PORTABLE LEVITTOWN, a homage to the post-war house on wheels and the folk who lived in them. These stylish rolling abodes were a mobile counterpart to the mass-produced tract house suburbs that were built in America during the mid-20th century. 

Our classic "wheel estate" online magazine begins with a chronology of the mid-20th century trailer. America's mobile movement began, in earnest, with "trailer houses" in the 1920s. It advanced to the "trailer coaches" of the 1930s and '40s, "mobile homes" of the 1950s, "12-wides" of the 1960s and "14-wides" of the '70s.
Click on image for a larger view.

Although PORTABLE LEVITTOWN pertains specifically to the American house trailer of the mid-20th century, their early evolution does merit at least a perfunctory mention.   

The history of the camping trailer and mobile home can be traced back to the Gypsy caravans of Europe and, specifically, to the American Conestoga Wagon, whose first recorded mention dates back to 1717. 

Named after the Conestoga River in Southeastern Pennsylvania, these horse-drawn vehicles were used to settle Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and sections of Eastern Canada in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 


The typical Conestoga Wagon was 18 feet in length and 4 feet in width. Its bottom was curved to keep cargo from shifting or falling out.  The average speed of this mode of transport was 15 miles per day.
Drawing from Wikipedia / Achive of Pearson Scott Foresman

The world's first so-called leisure travel home made its debut in Great Britain, in 1885. Known as The Wanderer, it was built for Scotsman William Gordon Stables, a well-known doctor and author. Mr. Stables used The Wanderer to travel throughout Great Britain. He published his exploits in his 1891 book, "The Gentleman Gipsy". 


William Gordon Stables (on the right) poses in front of The Wanderer. The horse-drawn abode was 30 feet long and 7 feet wide. It was appointed in the most opulent of Victorian decor. 
Photo from www.caravanclub.co.uk

We pick up our early history of the mobile home back in the United States.  By the turn of the 20th century, several developments were in motion that would result in the birth of the house and camping trailer industry. 

Motorized transportation was beginning to replace the horse-drawn method by 1900. Moreover, paved highways had started to link cities and towns across the nation. The grueling 7-day, 80-hour schedule was being shortened to the standard, 5-day, 40-hour work week. This made the first common-folk vacations possible. 

Lastly, the formation of the National Park Service, in August 1916, was establishing vast stretches of unspoiled forested land where such vacations could be enjoyed by the masses. In order to do so, makeshift, home-made "trailer houses" were hastily assembled, which could be towed by that new Ford Model T. 

Soon, American industry was exploiting the trend. The first factory-made "trailer house" was devised by New York's Glenn H. Curtiss, whose Motor Bungalow debuted in 1919. However, it was a lavishly-appointed, luxury item affordable only to those of means.


In this photo we see a 1938 model Curtiss Aerocar Company Land Yacht, a descendant of the Curtiss Company's 1919-vintage Motor Bungalow. The Aerocar Land Yacht was, in essence, the world's first "fifth wheel" -type travel trailer. 
Photo from "Ready To Roll: A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer"

The next mobile home milestone occurred in the late 1920s. Indiana's Arthur G. Sherman developed the first affordable, hard-sided (in opposition to a tent) trailer house. Mr. Sherman presented his first Covered Wagon model at a 1928 auto show in Detroit and received orders for one hundred and eighteen initial units. Soon, his Covered Wagon Company would dominate the fledgling American trailer industry.

In a 1930s "trailer coach" everything was built-in. Seating areas and kitchen facilities were stationary, as were sleeping accommodations. The "rig" might even include a heating unit or furnace.


This illustration above depicts an 8 by 16 foot "trailer coach", circa-1938. As one can see, the rig did not have a bathroom. This feature would not appear until the early 1940s and did not become standard until the early 1950s.


The social upheaval of The Great Depression caused a marked shift in the American perception of a trailer coach. In the years before 1930, a mobile abode was seen as a symbol of leisure, prosperity and adventure.

As the economy worsened, thousands lost their jobs and began roaming the country, trailer coach in tow, seeking whatever work was available. Soon, these rigs, originally designed only for sporadic use, were having to provide accommodations year-round. They began to take on a shoddy and worn-out appearance.

Moreover, the first trailer parks, or "auto camps", had been established in bucolic surroundings, often near lakes or National Parks. A host of amenities were often provided. By the mid-1930s, such facilities were being hastily created on the outskirts of cities, where migrant residents were crowded together, in squalid conditions, with little or no services to speak of. 

The global conflict of the first half of the 1940s created a pronounced housing shortage and mass market for the trailer coach. In the flurry to create wartime housing for defense plant workers, units were often shoddily-built. 

The negative image of trailer life, fostered by the economic crash of the 1930s, was refueled by perceptions of house trailers as a slipshod and second-rate housing option.  

However, immediately after the war, superbly-crafted rigs were being built by manufacturers such as Detroiter, Universal, Owosso, Schult and Spartan. These were marketed to returning GIs and their wives as an economical way to achieve the American Dream of home ownership. The negative image of the house trailer, held by most of the American public, began to improve.

By the late 1940s, the big promotional buzz word of the day was LIVEABILITY. There could be "room to spare" in quarters no larger that 200 square feet...or so said the typical trailer advertisement. Naturally, super-compact designs made sure that every inch of interior space was used in the most efficient manner possible!


The original caption reads "With the accent on interior designing in 1949 models, the mobile home builders have concentrated on beautiful wall surfaces. In the home shown here, living room walls are of luxurious wood, decoratively pegged and topped with a fluted cornice which conceals indirect lighting. Wall-to-wall carpeting, draw draperies and an upholstered valance complete the picture of livability."
Photo from the Milwaukee Sentinel



A typical mobile home from 1950. At the time, a trailer with full bathroom facilities was cutting edge. Yes, there WAS a complete bathroom, but it might not be walled off from the hallway and rear bedroom. The body design du jour had rounded ends. The standard interior width was 8 feet, with chassis lengths reaching 30 feet.

Click on image for a larger view

During the economic boom years of the mid-20th century, a favorite way to pass the time was to attend one of the many mobile home shows that were being held.

Such events were a popular way for manufacturers to debut new models. Often a circus-type atmosphere was created, using bathing beauties and other attention-getting spectacles. 


A "Parade Of Homes" mobile home show, circa 1953. An outdoor event is depicted here, but many were held indoors in arenas and exhibition centers. Later, as shopping plazas began dotting the suburban landscape, shows would be set up in their vast parking areas. 
Drawing from the Milwaukee Sentinel


A mid-century Mr. & Mrs. find the (mobile) home of their dreams at a "Parade of Homes" exhibition. 
Drawing from the Milwaukee Sentinel

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