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When technological innovation brought early twentieth-century Americans the liberating effects of the automobile, it also produced ancillary developments in terms of vacation, travel, and shelter. Long-distance auto travel led many Americans to use tents or lean-tos in roadside areas, but trailers and recreational vehicles (RVs) would not begin to appear until the 1920s. What began as haphazard homemade contraptions have evolved into a major industry constructing lavish homes on wheels.

Following the model of the "gypsy kit," which started being marketed in 1909, manufacturers sold trailers and trucks possessing enclosed living areas. The liberation of the American traveler had reached a new level. RVs would become identified with complete autonomy because they represented fully transportable shelter. One of the first applications of the new RVs had little to do with the independence of the open road; instead the military made this form of temporary shelter part of many endeavors. During World War II, trailers replaced tents in the field, and, on the domestic side, trailers became overflow housing outside of military bases.

As leisure time and road quality increased after World War II, many Americans began to purchase RVs for lengthy summer travel, particularly in the American West where motels were rare. Tourist travel fed by the interstate highway system, which had been begun in the late 1950s, made even remote areas of the United States potential tourist destinations. Even infamous commercial sites such as Wall Drug in South Dakota or South of the Border in South Carolina could manufacture a tourist industry through excessive signage along interstates carrying travelers to destinations such as Mt. Rushmore and the southern beaches, respectively. And the popularity of RVs increased as new models—some with the towing vehicle incorporated into the design—appeared after 1950.

Many retirees found such mobility ideal; some even sold their homes in order to own an Airstream trailer or a Winnebago RV. The Airstream culture is one of the nation's most unique. The easily recognizable Airstream trailer campers have a bullet-like, metallic, industrial appearance that makes little claim to aesthetics. This utilitarian design, however, has gathered a huge amount of appreciators, including clubs such as the Vintage Airstream Club. Led by the Wally Byam Foundation, named after Airstream's founder, and with the purpose to "support people to people understanding through trailer travel," Airstreamers have led the way in transforming a form of travel into a culture of its own. With organized trips, called caravans, Airstreamers can be seen throughout the America's highway system.

In the end, RVs have had little to do with outdoor adventure and exploration. By the end of the twentieth century, american families seeking outdoor exploration continued to use tents and hike into areas difficult—if not impossible—for the large-sized RVs to travel. RVs had instead become part of road tourism particularly for retired couples. RVs represent the pinnacle of American mobility, making it possible for Americans to remain "on the road" for as long as they like. This mobility has led Americans of many different ages to explore distant locations along the open road.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Edwards, Carlton M. Homes for Travel and Living: The History and Development of the Recreation Vehicle and Mobile Industries. East Lansing, Michigan, C. Edwards, 1977.

Farlow, Bill, and Sharlene Minshall. Freedom Unlimited: The Fun and Facts of Fulltime RVing, edited by Liz McGowen. Lake Forest, Illinois, Woodall Publishing, 1994.

Pollard, Ted. King of the Road: The Beginner's Guide to RV Travel. Radnor, Pennsylvania, Remington Press, 1993.