The history of mobile homes is fascinating and far better than any soap opera you could watch.
The mobile home industry has faced more twists and turns and valleys and peaks than any other industry that I know. There have been political and social injustices, volatile and cyclical economies, and fighting and competition of all sorts going on in the last 90 years. The trailer industry in 1936 is still on the books for being one of the fastest industry growth in US history – how amazing is that?
In this updated article about the history of mobile homes, I’ll cover the major events and advancements that helped transition mobile homes into the luxury manufactured homes we have today. Fair warning, it’s a wild ride!
The Truth About the First Mobile Homes in the US
Many articles about mobile home history claim that the first mobile homes in the US were small cottages on the Outer Banks around 1870. Horses would move these little beach houses back and forth a few feet to avoid high tides. Those were not the first mobile homes. In fact, they weren’t even mobile just merely moveable.
By definition, a mobile home is built on a chassis. Those little cottages had no chassis. The Unpainted Aristocracy, Old Cottage Row, and the small colonies in Nags Head that helped found the Outer Banks were built on pilings so the sea could wash under them at high tide. That was actually one of the major draws to the area. Sitting on a wraparound deck with the ocean directly under you was a great way to cool off in hot summers. Of course, many homes and have been moved by horse and engine but that doesn’t mean they are mobile homes.
Conestoga Wagons were the First Mobile Homes in America
In my opinion, the first mobile homes would have to be the Conestoga Wagons, the American version of the European Vardo or gypsy wagon.
I’m giving the title of ‘First Mobile Homes in America’ to the Conestoga Wagon because they had wheels and a cambered chassis and were crucial to American development just like our modern day mobile and manufactured homes. Since 1717, they provided humans safety and shelter and helped families carry their goods across the Appalachian and westward. Roads were non-existent and it took days to sometimes travel a mile or two so these wagons were home for months, sometimes longer. Wikipedia describes the Conestoga Wagon:
“The Conestoga wagon was built with its floor curved upward to prevent the contents from tipping and shifting. Including its tongue, the average Conestoga wagon was 18 feet (5.4 m) long, 11 feet (3.3 m) high, and 4 feet (1.2 m) in width…..The frame and suspension were made of wood, and the wheels were often iron-rimmed for greater durability.”
Wikipedia, about Conestoga Wagons
The Automobile Changed Everything
Cities and towns were loud and especially dirty during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Coal kept the homes warm and the factories going but it did so at a cost; black soot and smoke settled on everything. Horses weren’t so clean either. Getting away from the pollution and enjoying fresh clean air whenever possible was a luxury only the most fortunate could afford. Middle and upper-class families would travel by train to their second home in the country or a favorite resort for entire summers while the less fortunate stayed behind. The automobile changed that. In fact, the automobile changed everything.
The automobile equalized the middle class and the rich. It made getting away from it all possible for the majority of the country. The working class couldn’t afford second homes or fancy resorts but they could afford auto-camping.
Pierce Arrow’s Touring Landau
The Smithsonian awards the honor of being the nation’s first recreational vehicle to the Pierce Arrow’s Touring Landau in 1910. The Touring Landau used a patented fifth wheel trailer hitch mechanism that permanently attached to the automobile. The model was shown at Madison Square Garden and offered to the public for $8,250. It lists a phone line to connect the trailer to the driver and had a chamber pot.
The images below are thought to be the two first mobile homes in America.
Left Image is on display at the RV and Mobile Home Hall of Fame and is believed to be the oldest American travel trailer in existence but not the first. It was built in 1913 for a professor in California. (Courtesy of Wade Thompson, Thor Industries)Right Image is a 1915 Model T Roadster with a 1916 Telescope Apartment. The camper had drawers and extensions on both sides and the end. (Both Images from RV/MH Hall of Fame)
After WWI the country was experiencing a strong economy and then the automobile gave Americans freedom that hadn’t been possible before. America hasn’t been the same since.
In 1922, the New York Times predicted that 5 million out of 10 million automobiles would be used for camping.
The automobile did indeed change everything for Americans and the wide open road was calling. Small cargo trailers that housed tents and camping goods were commonly towed by ‘Touring’ model automobiles with a longer wheelbase to allow for sleeping. The tent offered privacy and shade but the cars were used as beds. From there history gets a little muddled.
