RV History: The evolution of campgrounds

By Al Hesselbart

In the earliest days of recreational travel, there were very few campgrounds with amenities for travelers with campers.” At first,  tenters were the majority of traveling campers and by and large were pretty self-sufficient. They only needed a place with a water supply to pitch their tent, dig a latrine hole and build a fire. Tents on wheels, both permanently erect and fold-down styles, were the first popular RVs.
As hard-shelled trailers began to appear, trailerites 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-operated campgrounds to attract seasonal groups of travelers like the Tin Can Tourists of the World, the first major organized traveler club.
Still, until the late 1920s, the most common summer overnight, or short-term, destinations for family campers were rural one-room schoolyards. 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 early clubs were as much a self-help organization as a 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 epithets applied to early RVers.” The “tin can” reference was not based 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 necessary as portable refrigeration was unknown and they assured safe food.
Club members wore identification pins and marked their vehicles to be able to identify one another as friendly if assistance was needed. Tin Can Tourist members, who numbered more than 300,000 by the mid-1930s, soldered a soup can to their radiator cap to be quickly recognized. 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.
Today some super RV Resorts feature such luxuries as on-site golf courses, individual swimming pools, and mini-lodges on each site that include kitchens, bedrooms and garages. Residents can no longer be identified as camping.


3 Thoughts to “RV History: The evolution of campgrounds”

  1. Ron Twellman

    While in Alaska last year we met two gentlemen from Iowa traveling in their Ford Model Ts. One towed a 1920s vintage pop-up trailer. They had equipment and skills to handle all possible maintenance issues. Now that’s RVing!

  2. Ric

    Love the ttt picture from Gainesville, Fl. I live 20 minutes south. Kinda the roots of today’s RVing. Ironically Gainesville today has no RVers in town and is very RV unfriendly. It’s just a politically correct college town that doesn’t like to get it’s hands dirty.

  3. Tommy Molnar

    20+ years ago when we switched from tent camping to a 25′ travel trailer, I had a heck of a time calling what we now were doing – “camping”. To this day I still have a problem calling it “camping”, but I do because all our friends readily call it “camping”.

    We just load up the trailer and “take a trip”. For some reason, the word “camping” conjures up visions of my Boy Scout years with canvas ‘baker’ tents, latrines, and everything that needed to be cooked, cooked on the campfire.

    Maybe I’m just getting old . . .

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