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 depicts an 8 by 16 foot "trailer coach", circa-1939. 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, makeshift trailer parks 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 layout, circa-1949. At the time, a trailer with full bathroom facilities was cutting edge. Yes, there may be a 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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The terms "Tin Can Tourist" and "Trailerite" had become part of the American vernacular by 1936. Oddly enough, "Tin Can Tourist" was not originally intended as an assessment of one's aluminum-clad, mobile accommodations. It was concocted as a slur against travelers who ate out of tin cans, instead of going to the trouble of preparing home-cooked meals or dining in restaurants. 

"Tin Can Tourist" had lost its negative implications by the mid-20th century, when it had been embraced by the vacation trailer community. The "Trailerite" term apparently never had such a less-than-favorable connotation.


"Trailerite", or one who resides year-round in a trailer coach or "house on wheels". The term, coined in the early 1930s, was in common usage during the mid-century years. It was being heard less frequently by the early 1960s and was archaic -and totally forgotten- by the early 1970s. 
Drawing From the Milwaukee Sentinel 

By the mid-1950s, trailer manufacturing was evolving (more or less behind the scenes) into two different classes . A smaller unit, 8 feet in width and roughly 20 feet in length, would eventually be known as the "travel trailer" or "RV" (recreational vehicle). 

Early versions of the "house trailer" or "mobile home" were also 8 feet in width but could extend for up to 40 feet. These rigs were becoming too large to be hauled by the family car. 


A cut-away view shows the orientation of a mid-1950s house trailer. This model even includes a special space for that brand-new television set! 
Drawing from the Milwaukee Sentinel
                                        Click on image for a larger view

The Long & Short Of It: A Mobile Home Cavalcade, Part One


In 1946, mobile homes such as the PALACE COACH were being built in America. This rig measured 25 feet from tail end-to-tongue. It was 8 feet wide.
Click on image for a larger view


Here we see another "8-wide" coach. The classic 1950 SPARTANETTE was built by Oklahoma's Spartan Aircraft Company. It was a 30 footer. 
Click on image for a larger view


As its name implied, the 1952 TRAVELO 26 was a 26 foot rig, with a width of 8. Even in the early '50s, this was quite a short and small trailer. 
Click on image for a larger view


The COLONIAL line for 1954 included the 42 foot TOWN & COUNTRY model, whose side-to-side measurement was 8 feet. 
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Lastly, we present a beautiful 1956-vintage ALL STATES rig. For its time, the 8-wide ROCKET was an extraordinarily long trailer. It stretched for 52 feet. 
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On February 18, 1954, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios premiered "The Long, Long Trailer", a feature film vehicle for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, stars of CBS TV's "I Love Lucy". The picture, based on the 1951 Clinton Twiss novel of the same name, was directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza's dad) and featured Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn.

A fictional Trailerite couple, Nicholas Collini, and wife Anastacia (or "Tacy"), purchase a 35-foot New Moon "mobile apartment home" for a whopping $5,345.00 (a brand-new "Levittowner Number 1" tract house could have been had for $10,990 at the time). 

The Collinis spend their honeymoon on the road and, as one might expect, several side-splitting scenes ensue.


"The Long, Long Trailer" ended up being MGM's top-grossing comedy film for several years and was a major shot in the arm for Michigan-based Redman Industries-New Moon Homes. 
Original movie poster from MGM Studios


Above, we have a circa-1954 newspaper advertisement promoting the rig portrayed in "The Long, Long Trailer". New Moon Homes marketed it as their "I Love Lucy" model. Viewed today, "The Long, Long Trailer" is vastly entertaining. The movie is also an historic record of the Trailerite culture, a facet of mid-20th century Americana relegated, long ago, to misty, Technicolored memory. 
Advert From The Beaver County Times (Beaver County, Pennsylvania)


Tacy and Nicky Collini's 8-wide rig extended 35 feet & 3 inches from stem to stern (in the film, the trailer's length was quoted as being "36" and even "40"). The single bedroom unit depicted featured a sunken living room, doorbell chime and shower bath.



