PORTABLE LEVITTOWN, a homage to the post-war house on wheels. 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 house on wheels website begins with a chronology of the mid-20th century trailer. America's mobile movement began with "trailer houses" in the 1920s.  It advanced to the "mobile home" of the early 1950s, "12-wide" of the 1960s and "double-wide" and "14-wide" units of the 1970s.
Click on image for a larger view.


By the 1930s, the basic "trailer house" of the 1920s had evolved into the more elaborate -and slightly larger- "trailer coach". In these mass-produced units, 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.


Above we see a very vintage trailer coach advert. Chicago's Kozy Coach Company was building an 8 by 16 footer in 1938. At the time, the typical unit did not have a complete bathroom. This feature would not appear until the early 1940s and did not become standard until the early 1950s.
Advert from http://www.allmanufacturedhomes.com (Atlas Mobile Home Museum)


The global conflict of the first half of the 1940s created a pronounced housing shortage and mass market for the trailer coach. Around this time, it evolved into two different types of abodes.

A smaller unit, 8 feet in width and around 20 feet in length, became known as a "travel trailer" or "RV" (recreational vehicle). It was small and light enough to be towed by an automobile and was used primarily as a camping unit.

Early versions of the "house trailer" or "mobile home" were also 8 feet in width but could extend for up to 40 feet. These larger rigs were usually towed -by truck- to a lot and set up as a permanent residence.

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 mobile home advertisement.

Naturally, super-compact designs made sure that every inch of interior space was used in the most efficient manner possible!


The quote-unquote "spacious" living room seen above might seem cramped by today's standards. One needs to take into account the severe housing shortage that gripped the nation in the years immediately following World War II. The typical family of the time would have considered themselves fortunate to be living in such an abode. How times change!  
Advert from New Moon Homes, Incorporated


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 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 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. attend a "Gallery of Homes" mobile home show. These events were a popular way for manufacturers to debut new models. They were also a way for Americans to while away leisure hours. 
Drawing from the Milwaukee Sentinel

Soon after the advent of the very first trailer coaches, a mobile subculture 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 "house on wheels", had been established in the American vernacular by the mid-1930s. At that time, there was no negative connotation...
Drawing From the Milwaukee Sentinel 
 

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
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The floor plan above depicts an 8 by 40 foot model. The standard floor plan has 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 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 Vincente 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 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 New Moon Homes. The success of the film contributed to a large increase in business for the manufacturer.
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 New Moon rig extended 36 feet from stern-to-bow.     

All of the 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 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 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.


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 created a cut-away view of the split-level Loft Liner. Rigs such as this were made fairly obsolete by the introduction of the 12-wide, in 1960. 
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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... 


The standard washing machine of the early 1950s was the wringer-type model (seen on the left). Using a wringer washer 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. The increasing popularity of the more compact automatic washer and dryer (on the right) made a mobile home laundry area truly practical. The first house trailers to come laundry-equipped made their debut in 1954. 


The early 1950s introduction of pastel shade appliances -i.e., yellow, turquoise and pink- made color-coordinated kitchens possible. Moreover, new mobile homes often featured counter-top range units and eye-level ovens!


A Space Age husband and wife relax in their mobile home kitchen. It came equipped with the latest sunny yellow-shade appliances.
Photo from www.flickr.com (SaltyCotton's photostream)


The kitchen in the front end of this trailer home is decked out with a turquoise refrigerator and range.
Photo from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association_Click Americana

Another jovial couple entertain one another in the Early American-style living room of their new 8-wide rig.
Photo from Mobile Home Manufacturers Association flyer -1960


A Trailerite wife enjoys some quality time in her ultra-modern-appointed living room. Check out the COOL curtains!
Photo from www.flickr.com (SportSuburban's Photostream / Trail R News Magazine -October 1960) 
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Newly-built house trailers of the late 1950s featured several innovative design concepts, such as a front kitchen. A rig 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. 
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Mobile home exteriors of the late 1950s and early '60s were also futuristic in appearance. Sweeping "sky-roofs", such as the one featured on this 1959 model, brought in light and nighttime views of the stars and heavens. A matter of note: the 1959 cost of a mobile home fell between $3,500 (for an economy rig) and $15,000 (for a luxury model).

The futuristic mobile homes of the late 1950s and early '60s gave way to units built with a more boxey, house-shaped design. By the end of the '60s, the 14-wide mobile home had made its debut, making the house trailer more spacious than ever. 

The "double-wide" unit was also making inroads in the late 1960s. A double-wide 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 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 large-pane crank-out models (which often lost tension and would not shut tightly). 

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

Quality-crafted mobile homes were still being manufactured in the early 1970s, but were also sold for a premium price. 



As in the 1950s, the standard mobile home of the 1970s would also have come fully-furnished. However, the quality of articles used had fallen drastically. Interiors were often done in rather gaudy "Mediterranean" decor.
Drawings from the Oxnard Press-Courier (Oxnard, California)



Appliance-wise, these would have been the colors available for the new mobile home of 1970; standard white, coppertone, avocado green and harvest gold. The pastel shades that had become popular in the 1950s had been phased out in the mid-1960s.

The lower price point mobile home of the early '70s was often poorly-constructed and floored with cheap "shag" carpeting. Shades of red and black, orange or bright green were common. 

Quality issues, and dubious features (such as cheap -and potentially dangerous- aluminum electrical wiring) caused 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 became more status conscious, the concept of living in a mobile home had become less desirable for many. 

Keeping up with the Joneses, 1980s-style, could require 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 a family.

By 1974, the terms "trailerite" and "tin can tourist" had become archaic. Within a few years, trailer life would be dubiously depicted in various country & western songs, via websites such as "Missouri Trailer Trash", or on over-the-top TV shows such as Canada's "Trailer Park Boys". 

However, the essence of the mid-century Trailerite culture lived on.  The "tiny house" movement began to gain impetus in the late 1990s. This promoted a 400 square foot abode as a trendy and environmentally-friendly alternative to the financed-to-the hilt, cluster mansion lifestyle. 


Today's tiny house takes minimalism to the max. Born out of economy and practicality, a typical tiny abode encompasses around 400 square feet and costs around 29,000 (US 2017) dollars. This price includes such options as a solar panel, instant propane water heater and hardwood flooring. 
Photo from Wikipedia / "Tammy"  


The more spacious "manufactured home" of the 21st century provides 1,000 (or more) square feet of living area. Built by Champion Home Builders, of Topeka, Indiana, this 16' by 66' single-wide unit sells for 29,900 (US 2017) dollars. It includes features now standard in the industry; horizontal vinyl exterior siding, triple-pane (house-type) windows and a peaked -and shingled- roof.   


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 were:

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://www.fontspace.com
http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com
http://tinyhousegiantjourney.com
www.flickr.com (Tiki Lisa's Photostream)
www.flickr.com (SaltyCotton's Photostream)


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 and 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.