Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Air Stream Trailers - Vestige of the American Moderne Design Craze

The couple in this picture acquired their original Air Stream "Torpedo" trailer as a kit from the manufacturer in 1935. Holman, a Florida physician, was handy, and saw the kit (which cost $5.00) advertised in Popular Mechanics magazine. It took him two and a half years to complete the trailer, and everything had to be done by hand: plumbing, wiring, gas fixtures, mattresses, curtains, etc. Not like today when you can drive a finished motorhome right off the sales lot. It was the 1930's and cash was scarce. Holman was still a medical student when he built his. He and his wife continued to use the trailer for the next five decades, traveling all around the lower 48, with only minor augmentations to the original shell. In his 90's (circa 2008), Mr. Holman was still attending Air Stream Trailer Rallies, something he had been doing since the late 1940's. His trailer is the earliest known example of the Air Stream product line.

In response to the growing network of roads (and highways, or "interstates") in the nation, and the opening of numerous national parks, there grew up a "gypsy" culture of road life in the 1920's and '30's, which continues to this day. Travel by car (and trailer) became a national pastime. Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, American middle-class families began to take for granted a Summer trip by car. Motoring became for many, almost a way of life, nomadic and foot-loose. Even the avant garde got involved: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the great Beat classic text, is based on cross country travel, by road or train. This expression of America's prosperity--where ordinary people could expect a "vacation" break from employment--was the excursion; and intra- and inter-state tourism became big business.

Air Stream trailers came in many sizes and variations. There were four-wheeled versions, and not all of them had the characteristic shiny external skin. But they all had the Streamlined Moderne Design look, and it was this aspect of their appearance which has made them a classic ikon of our culture, and entitles them to a place of honor in the history of engineering and product design. Streamlined Moderne began in the 1930's. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, austerity and efficiency came into fashion. Sleek finishes, aerodynamic forms, synthetic materials and an infatuation with speed and futuristic elements predominated. Consisting of elements of Art Deco, Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, and Bauhaus elements, it was expressed in architecture, ships, interior design, furnishings, appliances, as well as in automobiles (and trailers). Little attempt was made to distinguish between functional and non-functional streamlining. Sleek "aerodynamic" styling, based on the idealization of the machine, came to dominate commercial and factory-made design for 30 years, well into the early 1960's (and the era of fins and sweeping chrome trim). The Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34 (the year before Holman bought his trailer kit), drew 38 million visitors--providing a welcome oasis of excitement and optimism during a period of extreme economic privation. Science and technology had become the new gods.

Our family never owned a trailer. By the 1950's trailers had become rather expensive, especially if you weren't going to use them very much--and then there was always the additional consideration of where you were going to store them when not in use. We did have a large "barn" in back of our house, but that didn't seem to be the primary excuse for not having one. Instead, we became "campers" with tents and utensils and paraphernalia carried in the trunk of the big family car. This was what Father called "roughing it" which undoubtedly reflected his nostalgia for his scouting days in pre-WWI Wisconsin. We camped in designated state or national park "grounds" where there were fire-pits and picnic tables, and crude common bathroom units. This was all supposed to be great fun, though the inconveniences probably outnumbered the novelties three to one.

Despite our never having used or owned one of these, today I still get nostalgic for the 1950's whenever I see one of these old shiny beauties. They're a touching reminder of the delight people once felt for the American Dream of Summer vacations and recreation. People still travel in America, but a lot of the romance has gone out of it. Campgrounds nowadays are often nothing less than glorified trailer parks, and trailer parks have distinctly negative connotations for those of us Baby Boomers who grew up at a time when living in a trailer meant you couldn't afford to buy or rent a decent house, even a small one. Some people actually preferred living in a trailer--some people do today. I visited a man in Santa Clara a few years ago, in a trailer development where the trailers were so large and elaborate that they looked almost like tract homes. But that's not what vacation trailers were about.

How about a vacuum cleaner that looked like a rocket ship?

Or the hand iron that looked like Captain Nemo's submarine?

Or the weird teardrop-shaped automobile designed by Norman Bel Geddes, which looks like something Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock might have found crawling from under a rock out at the edge of the galaxy?


Ed Baker said...
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J said...

Motoring became for many, almost a way of life, nomadic and foot-loose. Even the avant garde got involved: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the great Beat classic text, is based on cross country travel, by road or train.

Yes, but in JK's case he's on the back of some flatbed heading into the western night, or in a stolen sedan wit' his homie Cassady, or riding rails with hobos at times. Not quite the same as motoring around the Ewe Ess Eh in one of those ritzy Airstreams (pricey, too), or the guppies' typical SUV. JK's journeys would be nearly impossible now: any would- be beat-wanderer would most likely be either arrested on the highway by redneck cops ...or jacked by gangsters.

That said, an amusing epistle--there is a certain style to Airstream gera-- and a bit refreshing compared to yr ode to David Lean.... or Kirby Olson's usual ham-fisted, moralistic narcissism (it's amazing they let that boy teach, IMHE)