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Vagabonds: 1937

Washington, D.C. June 4, 1937. "Trailer camp." Harris & Ewing takes us into the late 1930s with a "new" batch of 1,945 glass negatives. View full size.

Washington, D.C. June 4, 1937. "Trailer camp." Harris & Ewing takes us into the late 1930s with a "new" batch of 1,945 glass negatives. View full size.


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Something about 1930s trailers

In those days practically all trailers were made of wood and covered with Masonite. This was surprisingly durable when painted, they lasted at least 10 years. Much longer if painted or kept under cover.

A few examples of Masonite trailers survive from the 30s and 40s.

More expensive models had a special leatherette material over the Masonite. This may be what is on the trailer in the picture.

The roof was also made of Masonite. It was covered with canvas over a layer of cotton padding then the canvas was sealed with 2 coats of special paint.

In the picture you can see how the edge of the roof canvas is tacked down over the padding.

The most expensive trailers were covered with sheet aluminum. But this did not get popular until after WW2 when better, cheaper, and thinner aluminum became available.

The electrical socket on the roof is a bit of an optical illusion. It is a light socket hanging in the air. Look to the right and you can see a light fixture shaped like an inverted bowl. There must have been a row of these lights suspended from a horizontal wire .

The trailer looks brand new, the car would have been about 5 years old.

There were many brands of trailer that looked like that. If you wanted to pin down the exact brand you could compare to the advertisements and pictures at Atlas Mobile Home Museum website. They have the largest collection on the net.

Vintage Trailer

I love seeing photos of vintage trailers. I camp nearly every weekend with my family in our Airstream trailer. It's neat seeing how others fared back before trailers were outfitted with mind-boggling luxuries such as satellite systems, minibars, TVs and so on.

This photo was taken shortly after Wally Byam introduced the first Airstream trailer model, the Airstream Clipper. Interestingly enough, Airstream was the only trailer manufacturer to survive the Depression.

Camping and trailers

In 1954 I took our family of five to see D.C. We stayed in a tent at a campground near the Jefferson Memorial. We had all our camp gear in the 14 ft. boat we trailered on our vacations. This same trip we took the kids to see the Statue of Liberty. In Manhattan, I got in trouble for having a car and trailer on Riverside Drive. We used the boat when we camped at Fish Lake in upstate New York.

Our trailer looked like the one here. I had to report back to the 20th Armored Division in California. Hearing there was a shortage of housing at the base near Lompoc, we bought a trailer in Detroit and towed it west. This was wartime and we had many flat tires. But we got there and sold the trailer when we left California for home.

Trailer Camping

Trailer camping was a new phenomenon in the 1930s: it was accompanied by great speculation, and also fear, as to how this would reshape the housing, labor, and tourist economies. The immediate pragmatic concern in D.C. appears to have been issues related to hygiene and sanitation.

Based on other photographs in this series at the LOC showing the proximity of the Washington Monument (will we see them Dave?), my hunch is that this photo is at the Washington Tourist Camp, located "on the bank of the historic Potomac River, and in the midst of the rare and magnificent Japanese cherry trees."

Washington Post, Jul 6, 1937

Hopes Appear Dim for D.C. Trailer Camp

Only 25 Auto Nomads in Potomac Park During Fourth.

Although prospects for a District trailer camp do not appear any too bright for him, Assistant Corporation Counsel Edward W. Thomas will call a meeting of the Washington trailer committee, sometime this week, he said last night.

"Private property for a trailer camp would be pretty high and most other land around here is already in the national park system. But we will meet to discuss trailer health and traffic problems."

The committee was appointed in February by Commissioner George E. Allen to make a study of the trailer situation. Due to activity of District officials at the Capitol during the past few months, no meeting has been held.

In the meantime - as the touring season reaches its peak - there are at least two schools of thought concerning the need for a trailer camp. Less than 25 trailers were parked in the Washington Tourist Camp over the holidays. Some of their occupants expressed opinion that if the District provided a special camp "there would be 500 trailers here every night."

Knode Among Doubters

J.S. Knode, manager of the tourist camp, is among those who have their doubts about that and who wonder whether the economist was right when he predicted that a big portion of the American public would be living on wheels within the next decade.

There is rarely a time when the Knode camp could not accommodate a trailer or two more. The only "homes on wheels" he turns away regularly, he said, are ones bearing District license plates.

"Strangely enough, we are always turning them away. We're just for tourists, but it's hard for them to realize it, apparently."

Washington offers no inducements for touring nomads who wish to settle down for two or three months as they do in Florida during the winter. The tourist camps place a two-week limit on their stay, and it is rare that health regulations can be met when the trailer is parked on private property.

"Gypsy Law" Broken.

Under an old "gypsy law," any vehicle used as living quarters can not be parked on any lot for more than 24 hours unless water and sanitary facilities are provided.

Another hindrance that Thomas considers might stand in the way of a special trailer camp is the District building regulation that requires all new structures to be made of masonry. Trailers have but little brick and mortar in their construction.

Takoma Park, Md., officials last month had to "declare war" on trailers which were parked in violation of the gypsy law. They reported last night, however, the situation was corrected easily and that several trailers are now "hitched up" in that vicinity.

At the tourist camp in East Potomac Park it was evident that trailering soon settles down to a routine just like any other type of travel. Nobody appeared to be much concerned with what the neighbors were doing, or even conscious of the State printed on their license tags. As isolated as if they lived in adjoining apartments some of the nomads sat on doorsteps to read their evening papers - apparently unaware of children who tried to shoot firecrackers in the wet "backyards."