You might want to make a favorite or bookmark of the following URL. Clicking on it will take you to a destination on the Internet Archive where you may read a pdf file of the entire 1951 Clinton Twiss novel...free of charge.

https://archive.org/details/longlongtrailer001201mbp

All of the mobile home movie mayhem demonstrated the impracticality of trying to transport the newer 40-50 foot rigs with the family car. Mobile home buyers now purchased their house on wheels and had it towed by truck. It was made stationary, often at one of the many mobile home parks around the nation.

Of course, this was inciting the ire of local governments, who bemoaned the tax-free status enjoyed by the typical Trailerite family.  Moreover, the real estate industry was lobbying hard to establish local zoning restrictions that would make it illegal to set up a mobile home on a single lot. Simply stated, you would either have to park your mobile home on a postage stamp-sized park lot or else have to buy a house, preferably from a realtor.


Above, we see a circa-1961 advertisement for the Mobel Americana park, in St. Petersburg, Florida. In the mid-20th century, the trailer park was often promoted as a vacation or retirement haven. Several luxurious amenities, such as tennis courts and swimming pools, could be included. Monthly lot rents ran between $20 and $50 per month. 
Advert from The St. Petersburg Evening Independent


Here we have an idyllic 1950s view of the Briny Breezes Trailer Park, in Delray Beach, Florida. Back in the day, before prices of American real estate skyrocketed into the financial stratosphere, trailer parks were often established at seaside locations. Nowadays, such property is simply too valuable and expensive to be utilized in such a manner. 
Photo from www.vintagetrailercamp.com


Promoted as "America's most luxurious trailer park", the Blue Skies Trailer Village was founded by Bing Crosby in late 1954. Named after the 1946 "Der Bingle" movie and song, the facility was created on 21 acres, southeast of Cathedral City, in the Coachella Valley desert. Although the vintage matchbook cover seen above locates the park in Palm Springs, it is now within the city of Rancho Mirage, which was incorporated in 1973.
Graphic from "Vintage Advertising - Manufactured Homes"    


Streets in the two-hundred-and-fifty-unit park were named after Hollywood luminaries who initially invested in its establishment. In addition to the thoroughfares indicated above, there were Danny Kaye Road, Burns & Allen Road, Claudette Colbert Road, Greer Garson Road and Jack Benny Road. By the way, the park still exists, although it is no longer a weekend getaway for movie stars. 
Photo from http://palmspringsmobilehomesforsale.com

Before highway statutes were changed in the mid-1950s, it was illegal, in most states, to transport any mobile home wider than 8 feet. The industry sought to comply with the "no wider than 8 feet" directive. However, there was also an incentive to create larger and more spacious units. It was determined that the only option was to expand the mobile home upnot out.

In 1952, the split-level design, exemplified by the Ventoura Loft Liner seen below, made its debut. The main level bedroom area of these rigs had an extremely low ceiling (something like 6 feet). A 3 or 4 foot-high "loft", serving as a second -bedroom- level, was accessed by a set of stairs.


Above and below we witness the Ventoura Loft Liner, one of the early split level trailers. The low ceilings of loft-type bedrooms made such quarters feasible only for use by children. An adult would surely have gotten claustrophobia!


We have created a cut-away view of the split-level Loft Liner. Rigs such as this were made obsolete by the advent of the 12-wide, which debuted with the 1961 model year. 
Click on image for a larger view 

By the late 1950s, the Jet Age in America had morphed into the Space Age. Man was now sending rockets -and satellites- into the heavens. Architecture had become ultra-modern and futuristic as a reflection of the times. This new ethic was being expressed in a big way with the designs for exteriors of new mobile homes. At the same time, new and exciting things were happening inside... 

A space-age husband and spouse relax in the "center kitchen" of their house on wheels. It came equipped with the latest yellow-shade refrigerator, stove and double-bowl sink. Pastel appliances and bathroom fixtures debuted in the early 1950s and became a sensation.
Photo from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association


Meanwhile, mobile home interior design was making great strides in the mid-to-late 1950s. Up to this time, a standard rear bedroom/front living room layout was used for most rigs. Things began to change with the 1956 model year. One of the first "front kitchen" trailers, similar to the unit seen here, was introduced.
Photo from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association

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Another jovial couple entertain one another in the "Early American" living room of their new 8-wide rig. In this case, the living area is situated in the front of the trailer.
Photo from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association 


