A century ago, the popularization of the automobile, improving roads and
America’s passion for exploration gave rise to mass-produced,
manufactured recreation vehicles, and the RV industry was born.
In 1910, William Howard Taft was president, Ty Cobb won the
American League batting title, Jack Johnson was heavyweight boxing
champion of the world and the Boy Scouts of America was founded. There
were few gas stations, few paved roads and no highway system. But there
were RVs. Through war and peace, booms and busts, fuel lines, fads and
the cyber revolution, the RV lifestyle has endured and is still going
strong, even in today’s challenging economic times.
“Think about how far we’ve come in the past 100 years in terms in
technology, yet the reasons to RV remain the same,” says Richard Coon,
president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. “RVing has
been able to thrive and grow because people still enjoy the freedom that
The industry will celebrate its centennial in 2010 with a series of events that highlight its proud past and bright future.
“Recognizing and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the RV
industry is a unique opportunity to tell our story to the media and
public,” says Coon. The industry’s anniversary will showcase today’s
innovations and new products while emphasizing America’s century-long
love affair with RVs.
The roots of RVing are as old as pioneers and covered wagons. But
1910 is the year that America’s leading RV historians – David Woodworth,
Al Hesselbart and Roger White – cite as the true beginning of this
uniquely American industry.
“The first motorized campers were built in 1910,” says Woodworth.
“Before then, people had private rail cars that were pulled to sidings
along train routes. The year 1910 brought a new freedom to people who
didn’t want to be limited by the rail system. RVs allowed them to go
where they wanted, when they wanted.”
Hesselbart, archivist for the RV/MH Heritage Museum in Elkhart,
Ind., also pinpoints 1910 as the birth of the RV industry. “Camping has
been around for centuries, but 1910 is when the first auto-related
camping vehicles were built for commercial sale.”
Known as auto campers a century ago, these motorized vehicles were a forerunner of today’s modern motorhomes.
“There were one-offs [individual units] being built prior to 1910,”
says White, associate curator division of work and industry for the
Smithsonian Institution. “But 1910 is a good benchmark for the
“The 1910 RVs offered minimal comforts compared to today’s
homes-on-wheels,” says Woodworth. “But they did provide the freedom to
travel anywhere, to be able to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy home
cooking. One notable exception to today’s RV was the bathroom. In 1910,
it was usually either yonder tree or yonder bush.”
Hesselbart points out that one brand of auto camper in those days
was equipped with a bathroom onboard. “Pierce-Arrow’s ‘Touring Landau’
had a potted toilet,” he says. A version of today’s Class B van camper,
the Pierce-Arrow “Touring Landau,” was unveiled at Madison Square Garden
In addition to Pierce-Arrow, there were several other companies or
auto-body builders producing motorized RVs. These companies and
innovative products were featured in a Popular Mechanics issue in 1911,
but Woodworth says the motorhomes highlighted in the article were
actually built in 1910.
Camping trailers made by Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto-Kamp
Trailers also rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910. Hesselbart
says the earliest RV on display at the RV/MH Museum is a 1913 trailer,
ancestor of the contemporary travel trailer.
Photos of 1910 RV models appear in White’s book on the history of
RVing and exist in both Woodworth’s and Hesselbart’s libraries. RVing
travel author Harry Basch lists 1910 as the beginning of the “first
mass-produced RVs” in his Frommer’s Guide: “Exploring America by RV,”
published in 2008.
“Celebrating our centennial will create excitement and pride
throughout our made-in-America industry and provide an opportunity for
manufacturers, dealers, suppliers and campground owners to unite under
one banner,” says Coon. “For 100 years, we’ve been helping Americans
explore their scenic treasures and heritage more comfortably, affordably
and enjoyably. That’s something to celebrate as a nation.”