RV History: Tent campers

By Al Hesselbart

1910 non-folding tent camper

Throughout the history of the recreational vehicle, the most popular style of camper, by volume of models sold, has always been the folding tent trailer, or its very early predecessor, the non-folding tent trailer. They most closely resembled the tents with which all outdoorsmen were familiar. The popularity of these models has been based on price and on ease of towing with standard family autos. Camping wagons were produced and pulled into the countryside by horses in the years before the advent of the automobile, but with the earliest distribution of horseless carriages, camper manufacturers began to pop up all around the country.

These early manufacturers were regional. The first campers were not sold more than 100 or 200 miles from their point of production, as transporting them to a customer was inconvenient. Retail trailer dealers were unknown, and the early campers of all types were universally sold factory direct to the consumer. The very first units were merely canvas forms draped over an iron pipe or wooden frame to provide some protection from the elements. There was no need to fold the shelter for travel, as the autos only drove 15 to 20 miles per hour. The earliest tent camper manufacturers appeared in the years immediately after 1910 in southern California, upstate New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and other areas where the outdoor lifestyle was popular.

Auto Kamp of Saginaw, Michigan, and Archie and Lawrence Campbell in California were two of the first camper producers, building their first campers in 1914. In 1916, A.P. Warner of Beloit, Wisconsin, was marketing his Prairie Schooner trailer, a comparatively large folding camper. Warner is also known for Warner Instruments and gauges and the Warner Electric Brakes that held the lion’s share of the trailer brake market in the ’30s and ’40s. In 1929, his camping trailer company became part of the Fruehauf Truck Trailer Company. 

In 1918, the Marx Trailer Company of San Diego patented its “Komfy Kamping Trailer,” and in 1919, Alexander Curtis of Minneapolis patented a trailer with a rigid central box and fold-out canvas-enclosed beds on either side. This may have been the first example of today’s popular hybrid-style expandable travel trailers. Curtis was manufacturing camping trailers as early as 1916. By 1920, Frank Zagelmeyer of Bay City, Michigan, was building folding tent trailers with outside accessible pantries and a Model T-based “Kamper Kar.” The “Kar” had a stable cabin with an expanding roof and fold-out canvas-covered beds on either side. Since there were no consumer magazines available in these early days, the pioneer manufacturers advertised their products in Field and Stream and other outdoors oriented journals.

In 1929, the Trotwood Trailer Company of Trotwood, Ohio, built a folding canvas trailer with a full length “slide out” that doubled the floor space from travel mode to camping mode. 

In the 1930s, the Split Coach Company of York, Pennsylvania, built a camper with a split body which separated and pulled out in either direction. It was capped with a snap-on canvas panel. The top cap raised up to support the canvas sides and, when down, provided the seal that kept the two sides together for travel. 

One of the longest-lived of the first tent camper manufacturers was the Chenango Camp Trailer Company of Norwich, New York, which produced campers from 1920 until 1950. These (and the many other tent trailer manufacturers of the early days) failed to survive the effects of the Great Depression or World War II. However, in the 1950s and ’60s, companies that became industry giants such as the Apache brand campers by Vesely Manufacturing in Lapeer, Michigan, and the Nimrod campers from Ohio, started to quickly expand. The Coleman Company, known worldwide for a variety of quality camping and outdoor paraphernalia, introduced its folding camper in the 1960s.

50s style car-top camper

The 1960s brought a basic design change in the tent trailer industry. Nearly all of the early tent campers had rear entrance doors and beds that folded out on the sides. Nimrod, Coleman and Jayco were leaders of the move to position the entry door on the side as on conventional travel trailers and extend the beds on the front and rear. Jayco pioneered the crank-up system that allowed one person to raise and lock the roof into camping position during set up. A few novelty manufacturers in the ’60s made tent campers designed to be mounted on the roof of cars and open up in that position to be accessed by a ladder. They left the ability for the car to still pull a boat or other recreational device while carrying sleeping space overhead.

As the “mobile tent” has evolved through the years, it has assumed all of the features and comforts of a modern travel trailer with the added utility of a fold-down roof that dramatically reduces wind drag and allows the towing driver to use conventional rear view mirrors. The folding camping trailer of today comes in all sizes from micro-mini rigs designed to be towed behind cruising motorcycles, to huge campers as travel trailers. Conveniences and appliances for everyday use in modern tent rigs include air conditioning, bathrooms with toilets and showers, convection-microwave ovens, thermostatic furnaces and televisions. Some provide insulated canvas and covers for the screen panels that allow for very comfortable three-season or mild-winter four-season usage. A popular feature on many tent campers today is an outdoor kitchen that allows the cook to be closer to the family activities while preparing meals. This also keeps the preparation heat and odors from overwhelming the interior.

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One Thought to “RV History: Tent campers”

  1. Jillie

    The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan does have classic pop up campers aka tent campers. The original ones and original RV trailer. Can’t remember who lived out of it for a summer but no matter. Wish I could go in one of those RV’s. Check it out. Pretty cool if you ask me.

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