The mobile home park industry is actually quite a fascinating story that is immersed in American culture. Starting in the “Roaring 20s”, proliferating in World War II, and being an active participant in the growth of the American Dream, there are few products that are more colorful – or more misunderstood – than the mobile home. In this first of a three-part series, we’re going to dive into some really fascinating trivia about the industry from the 1920s to 1940s to get a better understanding of its early origins.
"Everybody is going over land as they did 100 years ago, but instead of prairie schooners, they go in luxurious trailers. Instead of veils and flounces, the swaying simplicity of Luxables. Like young Mrs. Fulton, many smart women are assembling trailer wardrobes and choosing things that can be kept top notch."
This is Frank Rolfe with the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series and that was a description of a new travel trailer, now known also as mobile home, from the 1920s and we're here on a three part series: Mobile Home Trivia. Things you may not know about the mobile home industry and we're starting off in episode one talking about the 1920s through the 1940s.
Many people don't realize that the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Rockefellers, they all owned trailers. That's right: back in the 1920s, if you had a luxury automobile, you were still missing a luxury accommodation when you had to stop for the night, because all hotels were located only at train stations. There were no cars back then. There was no interstate highway system and no one had bothered to build roadside hotels or motels yet.
So, if you wanted to sleep in something other than the ground in a tent, you had to bring along a trailer. So the wealthiest American families had those built. Typically by yacht builders, normally made out of mahogany with brass fittings and crystal chandeliers. They were quite the thing back in the '20s and then you can still find them in several American museums.
Now, as these people started traveling in these luxurious trailers, many cities realized that this was a customer base they definitely wanted to attract. So how did you get the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Rockefellers, and many other affluent Americans to stop in your city and spend the night and shop there? Well, you've got to build a parking lot for them.
Something that's large, something that's paved, something that's easy to pull in and out of. So cities began to build these items, which were called trailer parks. That's right. The very name today which people find insulting, back in the 1920s, was in fact a compliment.It was a source of pride for both the cities and the people who used them.
And it wasn't just the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers using these things. It's a little known fact that Mae West, the number one movie star back in the '20s also had a mobile home. Now she didn't have it to live in full time. She had a fear of trains. So when she had to travel from New York where she lived to Hollywood to film movies, they had the studio had a specialized mobile home built for her. They took a Model T truck, remove the back of the truck and put a home in its place with a little porch on the back and she was going down the highway.
She could wave to people from the porch or sit out there and read and she lived in this thing every time she traveled from New York to Hollywood and back again. So really not just the wealthy, but also celebrities were big users of trailers and big users of trailer parks.
It's also worth noting the media loved this new concept. There were all kinds of articles in magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Ladies Home Companion, look magazine, all talking about this new, cool way to travel, this neato thing called trailers. Very different than today, where the media hates the product, back in the 1930s they absolutely loved it.
And because they loved it so much, Americans throughout the country thought, "Well, I want to buy one of these. I may not be able to afford the luxurious options built by the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, but how can I get one of these things which everyone is saying is so neat?"
So the first commercially-built trailer was built in 1930 by a guy named Arthur Sherman and it was called the Covered Wagon. Now before you think that you were talking about a covered wagon out of an old Western, these looked very reminiscent kind of as a more squared off Airstream trailer and they had all the modern comforts of home or as much of modern comfort as you had back in the 1930s. The tag line for the company was: "A modern masterpiece of fine coach work." And all their advertising followed that same theme.
So basically they were trying to provide a really, really nice form of accommodations and it really worked. They sold many, many thousands of these units, which you can still find today. You'll find one in the MH RV Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart, Indiana.
So then, what happens with the industry? Well, it's going along just great. Then we have this thing in America called World War II and as a result, the government is caught completely off guard because our Army prior to World War II only had about 100,000 people in it. But suddenly we were getting hundreds of thousands of people constantly in the door until the Army grew to over a million people. But there's nowhere to put them. That was the problem. So what does the government do? They cannot build stick-built accommodations quickly enough. They know that.