The RV and fifth wheel trailers were born from those small cargo trailers and the travel trailer as we know them today follow. From 1913 to 1929, homemade and one-of-a-kind trailers (like the two above) were common. Home builders would use chassis from wrecked cars and even trailer/cargo trucks so we can’t forget about their place in the history of mobile homes. In fact, the history of the tractor trailers, or 18 wheelers, pre-dates the travel trailer. Goods and merchandise had been transported with trailers remarkably similar to the travel trailers that eventually emerged. The travel trailer and camper industry borrowed a lot of the cambered chassis designs and material ideas from the transportation/cargo trailers.
The Covered Wagon Company
Many articles claim that Arthur G. Sherman and his Covered Wagon Company was the first to create a mobile home in a factory via an assembly line so he is considered the father of the mobile home.
After a cumbersome camping trip, Arthur G. Sherman, a bacteriologist, and president of a pharmaceutical firm decided to start a solid-body camper company. In 1929 he invested $10,000 and rented a garage to begin building trailers under the name The Covered Wagon. In 1931, The Covered Wagon Company sold 117 campers and by 1936 he was selling more than 10,000 campers and grossed over 3 million dollars in sales.
Mr. Sherman’s location was a factor in his success. The company began in Detroit, MI and was later moved to Mount Clemens, Michigan, a small town close to Detroit.
Detroit was the automobile capital of the world and that gave Mr. Sherman the opportunity to study and visit Ford Motor Company’s famed production lines. It also gave him direct access to all the suppliers and material companies he needed to build the trailers.
The next image supposedly shows the first camper ever built by Mr. Sherman in 1929. The Detroit Historical Society has this camper in its collection.
Sherman’s campers eventually evolved into the bread loaf shape, one of 7 popular camper designs. The campers were 6.5′ wide and had the door on the side instead of the back like most previous designs. This kept the dirt out while in motion and allowed for a better floor plan.
The travel trailer and camper industry enjoyed unbelievable growth during the 1930s. Auto-camping was the national pastime – people had never been so free and unhindered.
Between 1934 and ’35, The Covered Wagon Company enjoyed a 6-time growth rate. There were over 76 distributors in the US and five other countries.
The competition between the trailer builders was heated in the late 1930s because so many people were buying trailers.
Trailers were so popular that builders couldn’t build them fast enough, ” anything that looked like a trailer sold, whatever the size, shape, weight, construction, or cost.”
1936 Covered Wagon Ad:
In 1936, the camper and motor home industry was the fastest growing industry in America. The country was hooked on the freedom that travel trailers allowed them. By 1937 the trailer industry was so large they needed to create an industry trade association, Trailer Coach Manufacturers Association.
Seeing The Covered Wagon Company’s success didn’t go unnoticed and many companies entered the market. Even one of the Covered Wagon Company’s own dealers entered the market. In 1934, Wilbur J. Schult partnered with an investor and created their own trailer company called Schult Trailers. The design was a bit different but still had the bread loaf look.
While the bread loaf shape was popular there were some trailers on the market at the beginning that were nothing short of amazing. Airstream, the iconic aluminum campers, was founded in 1935 by Wally Byam. The Silver Dome was founded in 1932 by Wolfe Bodies, Inc., by 1936 they were the second largest trailer builder in the nation, right behind Covered Wagon.
Gorgeous campers were being built but there were growing pains.
So many families had trailers and when they traveled they needed a place to park their trailers. That was an issue because some people weren’t taught the proper manners for general decency and would litter, make a lot of noise, and leave the locals with a bad opinion of the people traveling. It was getting out of hand and many towns were restricting trailer parks altogether because they worried about property values, crime, and a lower tax base. Some towns were cashing in and opening pay-by-night parks though they had to limit the number of nights trailers could stay. Otherwise, some trailer owners would stay for months. Learn more about mobile home park history here.
World War II affected the trailer industry just as drastically as it did everyone else. We needed so many resources for the war that the government began rations and many factories were retooled to produce supplies for the war.
By 1940 trailer sales had slowed drastically. After so many builders entered the market in the mid-1930s it was a bit saturated. For the trailer industry, all private sells to the public were forbidden. With declining sells and then a world war, the trailer industry was in jeopardy. Many companies, like Airstream, just shut down completely but would reopen after the war.
The industry convinced the government that trailers were perfect temporary worker housing. They could also qualify for critical materials use. Thousands of house trailers were built to aid the shortages at the larger war production facilities. The trailers were limited to only a couple of approved designs. The ‘Committee Trailer’ was one of the allowed designs. It was the war worker’s poor experience with the trailers that helped seal their fate. It was a no-win situation for the trailer companies. These trailers weren’t meant for full-time living in these cramped northern locations.