Wow! Good answer! Thanks

1931 De Vaux

The car is a 1931 De Vaux 6-75 sedan, made by the De Vaux-Hall Motors Corporation. It was the brainchild of Norman de Vaux, who had on-again off-again ties with General Motors and built the Chevrolet and non-GM Durant factories in Oakland, California. Starting at $595, the De Vaux was an inexpensive assembled car – that is, it was put together with parts from different manufacturers. The car bodies were leftover 1930 Durants with different fenders, hood and grill – all made by the Hayes Body Corporation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The engines at first were a 65 hp design by Elbert J. Hall, who had co-designed the Liberty engine of WWI fame and co-founded the Hall-Scott Motor Car Company in Berkeley, California. That is the engine in the picture and it was capable of moving the car along at 70 - 80 miles per hour. Later Continental supplied four and six cylinder engines, as they did for Durant, Peerless, Jordan and many other makes.

De Vaux-Hall Motors acquired the Durant factory in Oakland as well as a factory in Grand Rapids leased from the Hayes Body Corporation, and began building De Vaux automobiles in both places. Unable to keep up with sudden demand, De Vaux-Hall only produced 4,808 vehicles in 13 months before they sold to Continental Motors Corporation in 1932. Continental reportedly produced another 4,200 cars called the Continental De Vaux before discontinuing production in 1934. Norman de Vaux repurchased the assets in hopes of restarting production, but in 1936 finally sold the Oakland factory to GM.

There are some 23 Oakland built and around 32 Grand Rapids built De Vaux automobiles still surviving today.

As far as the travel trailer goes, it is the ubiquitous “bread loaf” shape made by numerous manufacturers in the 1930’s including Roycraft, Schult, Kozy Coach, Glider, etc. There were over 2000 trailer manufacturers in 1937. Pierce Arrow made a few hundred of them in the late thirties, and even the Hayes Body Corporation manufactured a similar style. Plus there were dozens of do-it-yourself plans available for the handyman. My best guess is that this is most likely a mid-thirties Silver Dome Hyway model.


Two talented young Californians, Elbert J. Hall and Bert C. Scott, founded the legendary Hall-Scott engine company by producing gasoline powered rail cars. The duo then went on to build motor cars from 1910 to 1921 before moving on to aircraft and marine engines, where the enjoyed their greatest success.

In WWI they produced a family of engines for the “Liberty Motor” program. The engines shared the same cylinder dimensions in 4, 6, 8 and 12 cylinders, with interchangeable parts, designed to be mass produced. No matter the size engine, these low RPM engines were reliable and light weight, producing a very favorable power to weight ratio. Hall-Scott engines were among the best known in aviation history.

After WWI, Hall-Scott left their leadership role in the aviation market to turn to producing engines for trucks, buses, boats and power units.

American Car and Foundry bought Hall-Scott in 1925. ACF used Hall-Scott's fame to advertise their buses as being Hall-Scott powered. They refused to sell engines to others. ACF made an exception for International trucks. The Internationals sported Hall-Scott engines in the 1920s and early 1930s. The engines ran vertically or horizontally, on LPG or gasoline.

Fairly well off

This family seems to have fared quite well through the Depression. They look well dressed and the man sports "romeros," slip-on shoes popular until the 1950's. The car and trailer both look well maintained. It appears another member of the family or a neighbor friend is coming around the front of the trailer. For most of 1941, our family of four lived in a 19-foot trailer similar to this, with two doors on the curb-side.

Old travel trailers

What would the external walls of the travel trailer in this photo be made of? It looks sort of like fiberglass although I figure it would be much too early for that. It does have a pattern on it.

[Painted aluminum would be my guess. - Dave]

The trailer

What kind of material is the trailer made of, I wonder?

110V of Fine Livin'

It looks like the light is plugged/spliced into the top of the trailer.

What's the make

...of the car? The engine block has the word "HALL" cast into the side.

Caravan park all right

The crud on the spare was most likely thrown up from the front wheel. The name "HALL"appears to be embossed on the engine block. Would that indicate what make of car it is?


Interesting modern electrical connections to the trailer contrasted with the befringed pull-down shade on the driver-side car window.

Cool Shorts

Not often Shorpy shows clothing that fits today's style.

The kid's shorts would fit perfectly today. Correct length and all. But not his shoes. Not by a longshot.

Curious Flag...

That's a fender marker. So you could see where the edge of your fender was while parking and not bash it all up. The other side should have one, too.

Don't Look Like Vagabonds

An orchard in the background suggests a labor camp but the travel trailer and the car suggest a vacation of sorts, maybe a "working" vacation.

The trailer looks almost new, no dents, broken glass, windows open, roof vent operational ana d the car looks to be in good shape, too. The bottom of the spare tire shows road dirt but this doesn't strike me as a "Grapes of Wrath" type migration. hey, is that a radio antenna sticking out of the top of the trailer?

["Vagabond," in addition to meaning wanderer, was a brand of travel trailer as well as the name of countless motels. - Dave]

Plugged In

There seems to be an electric light with a shade and an empty light cord comming down from somewhere out of sight from the top of the picture.

Trailer Camp

The trailer looks like it's plugged into electric and there's an electric light hanging overhead - Grapes of Wrath this is not.

Parade flag

Curious flag mounted on the fender, could it have been required when pulling a trailer?

Grapes, Upgraded

Seems straight out of "The Grapes of Wrath," though these folks seems a little better off.

Too many moving parts

What my father and his friends always said about the latest newfangled washing machines. Is the father in this picture secretly wishing for the simplicity of his old Model T, with no water pump, distributor, generator, battery, starter, gas gauge or roll-up windows to worry about? Or is he glad these conveniences have been brought to a reliable state of mass production as he teaches his son the finer points of adjustment?

I was born in 1937

and look forward to more pictures of my parents' world at the time.

The Good Old Days

When a stubborn car could be cured with the tools you could cram into your back pocket and there were no electronic gizmos involved. Looks like a Dodge.

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