The RV/MH Heritage Foundation, Museum & Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana, may be the only place in the world where you can see antique trailers in what most people think of as their native habitat: on a carpet of bright green Astroturf, surrounded by pink flamingos, fake bushes, and plywood cutouts of kids around a fire. Since the term trailer trash first appeared, in the sociology journal Public Opinion Quarterly in 1943, the two words have been all but inextricably linked—and the Astroturf image is the first that comes to mind when one hears the words recreational vehicle.
The museum's library, though, presents a different story, one that goes back to the trailer's halcyon beginnings. The collection includes newspapers from the thirties on that document a time when whole cities in Florida were taken over by thousands of mobile-home devotees. There are articles about the Curtiss Aerocar, a trailer built in 1917 for the newly monied to take out on the American roadways that were just starting to appear. It had a phone for calling up to the chauffeur, and a kitchen that slid out of a tow car (the help slept in the car). Visitors to the museum can read about Ollie Trout's trailer park in Miami, which at $5 a day was the most expensive—and luxurious—in post-Depression America. Ollie guaranteed palm trees on every camping spot, and had "servants" racing from the clubhouse to the trailers, bringing cold drinks and sandwiches to guests.
Until a few years ago, the glory days of the RV seemed more remote even than the early-20th-century American landscape that spawned them. But then trailers started popping up across the country—refurbished and retrofitted, with curved interiors wrapped in blond wood and brushed and gleaming metal. They came with Italian marble countertops, expanses of stainless-steel appliances, Sub Zero refrigerators, and Viking ranges. By the nineties, stars like Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, and Matthew Modine began to customize their vintage silver Airstreams into on-set trailers. Suddenly, retro-chic mobile homes and RV's were hot again—even if most people had long since forgotten that they had been glamorous to begin with.
As a 1940 article in Trailer Topics magazine put it, a trailer is a "hybrid of the aeroplane, automobile, and house." No model ever fit this description better than the Airstream, which has remained essentially unchanged since Wally Byam built the first Clipper, in 1936. Constructed from sleek aluminum and outfitted with wood paneling and Formica, it was updated in 2000 by San Francisco designer Christopher Deam, a former Frank Gehry employee, for a plastics-company booth at a trade show. With its exposed silvery skin, one-piece vinyl floor, and curved plastic faux-wood-grain cabinets, Deam's version brought the Airstream back to where it was in 1936—into the mainstream of contemporary design. Initially, the company didn't want to actually produce what became known as the CCD (short for Christopher C. Deam), but when they showed it in the annual Bismarck, North Dakota, Wally Byam Caravan Club in 2001, so many devoted Airstreamers loved it—including those dedicated few who supposedly wanted to keep everything just the way it had always been—that the company was practically forced to put it into production. Now, it comes in five different lengths (up to 28 feet long), with optional flat-screen TV's and built-in broadband hookups. It's Airstream's most popular line.
Slipping into the newest model at one of the 100 or so trailer factories near the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, it's easy to imagine yourself gliding down the highway, past the cornfields and the red barns, into the kind of future that we used to think was just up the highway.
MARK VAN DE WALLE is writing a book about RV culture, entitled Trailer Trash (Picador Press).