So they decided to buy 500,000 mobile homes. They went to every manufacturer in the US and said, "Stop all of your production for private individuals. They now all belong to us," and those companies built those mobile homes and trailers all the way through World War II, as fast as they could produce them and they all went out to bases. So the government, in one brief moment, was the largest owner by far of mobile homes in American history.
And even though we've had other occasions since then, like Hurricane Katrina where FEMA has gotten in and bought hundreds of thousands of mobile homes, they've never topped that number that was purchased during World War II.
Now during and after World War II, the industry obviously had a whole different demeanor. We were coming from an era of wealth. Exclusivity. People really liked the product. And so, it was no different as war went on, because people still found these trailers exciting and interesting. And it was about this time, people started to think, "Wait a minute, maybe I could live in a mobile home full time."
And suddenly in 1942 Schulte Homes, the manufacturer still exists today, brought out the first ever double wide. Bear in mind that up until now, everything was only eight feet wide. That was as wide as you could build and pull down the highway. But Schulte had an idea: maybe there was a market for a new larger product that people would want to live in, not just temporarily, but for the remainder of their lives.
So, it brought out in 1942 the first 16 foot wide double wide. Two single section eight footers that were installed side by side and suddenly, the rules of the game had changed. Whereas the old travel trailers, which were eight feet wide were a little cramped and everyone knew that and if you go and go in them today and go to a museum that has them, there's one in Elkhart, Indiana, you'll see that although they were new and different and kind of edgy, they were rather small. Kind of like being in a 1920s wooden yacht.
But with Schulte bringing out the double wide suddenly and getting that footprint even larger now people could visualize, "Maybe this is roomy enough I could live in here for the duration." So suddenly, the industry took on a new angle. Maybe it wasn't just temporary housing for the military or temporary housing for the Vanderbilts and the Astors roaming across America. Maybe we could actually live in these things.
And then came the big breakthrough right after the war, you had Spartan Manufacturing. They made fighter aircraft in World War II and they had a giant pile, a giant mass of aluminum sitting around. And after the war they decided, "What do we do? We have these big plants, we have all these people, we've got all of this aluminum. Do we build more planes?" Well, they decided, no, we don't build more planes, because the world is awash in aircraft following World War II. There are so many army surplus planes out there. There's absolutely no practical reason to build any more. They can't even give away the ones that have.
So they instead decided to try and build a new product that they've heard about, haven't seen much about, but everyone says it's kind of neat. They start doing diligence on building a mobile home out of this aluminum, and what it ended up being was the Spartan Mobile Home Company and they brought out in 1946 what would be the most expensive mobile home of the 1940s, and it was called the Spartan Manor.
Now, this mobile home, made of aluminum, cost $4,000 which at that time was 50% of the price of a stick built home, which was $8,000. This was a very, very pricey product. It was roughly about $53,000 in modern, but that's really not even a fair assessment because single family homes have a very high inflation trajectory, so that's really not a fair assessment.
If you really base it upon the median home price in the US today, which is about $190,000, these homes would have been probably about $95,000 in real terms. They had an era of excellence, an aura of desirability. If you look at the sales brochures of the time, you'll see that the men in the photos are always wearing dinner jackets or blazers. The women are always wearing cocktail party attire or possibly a tennis dress for a day at the country club. An entirely different era though in American history, as far as mobile homes are concerned.
It's also interesting to note that Spartan was owned by J. Paul Getty. J. Paul Getty in fact was the richest man of the 1940s and 1950s. He was a US, formerly an oil and gas entrepreneur and it's interesting how things have gone full circle because today it's Warren Buffet, not the richest but second richest man in America that owns Clayton Mobile Homes, which is the largest manufacturer today.
But the industry was in the perfect position back then. Things just couldn't seem to be any better in the 1920s through the 1940s for the mobile home product. The sky was the limit. People loved it. Manufacturers were doing well. The pricing was very strong, and just when you thought it couldn't get any better, it does. 1950s and 1960s: an even better era for the product.
So join us next week, as we discuss more mobile home trivia concerning the 1950s and '60s in the world of mobile homes. You'll find this a very fascinating tale in mobile home world that most people are very unaware of.
This is Frank Rolfe, the Mobile Home Park Mastery podcast series. Hope you enjoyed this episode and we'll see you again next week.