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Hesselbart - campgrounds 2

A historical look at campgrounds and camping clubs

In the earliest days of recreational travel, there were very few campgrounds with amenities for travelers with “campers.”   Tenters by and large were pretty self sufficient and only needed a place to pitch their tent, dig a latrine hole and build a fire.

Trailerites, on the other hand, wanted water, outhouses, and a bit later, electricity.  By 1920, a few national parks had facilities for campers and several cities in Florida and the Great Lakes area began to build city campgrounds to attract seasonal groups of travelers like the Tin Can Tourists of the World, the first major organized traveler club.

Hesselbart - campgrounds 1

Still, until the late 1920s, one of the most common summer overnight or short term destinations for family campers was rural one room school yards.  These schoolyards provided clear land, an outhouse, and a water well – the equivalent of full hookup camping until electricity became popular when appliances and lights were added to the campers. The first formally organized campgrounds were in the early national parks like Yellowstone.

The early clubs were as much a self-help organization as social group.  Folks who chose to carry their lodging about with them were looked on by many as disreputable and undesirable.  The terms Gypsy, Trailer Trash, and Tin Can Tourist were common epitaphs applied to early “RVers.”

The tin can reference was based, not on the skin of the trailer, but because the lady of the family was so irresponsible as to prepare her family meals from food sold in cans and did not provide “proper” scratch meals from fresh ingredients.  The canned provisions were totally necessary as refrigeration was unknown and they assured safe food.

Club members wore identification pins and marked their vehicles so as to be able to identify one another as friendly if assistance was needed.  Tin Can Tourist members, who numbered over 300,000 by the mid 1930s, soldered a soup can to their radiator cap so as to be quickly recognized.

Hesselbart - Tin Can Tourists

The Tin Can Tourist organization only required prospective members to take an oath to camp responsibly and leave their campsite better than they found it, and to purchase a small lapel pin to be considered lifetime members.  In their early club days, they determined to have no dues and no fees and therefore no treasury which eliminated any opportunity for graft or malfeasance on the part of the club elected officers.

Most RV clubs today pattern their rules and organization after those of the TCT begun in 1919 including such items as behavior guides, local chapters and scheduled get-togethers and rallies. While most current clubs have minor annual dues or fees, there still are a few brand name owners clubs without dues where every owner of a brand is automatically a member of the organization.

The Tin Can Tourists club lives on today nearing its 100th birthday and is now a popular organization of vintage RV aficionados with rallies and gatherings of vintage campers throughout the country.

About Al Hesselbart

The retired general manager of the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind., Al Hesselbart is the author of the RV history book, "The Dumb Things Sold...Just Like That." He also represented the RV Industry Association at two symposiums held in China. He has appeared on multiple TV documentaries and is a frequent speaker at RV events. He can be reached at

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