Rolling Back to Nature: The Birth of the Motorhome in 1915

In the early 20th century, as America was undergoing rapid industrialization, a yearning for a simpler, more nature-centric existence began to take root. This longing for a harmonious blend of modern comfort and the call of the wild would birth a phenomenon that would redefine travel – the recreational vehicle (RV).

The year was 1915, and the Conklin family of Huntington, New York, embarked on a groundbreaking adventure that would set the stage for a revolution in travel. Their chosen mode of transportation was no ordinary vehicle; it was the “Gypsy Van,” a marvel of innovation custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company. The 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance promised maximum comfort on the rugged journey to San Francisco. The New York Times marveled at it, suggesting that even the Commander of the Faithful himself would have fallen short if tasked with creating such a “dwelling place fit for a Caliph.”

For two months, the Conklins and their Gypsy Van journeyed westward, capturing the imaginations of thousands along the way. Luxuriously equipped with an electrical generator, incandescent lighting, a full kitchen, sleeping berths, and even a “roof garden,” this pioneering motorhome was a testament to both technology and audacity.

But the Conklins weren’t just on a cross-country camping trip; they were introducing America to recreational vehicles. While camping for leisure wasn’t new in 1915 – it had been popularized in the late 1800s by William H.H. Murray’s guidebook, “Adventures in the Wilderness” – the Conklin’s journey was a game-changer.

Roland and Mary Conklin of Huntington, N.Y., made house-car travel a family experience. Their bus factory built the Gypsy Van, shown above, and in the summer of 1915, the Conklin family set out to see America.

Camping, with its promise of escape from urban noise and constraints, had long been seen as a way to rejuvenate the spirit. It mirrored the pioneer experience on the pre-modern frontier, where individuals and families were central. Yet, until the early 20th century, camping remained a pursuit of the privileged, requiring weeks of vacation time and the means to afford a horse and wagon.

The turn of the century brought change. Inexpensive automobiles became commonplace, and vacations grew more widespread. Enter the RV’s predecessor – the motorhome. In 1904, the first RV, hand-built onto an automobile, was introduced, boasting sleeping quarters for four, incandescent lights, an icebox, and even a radio.

The true breakthrough came in 1915 when the Conklins unveiled their double-deck motorhome. Described as a “sublimated English caravan,” it offered all the conveniences of a country house with the added benefits of mobility and independence.

The appeal was clear: motorhome campers could avoid the laborious setup of tents and camp gear. They simply “let down the back steps, and the thing was done,” as one observer put it.

By the mid-1920s, motorhomes were becoming more popular among average Americans, thanks in part to manufacturers like REO and Hudson-Essex offering fully equipped models. Yet, motorhomes had limitations: they couldn’t separate the house from the vehicle, and their size restricted them to well-maintained roads.

In response, the RV’s understudy, the trailer, took center stage. Early auto camping trailers were rudimentary, but inventive minds soon attached collapsible tents, creating the first “tent trailers.” By the late 1920s, trailers with built-in furniture, storage, and conveniences like iceboxes and stoves emerged, making camping trips even more enjoyable.

However, tent trailers had their drawbacks, as evidenced by bacteriologist Arthur G. Sherman’s frustrating experience with one during a thunderstorm in 1928. His determination to create something better led to the birth of the solid-body trailer, with cupboards, built-in furniture, and a waterproof design.

Sherman’s “Covered Wagon” trailer quickly gained popularity, and by 1930, he had sold 118 units at the Detroit Auto Show. This marked the birth of the Covered Wagon Company and set the stage for the RV industry’s growth.

Over the next decade, the company grew rapidly, with trailers being built on assembly lines, akin to the auto industry. By 1936, Covered Wagon was the largest trailer producer in America, selling around 6,000 units with gross sales of $3 million.

Arthur Sherman’s solid-body trailer had arrived at the right time and place, offering convenience and usability that appealed to a burgeoning community of campers. Today’s luxurious motorhomes and trailers are descendants of the Gypsy Van and the Covered Wagon, embodying the desire to escape modern life while enjoying the comforts of the journey.

Between 1915 and 1930, America’s yearning for nature and modern comforts converged, leading to the birth of the recreational vehicle. This contradiction, instead of causing frustration, sparked creativity and innovation, giving birth to the beloved RVs of today.

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