Saturday, April 21, 2012


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

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Our houses on wheels website begins with a chronology of the mid-20th century house trailer. It all began with "trailer houses" in the 1920s and continued through the advent of the "double-wide" in the early 1960s and introduction of the 14-wide unit around 1970.
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The early evolution of the trailer coach occurred during the Depression years. Rigs of the time were 8 feet in width, a standard that would be used into the 1950s. Everything in a 1930s unit was built-in. Seating and kitchen areas were stationary, as were sleeping accommodations.



Two 1930s trailer coach adverts. The first ad shows a 1934 Federal rig, the second, a 1938 Kozy Coach. At the time, the typical unit measured 16 feet in length and did not include bathroom accomodations. This particular feature would not appear until the early 1940s and did not become a standard fixture until the 1950s.
Adverts from http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com/html/vintage_mobile_homes.htm (Atlas Mobile Home Museum)


The global conflict of the first half of the 1940s created a pronounced housing shortage and a mass market for the emerging trailer coach. Around this time, the smaller trailer coach began to morph into a somewhat larger type of abode, which was referred to as a "mobile home". Eventually, there would be two different classifications; the shorter "travel trailer"  (later known as an RV or recreational vehicle) and larger house trailer / mobile home.

The typical lengths of new mobile home models was still in the 15-to-27 foot range...with the big time promotional buzz word being LIVEABILITY. There could be "room to spare" in quarters no larger that 200 square feet...or so said the typical mobile home ad of the day. Naturally, super-compact designs made sure that every inch of interior space was used in the most efficient manner possible!


There's room to spare in this "big, new" 1945 model, 8 x 27 foot house on wheels.
Advert from http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com/html/vintage_mobile_homes.htm
(Atlas Mobile Home Museum)
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The quote-unquote "large" living room seen above may -indeed- seem a bit cramped by today's standards. One might take into account the severe housing shortage that gripped the nation in the years immediately following World War II. The typical newly-wed couple of the time would have considered themselves indeed fortunate to be living in such an abode. How times change!  
Advert from http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com/html/vintage_mobile_homes.htm (Atlas Mobile Home Museum)


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 around 1950. At the time, a "trailer" with bathroom facilities was cutting edge. Yes, there WAS a bathroom, but it usually was not 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.
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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 were dotting the suburban landscape, shows would be set up in their vast parking areas. Trade shows such as this were a popular way for manufacturers to debut new mobile home lines and for the local populace to while away leisure -mid-century- hours.
Rendering from the Milwaukee Sentinel


Rendering from the Milwaukee Sentinel

Soon after the advent of the very first trailer coaches in the USA, a mobile subculture had developed which celebrated the new freedom found in living "on the road". The terms TRAILERITE and TIN CAN TOURIST had become part of the American vernacular by 1936.

Living full time in their 20 by 8 foot "apartments on wheels", devotees of trailer houses numbered 100,000 by the mid-1930s. Some families had adopted a "house on wheels" habitat while travelling the country searching for employment. Others of better means used their portable abodes as a travelling vacation home.


"Trailerite", or one who resides year-round in a trailer coach or so-called house on wheels, had been established in the American vernacular by the mid-1930s. At that time, there was no negative connotation attached...
Drawing From the Milwaukee Sentinel 
 

A cut-away view from the early 1950s shows the typical house trailer orientation. It even includes a special space for that brand-new television set! 
Drawing from the Milwaukee Sentinel
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By 1954, unit lengths had reached 50 feet. Above, we have an example of a floor plan for an 8 foot by 40 foot home. The more spacious "10-wide" debuted in 1956. Still, the typical trailer floor plan had not changed appreciably since the 1930s. There would always be a bedroom in the rear, a bath, perhaps a second (walk-thru) bedroom, then a kitchen and living area. The rounded ends design of the late '40s had now given way to a more squared, and less aerodynamic, body style. Price-wise, mobile homes were selling for between $2,000 and $7,500.
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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 Vincent Minnelli (Liza's dad) and featured Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn.

A fictional trailerite couple, Tacy and Nicky Collini, purchase a 36 foot New Moon "mobile apartment home" for a rather large -$5,345.00- price (a brand-new "Levittowner Number 1" tract house could have been had for $10,990 at the time). They 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 New Moon Homes. The success of the film actually contributed to a large increase in business for the mobile home manufacturer.
Original movie poster from MGM Studios

Click on image for a larger view


The first newspaper advert depicts the famous rig portrayed in the hit "Metro" film.  In the second, we see the same. New Moon Homes, manufacturer of "The Long, Long Trailer" trailer, even marketed the 36 footer used in the movie as their "I Love Lucy" model. Viewed today, "The Long, Long Trailer" is vastly entertaining, but also stands as an historical record of the Trailerite culture, a facet of mid-20th century life long ago relegated to misty, Technicolored memory. 
Adverts From The Beaver County Times and Cayuga Chief


Lucy and Desi's mobile home movie mayhem demonstrated the impracticality of trying to transport the newer 40-50 foot -8' wide- rigs. By this time, the mobile home concept was changing. Units were simply becoming too large to use as travel-type trailers.