A Trailerite wife enjoys some quality time in her ultra-modern living room, which is in the center of the unit. By the late 1950s, over 4 million Americans were living in house trailers.
Photo from Trail R News magazine (October 1960)  
-Click on image for a larger view- 


Newly-built rigs of the late 1950s featured several innovative design concepts, such as the aforementioned front kitchen. A unit might also come with new-type "jalousie" (roll out) windows. The late '50s brought longer models, which were now approaching 60 feet in length. Note: the 1959 cost of a house trailer fell between $3,000 (for an economy rig) and $15,000 (for a luxury model).
-Click on image for a larger view-


Mobile home exteriors of the late 1950s and early '60s were also futuristic in appearance.  Sweeping "sky-roofs" (also promoted as "raised roofs") brought in light and nighttime views of the stars and heavens. They were, in essence, the house trailer counterpart of the automobile tail fin. By the way, they did actually manufacture and sell pink mobile homes in those days. 


Speaking of 1959, we are posting Homes on The Move, a promotional film that shows several aspects of the mid-century Trailerite lifestyle in "real time". Please click on the play button below...


According to our vintage vignette, the mobile home "of today" goes far beyond being just affordable shelter for the millions of young Americans on the move.

By the mid-20th century, trailer manufacturing had been slowly morphing into two respective "travel trailer" and "mobile home" divisions for several years. The split was made official in 1963. 

At the same time, the futuristic, space-age-style rigs of the late 1950s and early '60s were being superseded by ones built with a more boxey, house-shaped design. The late 1960s witnessed the debut of the "14-wide", an innovation that made the house trailer more spacious than ever. 


The Long & Short Of It: A Mobile Home Cavalcade, Part Two


Above is a definitive example of a "space-age" mobile home. The exterior of the 1959 Atlas FORTY-TWO--TEN WIDE includes all the hallmarks of futuristic '50s design. 
Click on image for a larger view


Above, we behold the magnificent 1962 Kropf ELDORADO...one of the most futuristic trailers ever built. This 10 foot wide -60 feet long- rig was also among the last of the great space age-style mobile homes.
Click on image for a larger view


As previously mentioned, the futuristic mobile home design of the late '50s was -by the early '60s- morphing into one with a boxey, house-type motif. Among the first of this new generation of house-type rigs was the 1961 Marshfield TWELVEWIDE depicted here. It extended 50 feet from tail-end-to-tongue.
Click on image for a larger view


By the late '60s, the house-type model was firmly established as the mobile home exterior design standard. Above, we see the 1968 Trotwood 60' DELUXE SUBURBAN, which was a 12-wide. It defined a new genre with its squared exterior,  "house-type" wooden door and simulated window shutters.
Click on image for a larger view

The "double-wide" mobile home, first introduced in the early '60s, was also making inroads by late in the decade. A double-wide unit consisted of two 10 or 12-wide sections that were manufactured and transported individually.


As the diagram demonstrates, the "Double-Wide" mobile home consists of "A" and "B" units that are joined into a 20 or 24-wide dwelling at the home site.

The circa-1969 "single-wide" mobile home has a "house type" exterior door, with its second entrance being on the back side of the unit. Widths of 12 or 14 feet -and lengths of 65- provide more living space than ever before. Prices for newly-built rigs begin around $5,000 and end at $18,000.
Click on image for a larger view

Regrettably, the newly-built mobile home of the late 1960s and early '70s was a far cry from one manufactured in the 1950s. Obviously, trailers were now much longer and wider. The incentive to build larger rigs economically probably led to an overall decline in the quality of the finished product.

In order for manufacturers to keep selling new trailers, the purchase price needed to be kept as low as possible; this in an incredibly inflationary economy, where prices for nearly everything were soaring upward by the minute. 

Inevitably, lots of corners were cut. The tight-fitting, narrow-slot jalousie windows of the late 1950s had been replaced by large-pane crank-out models, which quickly lost tension and would not shut tightly. 

Precision-made -all-wood- cabinetry of bygone days was now typified by cabinets made of cheap plastic and pressed board. Poorly-fitting drawers might fall out when opened. Moreover, flimsy sliding closet doors (made of wood paneling) would never stay on track properly.

Quality-crafted mobile homes were still being manufactured, but these were also sold at a premium price.