisher (of Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamp fortune) joined Curtiss to produce the Aerocar in 1928 - an aerodynamic "land yacht" that was light and luxurious. Passengers could lounge in armchairs and play cards while listening to a Philco radio - all the while treated to an almost wrap-around view. There was a private chemical toilet and a full kitchen that doubled as a shower, and concealed Pullman-type bunks.
Curtiss died in 1930, and the Depression economy made his Aerocar difficult to sell to camping enthusiasts. So the company diversified by promoting it as a portable showroom (used to sell Norge Refrigerators, Grolier Encyclopedias, among other products) or an upscale shuttle vehicle. In 1937, the first air-conditioned Aerocar appeared with a Plesantaire option generated by the tow car.
Aerocars and their ilk provided wonderful models for Carl Rose's cartoon that was published in The New Yorker, March 7, 1936: "A Caravan of California Millionaires, Fleeing Eastward from the State Income Tax, Encamps for the Night in Hostile Wisconsin Territory." The original ink drawing (The Melvin R. Seiden Collection at The Morgan Library) bears the inscription: "To Governor LaFollette, Take good care of these campers, Phil!" (Philip Fox La Follette had been elected governor of Wisconsin for a second term in 1935.)The rich Californians are depicted with their luxury trailers drawn into a circle, enjoying all the comforts of home, including the service of maids and butlers.
Post World War II, the promotion of camping trailers still emphasized home comforts - but not for plutocrats. The big winner in the field was another byproduct of the aviation industry, the Airstream, created in 1936 by Wally Byam from designs, at first, by William Hawley Bowlus, the builder of The Spirit of St. Louis. Byam was a tireless promoter of the Airstreams - whose owners quickly established themselves as loyal leaders of the trailer camping explosion. Advertising promised the Airstream to be comfortable and homey "in a ship shape way." It was "an efficient instrument" that inspired confidence, while offering campers solid Middle Class luxury.
George L. Hoppes of Foley, Alabama, in 1947 self-published a paean to camping "From a Trailer Door" - admitting that his wife was not as keen as he on such a vacation mode, but declaring his allegiance to the complete self-sufficiency.
A writer for France Illustration's special automotive issue for 1948 leased a "trailer" or a "regular house on wheels" (phrases which he rendered in English) and set about crossing the country from New York, via Montreal, and Cheyenne, to Los Angeles. He was impressed with the quality of the major highways, praised the helpfulness of Americans, andphotographed the line-up of gas stations near Santa Fe. He declared his home on wheels to be the ultimate in democratic travel, and more luxurious than many a European hotel.
The design of camping trailers continues to provide more and more comforts associated with fixed homesteads, but a parallel emphasis has been placed on providing luxuries at trailer parks. As the business card for Healing Waters Trailer Village in Desert Hot Springs, California, shows, campers in 1960 could sleep in their trailers but enjoy the amenities of a spa resort.
(This article first appeared in the Journal of Commercial Archeology.)
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