Buyers now purchased their house on wheels and made it stationary...preferably at one of the many mobile home parks around the nation. Of course, this began to incite 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.


In the mid-20th century, before "house trailer" had such a negative connotation, the typical trailer park was promoted as a vacation or retirement haven. Several luxurious amenities, such as tennis courts and swimming pools, could be included...as shown by this 1961 advertisement for a St. Petersburg, Florida Tin Can Tourist community. Monthly lot rents in a high-end park ran from between $50 and $125 per month. 
Advert from The St. Petersburg Evening Independent


In 1952, the double-decker design, exemplified by the '54 Ventoura Loft Liner rig seen below, made its debut. The main level bedroom area of these units 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.


The low ceilings of loft-type bedrooms in double-decker mobile homes made such quarters feasible only for use by children. An adult would surely have gotten claustrophobia! Rigs such as this were made fairly obsolete by the introduction of 12-wide models in 1960...although a few were still being produced as late as the mid-1960s.
Advert from http://www.flickr.com/photos/34669939@N04/4957380254/in/pool-1498252@N21 (Tiki Lisa's PhotoStream)
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By the mid-1950s, the Jet Age in America was morphing into the Space Age. Soon, man would be 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... 


The standard washing machine of the early 1950s was the wringer-type unit (such as the one seen on the left). Using one in the typical 8' wide mobile home would have required too much floor space and the machine would have been completely in the way when not in use. It was not until the introduction of the more compact automatic washer and dryer (on the right) that a mobile home laundry area was truly practical. The first house trailers to come laundry-equipped made their debut in 1954. 


The 1955 introduction of pastel shade appliances -i.e., yellow, turquoise and pink- made color-co-ordinated kitchens possible. Moreover, new mobile homes often featured counter top stove units and wall-mount ovens!



A young space age couple relax in their mobile home kitchen, which came equipped with the latest sunny yellow-shade appliances.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/28153783@N08/3883037839 (SaltyCotton's photostream)

Another jovial couple entertain one another in the Early American-style living room of their new 8-wide rig.
Photo from http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/3370312.html (Mobile Home Manufacturers Association-1960)


A trailerite wife enjoys some quality time in her ultra-modern-appointed living room. Check out the COOL curtains!
Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/42353480@N02/with/4164814954/ SportSuburban's Photostream (Trail R News Magazine-October 1960)
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Newly-built house trailers of the late 1950s and early '60s featured several innovative design concepts, such as the front kitchen. A unit might also come with the new-type "jalousie" (roll out) windows. The late 1950s brought longer units...which were now approaching 60 feet in length. By 1960, the first 12' wide coach had come on the market. The 1963 cost of a mobile home fell between $3,500 (for an economy rig) and $15,000 (for a luxury model).
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Mobile home exteriors of the late '50s and early '60s were futuristic in appearance. Sweeping "skyroofs", such as the one featured on this 1959 model, brought in light and nighttime views of the stars and heavens.
Original advert from http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com/html/vintage_mobile_homes.htm (Atlas Mobile Home Museum) 
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By the mid-1960s, he futuristic-styled mobile homes of the late 1950s and early 1960s had given way to units built with a more boxey, house-shaped design. By the end of the decade, the 14-wide mobile home had made its debut, making the house trailer more spacious than ever. 

By this time, the "double-wide" unit was also making inroads. A double-wide mobile home consisted of two 10 or 12-wide sections that were manufactured and transported individually. These would be joined into a single -20 or 24-wide- unit at the home site. The advent of the so-called "modular home", where two, three or four sections would be joined into one, was also coming into its own.

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The circa-1970 mobile home has a squared exterior, with "house type" windows and exterior doors. On the inside, a width of 12 feet -and length of 65 feet- provide more living space than ever before. Prices for newly-built rigs begin around $5,000 and end at $18,000.
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By the early 1970s, the "house-type" mobile home was 12 or 14 feet in width -if a single-wide unit- and between 60 and 70 feet in length. Models built after the mid-1960s usually featured a door in front and in the back floor plan, with a hallway running along the rear of the unit. Up to this time, both exterior doors had almost always been located along the front side of the rig.

The narrow-slot jalousie windows of the late 1950s had been replaced by (two-or-three-pane) crank-out models which often lost tension and would not shut tightly. Balsa wood-thin "house-type" doors were an improvement over those used in older models...but not by much.

