The 100th anniversary of the RV industry will be celebrated next year with an array of activities promoted by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
According to the RVIA, 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—have cited as the beginning of today’s RV industry.
“The first motorized campers were built in 1910,” says Woodworth, a preeminent collector of early RVs and RV camping memorabilia. “Before then, people camped in 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, Indiana, also pinpoints 1910 as the birth of the RV industry. He says, “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” or “camping trailers” a century ago, these vehicles were a forerunner of today’s modern RVs.
“There were one-offs (individual units) built prior to 1910,” says White, an associate curator for the Smithsonian Institution. “But 1910 is a good benchmark for the industry.”
“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 New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1910.
In addition to Pierce-Arrow, several other companies produced 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.
To mark the centennial, RVIA, which represents most of the manufacturers and suppliers in the RV industry, is creating a special 100th anniversary logo and commemorative decal that everyone in the industry will be invited to use in promotions and marketing. RVIA is also planning an industry party on June 7 in South Bend, Indiana, and is organizing an RV caravan to be led by Woodworth in one of his early RVs.
“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,” said Richard Coon, RVIA president. “For 100 years, we’ve been helping Americans explore their scenic treasures and heritage more comfortably, affordably and enjoyably. That’s something to celebrate.”