The Tin Can Tourist Club: A History of the RV

The history of the Recreational Vehicle traces back over 100 years, and has its start with a club that was formed in Florida and adopted the tin can as its symbol.

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Tin Can Camper truck, on display in the Tallahassee Museum, Florida

 

People all over the world have used horse- or ox-drawn carts for transporting things since the beginning of history. The Chinese and Roman Empires built networks of paved roads, not only to move troops quickly, but to transport the materials and goods which fed the long-distance trade that they depended on.

Since medieval times, the nomadic Roma people, more popularly known as “Gypsies”, had made their living as traveling performers, moving from city to city in trains of horse-drawn carts, and living in temporary tent villages. In the 1850’s, many Roma gave up their tenting camps and began to equip their carts to allow them to live inside–the first “camper” vehicles.

In 1880, a British author named William Gordon Stables, who wrote fiction adventure stories for children, embarked on a real-life adventure: he ordered a specially-built 18-foot horse cart from the Bristol Wagon and Carriage Works, based on the Roma traveling wagon, that he named “Wanderer”. For the next five years, Stables lived in “Wanderer” while traveling around the British Isle. History’s first known RVer, he wrote about his trip in a book titled “The Gentleman Gypsy”.

Stables’ book inspired others, and soon “caravanning” was a popular pasttime among the English leisure class. Thomas Hiram Holding formed the Camping and Caravanning Club in 1901, and Stables himself helped form the Caravan Club in 1907.

At the turn of the century, the automobile began to replace the horse cart as the standard mode of transportation. It also changed the future of “caravanning”. The United States, with its huge open areas, was prime turf for car traveling. Among the early auto-camping enthusiasts were the wealthy industrialists Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, who in 1913 formed a club they called the Vagabonds and went on camping trips using Ford Lincoln trucks that had been turned into mobile kitchens.

Since these were some of the most famous men in America, every trip they took was covered heavily by the press, and it inspired a wave of imitators. The Ford Model T “Tin Lizzy”, the first cheap mass-produced automobile, placed a reliable and inexpensive means of travel into the hands of the non-wealthy. The early “campers” were home-made, usually by modifying a wood-panel Model T truck. Factory-made “camper trucks” soon followed: one of the earliest was the Touring Landau, made by the Pierce-Arrow Company. The “touring car” featured a rear rumble seat that folded open into a bed, a sink with a water storage tank, and a chamber pot as a commode. And for the part-time traveler, trailers outfitted with beds and kitchens which could be towed by automobile began to appear, made by companies like the Los Angeles Trailer Works, Airstream, and Auto-Kamp. In 1919, the first national automobile-camper club was formed at a campground in Tampa FL. They called themselves the “Tin Can Tourists”, taking their name from the supplies of canned food that they carried along with them (the club president was given the title “Chief Tin Can Opener”). The TCT club adopted an official song (“The More We Get Together”), set dues, published a newsletter, raised money to buy and furnish campgrounds, and, as their unofficial emblem, soldered an empty tin can to the hood of their vehicles. Within a few years the Tin Can Tourists had over 150,000 members. For the next ten years, the club held an annual convention each winter in Sarasota FL.

Automobile campgrounds began to appear from Florida to California. The new industry was helped enormously by the rapid growth of the National Park system during this time. Some of these camp sites were small towns in themselves, with as many as 800 parking spots, their own grocery stores, baseball fields, and sometimes movie theaters or even golf courses. A set of rules promulgated by the Tin Can Tourist club banned the use of liquor, open fires, bad language, gambling, and loud talking after ten pm. Members were also prohibited from dumping their trash outside or emptying their waste water in the shrubbery.

The Great Depression virtually ended travelling vacations for a time (though many auto-campers were adopted as inexpensive and mobile housing), and the manufacture of civilian vehicles was drastically cut during the Second World War. But the post-war 1950s were the golden age of the camper. The American economy was roaring, the car culture was being born, the Federal highway system gave easy access to the entire country, and people were looking for new ways to vacation. The modern “recreational vehicle” was largely the work of the Winnebago Company, which introduced several models of “mobile homes”, varying in size and comfort but all featuring beds, electricity, running hot water, functional kitchens, and bathrooms. Many of the structural techniques used for RVs and camper-trailers, such as aluminum skins and under-floor wiring, came from the WW2 aircraft industry.

Since then, RVs have expanded with new technology. A modern Class A motorhome provides as much living space as a small apartment, with beds for up to six people, TV satellite dishes, full kitchens with refrigerators as well as microwave and convection ovens, flushable toilets and hot showers, high-speed Internet connections, washers and dryers, and garbage disposals. By one industry estimate, about half a million Americans now live fulltime in their RVs.

The Tin Can Campers club was particularly important to Florida, establishing the state as a popular destination for northern tourists. Today, the Tallahassee Museum celebrates this history with a display centering around a modified 1923 Model T truck that once served as a tin can camper.

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