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1913 Earl Trailer
1913 Earl Trailer

Travel trailers were late arrivals to the RV lifestyle

The travel trailer that is so popular today was the third of the three major style of recreation vehicle types to gain popularity.

Both folding tent trailers and motorized vehicles preceded pull trailers in common usage. The primary reason was that very early autos simply did not have the power or drivability to safely tow a trailer on the rudimentary early roads.

The trailer tongue-mounted receiver with a vehicle-mounted trailer ball system was not developed until the 1920s.  The rare earlier trailers were connected to their tow vehicle by a nut-and-bolt system where a tang from the tongue attached to a tang from the vehicle by the bolt or pin through a hole in each.

Most of the earliest pre-World War II trailers were folding or in some cases nonfolding tent trailers, but a few one-of-a-kind builders made travel trailers as early as 1913.  The 1913 Earl pictured above is on display at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.

1935 Covered Wagon
1935 Covered Wagon

As autos grew and became more powerful in the 1920s, more and more recognizable camper trailers began to appear.  By the 1930s, many manufacturers began to make and sell campers referred to by the early builders not as campers but as “house trailers” signifying that they included a kitchen and a bed and possibly a dinette — not that they were intended as domiciles.

At this point, bathrooms and living rooms beyond the occasional couch were unknown.  By the mid 1930s, several companies were building comfortable family camping trailers.

In the post war years of the 1950s, hundreds of trailer builders appeared to attempt to meet the demands of the baby boom families.

1960 Winnebago Trailer
1960 Winnebago Trailer

Other than Airstream and Shasta that were born before the war, the 50s and 60s saw the birth of such iconic brands of today as Holiday Rambler, Coachmen, Jayco and Winnebago that began as a trailer manufacturer before switching to motorhomes.

The 1970s were a disaster for many RV companies with astronomical interest rates and two fuel crises that caused the failure of more than 100 companies. But the 1980s saw the rise of the modern travel trailer with multiple beds, not just convertible couches, and dinettes plus full living room areas with entertainment centers.

Telephones, television, portable radios and other appliances that early campers went afield to escape, began to travel with us and dramatically changed the camper lifestyle into what we call RVing today.

Al - aerodynamic

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw an increase in size from the 20- to 25-foot early models to the 25- to 35-foot fully equipped trailers. These had bathtubs, washer/dryers, large refrigerators and other heavy appliances as well as multiple slideouts that were facilitated by the popularity of large passenger vans and SUVs for family comfortable towing vehicles.

The 21st century has brought new attention to style and design and a degree of departure from the long standard square box and to many attractive modern aerodynamic shapes.

2012 Evergreen Element
2012 Evergreen Element

The modern travel trailer is undefinable in that size is both shrinking to smaller vehicles down to teardrop size and growing to rigs that require large diesel trucks to move.

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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