On the inside, the dramatic, futuristic interiors of 1950's and early '60s units had been replaced by lots of gaudy faux-
Mediterranean decor, with cheaply-made wrought iron chandeliers and other tacky Tuscany touches.

Moreover, the precision-made, all-wood cabinetry of days gone by was now typified by shoddily-made cabinets of plastic and / or pressed board, which would often fall apart before the last trailer payment was made. Poorly-fitting drawers would often fall out when opened. Moreover, sliding closet doors -made of flimsy wood paneling- would never stay on track properly.




As in the 1950s, the standard mobile home of the early 1970s would also have come fully-furnished, although the quality of the articles used had fallen drastically. Several mobile homes of the 1970s were done in what was known as "Mediterranean" interior decor, as seen in the two renderings above.
Drawings from the Oxnard Press-Courier


Appliance-wise, these would have been the colors available for the new mobile home of the 1970s; standard white, coppertone, avocado green and harvest gold.

The mobile home of the latter part of the 20th century was often a poorly-constructed (quickly stapled together) hodgepodge of bad taste, appointed with matchstick furniture and bottom-of-the-line appliances. 

For example, the typical early 1970s mobile home was floored with the cheapest grade of "shag" carpeting obtainable (which would quickly become permanently soiled and threadbare). Color palettes drifted toward the gaudy and garish; shades of red and black, orange or putrid green being the standard. 

Moreover, many mobile home models came equipped with cheap, non-frost-free refrigerators, setting the homemaking standard back 10 or 15 years. Beds provided might be little more than a thin, urethane foam "mattress" on a spindly set of box springs. Screw-in legs would probably break off if said bed were slept on by anyone weighing more than 130 pounds. 

This blatant lack of quality, and dubious features such as cheap (and potentially dangerous) aluminum (not copper) electrical wiring, forced the US Congress to pass stricter standards for construction in 1974. The National Mobile Home Construction and Safety Standards Act became law in June 1976. To get away from all of the negativity associated with house trailers or mobile homes in general, the product name was changed to "Manufactured Home", which was Federally mandated in 1980.

As the mid-20th century faded into memory, and Americans had become more and more status concious, the concept of living in a mobile home had become less and less attractive. Keeping up with the Joneses, 1990s-style, usually required living well beyond one's means. This was done in a sprawling ranch house or cluster mansion, often with two times the floor space actually needed by the family.

By 1974, the word "trailerite" had become an archaic -out of common use- word. Living in a house trailer or mobile home could now be relegated to those of a lower social status, although, in actuality, this was not always the case. 

Unfortunately, derogatory terms such as "trailer trash" had become part of the pop culture vernacular, with the less than glamorous house trailer life being depicted in several country & western songs, on websites such as the whimsical Missouri Trailer Trash, or on TV shows such as Canada's "Trailer Park Boys".

Alas, as in Lucy and Desi's "The Long, Long Trailer" epic, America's mobile home honeymoon was over.

SOURCES:

First off, we would like to give a lion's share of credit -and kudos- to the creator of the awesome ATLAS MOBILE HOME MUSEUM site (see our LINKS section for its url >>>). Without its interesting array of vintage trailer coach and mobile home adverts, PORTABLE LEVITTOWN could not have been created!

Other sites and sources used for reference material:

http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com/html/vintage_mobile_homes.htm
http://business.highbeam.com / "Mobile Homes"
The St. Petersburg Evening Independent
The Milwaukee Sentinel
The Oxnard Press-Courier
The Beaver Times
The Palm Beach Post
The Cayuga Chief
http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/3370312.html
http://www.flickr.com/photos/34669939@N04/4957380254/in/pool-1498252@N21 [LoftLiner in color] (Tiki Lisa)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/28153783@N08/3883037839 (SaltyCotton) [1950s kitchen]


FAIR USE OF TRAILERITE, MOBILE HOME & FURNITURE IMAGES:

The graphics and photographs from The Milwaukee Sentinel, Cayuga Chief, Beaver County Times, St. Petersburg Evening Independent, Oxnard Post-Courier, Atlas Mobile Home Museum, MetroGoldwynMayer Studios, Tiki Lisa's Photostream, SaltyCotton's Photostream, SportSuburban's Photostream and Vintage Ads/Mobile Home Manufacturer's Association illustrate a key moment in mobile home history that is described in the article. The graphics are of lower resolution than the originals (copies made would be of inferior quality). The images are not replaceable with free-use or public-domain images. The use of the images does not limit the copyright owners' rights to distribute the images in any way. The images are being used for non-profit, informational purposes only and their use is not believed to detract from the original images in any way.