Why you should care
Because when did living simply, sustainably and within your means become such a bad thing?
In a country as large as the United States, perhaps it was inevitable that the American dream would be conjoined with size and space. But that dream wasn’t always about four-bedroom homes, two-car garages, 60-inch televisions, 48-packs of toilet paper and an avalanche of throw pillows. There was a time when Americans didn’t seek to acquire space, they consumed it — in the form of adventure, mobility, self-sufficiency and striking out across new frontiers. There was a time when a nation raised in Conestoga wagons, one-room cabins and urban slums looked out far more than it looked in. And there was a time when having a trailer meant freedom and possibility more than it did confinement or scorn.
The stigma attached to the trailer park today remains all too real. Mobile homes in America have become synonymous with pink flamingos and chain-smoking teenagers, with rednecks in “wife beater” tank tops and Camaros on cinder blocks, with “trailer trash.” However different the reality — and the history — might be, the stigma dominates the conversation, obscuring the fact that the mobile home’s bumpy journey has always trailed alongside the fortunes of everyday Americans. And if there’s something to be ashamed of, it’s not living in a trailer park, but in a society in which we let our conception of the American dream get so far ahead of the single-wide hitched to its back.
Mobile dwellings may have been touted as “the resort of tomorrow” and “a convenient livable home for today,” but Schult Luxury Liner made clear in its 1945 ad that the manufacturer didn’t actually want people living in its trailers. They were designed to be parked beside breezy oceanfronts and golden mountain ranges, not in dusty, trash-strewn fields.
The first trailer campers, which came out around the turn of the 20th century, were little more than tents nailed to a wooden platform to be hitched behind a Model T. Then in 1910, carmaker Pierce-Arrow debuted the first official motor home. The Touring Landau featured a backseat that folded into a bed, a chamber-pot toilet and a sink. It was called a “land yacht,” a symbol of wealth and mobility. And hewing closely to the popular marketing slogan, “See America First,” thousands of middle-class Americans took to the roads in cramped “travel trailers” and “auto campers” in the 1910s and ’20s bound for exotic destinations like Sarasota, Florida. “America was in love with the freedom,” says John Grissim, author of The Grissim Buyer’s Guide to Manufactured Homes & Land.
But landowners were not in love with the idea of these “tin can tourists” parking on their property and leaving refuse behind. Stories of shotgun-toting farmers began to circulate, and soon enough entrepreneurial landowners had come up with the idea of trailer parks, where for a few dollars you could store your camper, use the outhouse and maybe even get some electricity.
Then the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, and just like that, trailers went from luxury to necessity. Jobless and homeless, people packed their lives into these so-called recreational vehicles, but instead of seeking adventure, they fled drought and despair. Towns and cities quickly countered by banning the use of trailers as housing within city limits and banishing their vagabond inhabitants to flood plains, tornado alleys and the vast, unincorporated outskirts of society, where they still reside today. At the time, people set up in trailers weren’t “much more than today’s homeless living in a refrigerator box,” says historian Al Hesselbart.
By World War II, trailers had grown tethered to the lower rungs of society, and it wouldn’t be long before returning veterans and the tens of thousands of migrant workers living in makeshift trailer parks would be looking for permanent homes. The problem was there wasn’t anywhere for them to go. New construction had slowed almost to a halt, and there weren’t enough suburban Levittowns to go around. And despite the efforts of manufacturers like Schult and the iconic Airstream to revive the sense of luxury, leisure and freedom once associated with the trailer, the massive postwar housing shortage dwarfed such appeals. For millions of Americans, life inside the cheap metallic structures — with roofs made of sheet metal and stained canvas — was nothing resembling a holiday.
The inhabitants of the cramped trailers may have assumed the arrangement was temporary — a stepping stone to a firmer foothold in the American dream. The war, however, eventually led to the invention of easy-to-assemble, single- and double-wide manufactured homes. The federal government purchased more than 35,000 of these prefabs, and U.S. consumers could buy a 30-footer for just $3,000. As manufactured homes proliferated, writes Andrew Hurley in Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks, the sector diverged from the recreational vehicle market, and those left behind began to feel the sting of their circumstances. By 1965, one out of every 10 newly built homes was mobile — or, as it turned out, not so mobile. The most infamous of these houses-from-a-box was the Lustron, an enameled-steel Space Age contraption in which the only way to hang pictures was by using magnets.
In the 1970s, the industry received a slight makeover. The government established building standards, began offering mortgage insurance and officially rechristened the “mobile home” as a “manufactured house.” This reflected the reality that trailer park residents had become far less mobile than the average American, moving infrequently as the result of depreciation, relocation costs and the overall circumstances of being poor.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, manufactured homes continued to get bigger and better. And today’s parks range from the repositories for stereotypical dilapidated denizens of crime to the millionaire RV lots that dot the coast, like the one in Malibu where Pamela Anderson and Matthew McConaughey shack up (separately). Yet the median income for these households, which are often low- or fixed-income, is still only about half that of families living in other types of housing, adding to the seemingly unshakable stigma. “We’re not fighting a quality problem at this point,” Hesselbart says. “We’re fighting an acceptance and attitude problem.”
But as the history of mobile housing demonstrates, acceptance is often driven more by economic forces than attitude adjustments, and as growing numbers of financially strapped baby boomers retire and millennials strike out on their own, affordable housing — regardless of prior stigma — looks increasingly appealing in all its sundry forms. And as more people you know — including, perhaps, your parents and yourself someday — contemplate life in a manufactured housing community, how long before the trailer park is reborn anew as the latest gated community, but one in which livability, simplicity and community are prized once more?
At which point it will finally be time to take out the “trash” from any discussion of trailers, and recognize again that in America, there are no small dreams. Only cozier homes.