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The Great Escape : WHEEL ESTATE: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes, By Allan D. Wallis (Oxford University Press: $24.95; 288 pp., illustrated)

January 27, 1991|Tom Huth | Huth is a magazine and book writer living in Santa Barbara, Malibu, San Clemente, Cardiff and Borrego Springs

The year was 1921. A party of outdoorsmen, brought on a weekend camping trip by President Warren G. (Scoutmaster) Harding, were gathered around an ingenious and elaborate chuck wagon which had been towed here behind an automobile. "The smoke from a cooking fire curled gently toward a clear sky as people talked and laughed above the echoes of wood being chopped. The man cutting wood, in striped shirt and bow tie, was Henry Ford. Thomas Alva Edison recorded the event on his motion picture camera, as Harvey Firestone looked on, offering directorial suggestions."

These, then, were the first RVers: Early Winnebago Man. Who would have guessed that, given such illustrious and even stylish beginnings, the movement toward portable houses would have ended up in such low regard as it is today.

What a wonderfully American idea it was, a declaration of independence, to be able to gas up the old homestead and take off--to say, "If I don't like these neighbors I'll just move my house someplace else." Now, however, the valiant travel trailer, incarnated as the mobile home and the factory-built house, has lost its wheels altogether in a Faustian bid for social respectability. Still, it has grown up to be the poor, dowdy stepsister of the American landscape, habitually overlooked in the debate over unaffordable housing.

"Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes" tells this saga with as much passion as can be wrung from an academic history of aluminum habitations. Allan D. Wallis, a professor of environmental design, declares his allegiance at the outset: "The mobile home may well be the single most significant and unique housing innovation in twentieth-century America." Then, just as quickly, he concedes the central irony: "No other innovation . . . has been more widely adopted nor, simultaneously, more broadly vilified."

The early days of auto-camping sound almost heroic. In 1919, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis built what he called a motor bungalow, the Aerostar, which had a cockpit and a telephone to the car ahead. Charles Lindbergh, after his famous flight, could be seen pulling around a custom-made trailer fashioned after the European Gypsy wagon. By employing machine-age technology, man could return to nature without getting his pants dirty unless he wanted to. It was a big adventure, and it felt like freedom.

Throughout the 1920s, people who worked on the road--salesmen, evangelists, farmhands--caught on to the idea that they could live full-time in trailers. Some models cleverly folded out or popped up for extra space at night, and yet on the outside most of them retained that streamlined look which identified them with fast trains, planes and automobiles. The industrial age was on the move.

The trailer-camp life attracted a strain of people who wanted to be free from mortgages, from landlords, from being dictated to. The frontier spirit was alive and well, with curtains in the windows. In 1936, economist Roger W. Babson, who'd made a name for himself by foretelling the stock-market crash, received another vision. "I am going to make an astonishing prediction," he wrote. "Within 20 years, more than half of the population of the United States will be living in automobile trailers."

In the '40s the travel trailer became the "house trailer," and sometimes didn't move for years at a time. After the war, millions of veterans lived in trailers with their families while they went to school or worked in the boom-time factories. An editorial in Trailer Travel magazine boasted of the new Mobile Man: "Like the pioneer, he, too, is hardy and self-sufficient--he can live and thrive wherever he goes . . . He solves the manpower problems and housing shortages of the nation. He is independent, entirely democratic."

Nevertheless, when those veterans could afford it, they moved into "real" houses. And so it has proven out since that time: Something there is in the homeowner's heart that cannot love a mobile home. No matter how monstrous and house-like they have become, factory-built living quarters have ended up appealing to only two segments of the population. Mobile homes that can still actually move, called recreational vehicles, have been more or less preempted as long-term shelter by retired middle-class white married couples, who quietly carry on the pioneer spirit. Mobile homes that are, in fact, immobile are occupied by the marginally poor. These communities are looked down upon by other Little Pigs (those of us who built our houses out of stone) as lowering property values and harboring low-lifes.

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