Read more about the mobile home stigma here.
By 1943 there were more than 43,000 working at the Willow Run Bomber Plant. Half of them were living in trailers. There were 16 private trailer parks and a handful of government ran parks. You can watch a video about trailer parks here.
By the mid-1940s, trailers averaged 8 ft. wide and 20 ft. long. They could sleep several but had no bathroom. Still, many families were living in them full time. Keep in mind, that in the mid-1940s many site-built homes didn’t have indoor plumbing.
Later that decade, the length went to over 30 ft. long and bathrooms were installed. By this time the men who had fought in WWII were coming home in masses and cheap housing was a necessity. Mobile homes were a great fit for many and the industry continued to evolve and flourish.
There was a different kind of housing shortage after the war. Instead of temporary homes, the country needed homes for full-time living. This is where the trailer industry started to shine. In 1947 it’s believed that more than 6 million families were living with other family members and friends. The housing shortage was a huge problem and trailer companies stepped up, building more than 60,000 units. By 1948 it’s estimated that 7 percent of the population was living in a trailer house or mobile home.
1936-1953 produced a ton of beautiful mobile homes. There were trailers for camping and large mobile homes for full-time living. It wasn’t until 1953 that the TCMA finally changed its name to the Mobile Home Manufacturers of America, and began focusing on bigger and better homes for full-time living.
1949 National Trailer:
Like any industry, companies have to evolve and offer buyers bigger and better products and mobile home industry was constantly evolving. At one time there were hundreds of mobile home builders competing against each other. The 1950s proved to be a time of unparalleled growth and gorgeous innovative designs which is why many call it the Golden Age.
The industry had a smart system of innovation through large mobile home expos and trade shows. Builders would show one or two ‘new and exclusive’ designs at the larger mobile home expos and industry shows across the country. If dealers and/or the general public showed a lot of interest they would put the home on the production line. If the homes didn’t receive any attention it would be sold as a model home and the mobile home designers would go back to the drawing board, literally.
The 1954 Tri-level Pacemaker was one of the designs that received a lot of interest and orders. The bi-level and tri-level mobile homes were so popular that several different brands built them.
Pacemaker Tri-Level, 1954:
1954 was also the year that mobile homes became wider, from 8′ to 10′, because of highway restrictions. For the 1954 Sarasota Florida Mobile Home Exposition Elmer Frey introduced the 10′ and many builders followed. The extra two feet allowed for a hallway in the homes which allowed for complete privacy and a more home-like feel.
A Typical Mobile Home in the 1960s:
1960 had unique mobile home designs, the Colonial Town House was up to 53 foot long with an end kitchen. The Dublwide Roadliner was a popular double wide design.
1976 – 2019
In 1976, the US Congress passed the National Mobile Home Construction and Safety Act (42 U.S.C.). This was necessary to hold the industry to a higher standard and to ensure that the mobile homes were safer and better made. The industry used this bill to rebrand the homes as manufactured homes.
HUD code did create a better home with minimum energy and building standards. They weren’t mobile – it took speciality equipment and a licensed installer to transport manufactured homes so the word mobile no longer fits.
In 1980 Congress, due to pressure from the industry itself, changed the name mobile home to manufactured housing on a bill stating that the term mobile home cannot be used in any government literature.
They wanted to update the image of the industry and “manufactured home” evokes a higher class of product and they did, sorta. They were so focused on changing everyone else they forgot to make changes to themselves.
Today, we have triple wide manufactured homes and even two-story homes built on a chassis. The homes are just getting better and better but they are also getting more expensive. Has the industry forgotten who their buyers are?
A Modern Manufactured Home:
It’s going to be interesting to see how manufactured homes continue to evolve.
To know the history of something is to understand it better. With this glimpse thru mobile home’s history, I hope you will be more proud of them. The homes are great but they have been dealt a bad hand over the years.
Manufactured homes are affordable and they give us the freedom to quickly and efficiently set up a home. They aren’t perfect but they are home to millions and the pages here on Mobile Home Living® prove the can be as beautiful as any other home.
Mobile Homes evolved from the country’s desire for freedom and they continue to give us a freedom that site-built construction can’t, both physically and financially.
Thank you for reading Mobile Home Living®!
Originally Published on September 17, 2011. Updated on April 28, 2019