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Roger B. White, a historian at the National Museum of American History, has been researching automotive history—particularly motor homes and tourism—for almost two decades. Earlier this year, he published his first book on the subject, Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America (Smithsonian). But ask White about his favorite trip in a recreational vehicle and he offers an unexpected answer. “I’m not an RVer personally,” he says softly. “I just study them, that’s all.”
Despite his lack of experience driving a large vehicle, White is clearly enamored of Winnebagos and their varied antecedents. He reports that, contrary to myth, the RV is not some bloated, gas-guzzling creation forced down the consumer’s throat by out-of-control manufacturers—at least, it wasn’t until late in the game. Rather, early motor homes were handmade by mechanical tinkerers and later by small, scattered manufacturers.
Before Americans began using their vehicles to tour the countryside, White says, the concept of a “roadside” didn’t even exist; what rolled past the carriage or the bicycle was considered either wilderness or private land. “The details and refinements came right from motorists, who were quite creative,” White says.
Motor homes mirror the fashions of their times, sporting picture windows in the ’50s and electronic gizmos in the ’90s. “The idea that one’s home is a castle has never been more true than it was in the 20th century,” he says. “Homes have been fortified with so many things that you hardly have to go outside any more. We prize homes so much that when we travel, we want to take a piece of that with us. There is no clearer example than the motor home of that old cliche about Americans having a love affair with the automobile.”
The biggest irony, of course, is that although motor-home aficionados have usually been solidly middle-class, poor people have often done remarkably similar things out of desperation. Often the difference between a status symbol and abject poverty has been too close for comfort.
“We all think it’s great to drive a Winnebago from Maine to Florida, but we don’t think it’s that great to live in a 40-foot trailer,” White says. “Those who traveled for pleasure during the Great Depression distinguished themselves from the unfortunates who had to live in their cars by using streamlined house trailers—things that were stylish. The configurations kept changing, but the idea of living in a vehicle for pleasure beside the road never died.” —Louis Jacobson