Taken for granted today, motor camping in the early 20th century had been widely regarded as a novelty. As such, auto travelers were often referred to as “motor gypsies,” named after the nomadic people known for traveling in horse-drawn caravans. Later, they also came to be known as “tin can tourists.”
However, it wasn’t until the 1920s before vacationing by car really took off. Widely publicized trips of the rich and famous created a growing interest in motor camping. In his book, RVs & Campers: 1900-2000, Donald F. Wood references excursions undertaken by Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford as being the most influential. Between 1915 and 1924, they made a point to travel together almost every year, with their first trip taking them along the California coast.
From a practical standpoint, motor camping possessed economic advantages, something manufacturers of camping equipment continually emphasized in their advertisements. Being able to travel and sleep in one’s car meant pricey hotel bills and rail ticket fees were a thing of the past. According to the 1926 edition of Motor Camping, a family of five adults reportedly spent only $101.03 ($66.76 for food, $34.27 for gas & oil) on a thirty-one day trip from Minnesota to Missouri. After factoring in potential costs of hotel bills, meals and rail tickets they saved an estimated $820.90 ($10,349.39 in today’s currency).
Motor homes were the most comfortable option, as well as the most expensive. In 1917, the Wiedman Body Company of New York offered a completely equipped (kitchen, shower/bath, furniture, etc.) “house car” body on a Ford TT 1 ton chassis for the steep price of $1,830. While most early camper bodies were designed by coach builders and crafted from wood, it wasn’t unheard of for an individual to custom build their own. In the latter case, one could either build off of a commercial chassis or modify a used car. Some people, like breakfast cereal mogul W.K. Kellog even went so far as to have buses converted into traveling homes, every bit the forerunners of today’s RVs.
The vast majority of early motor tourists used tents, stashing their gear on the running boards. In addition to freestanding units, lean-to tents converted one’s automobile into a moveable living space with the car itself serving as a mobile dressing room. As their name would suggest, these tents attached to the roof of the car and were draped over the side.
Lean-to tents ranged in variety from simple stand-alone models to more complex pieces like the Tentobed, made by the Tentobed Company of Chicago, Illinois. One Tentobed advertisement from 1920 depicted a tent with a foldout cot, table, clothesline and screen windows complete with rollup window shades. Some tents, such as the Stoll Auto Bed, extended from both sides of the car. With a spring mattress bed big enough for two, a 1919 ad claimed it gave “Camp Comfort Supreme.”
For those who disliked tents, one could turn their automobile into a self-contained bedroom by purchasing an auto bed, such as the Outers Equipment Company’s 1922 Folding Ford Bed. “Ready for use in 4 minutes,” setup was a breeze; the mattress was mounted over the seats and held in place with supporting rods. For protecting touring cars in wet weather, some auto bed accessories came equipped with tarpaulins.
Once the Great Depression hit in 1929 images of “Hoovervilles,” impoverished shantytowns, all but killed the appeal of camping in tents. While early trailers usually featured collapsible tents, fully enclosed trailers known as “motor bungalows,” made their first appearance in the 20s and rose in popularity within the next decade. By 1936, there were more than eight hundred American trailer manufacturers, a dramatic jump from 1932 considering there were less than forty.