April 05, 2011

a History of the "Silver Twinkie"

In preparation for an upcoming Airstream themed outfit and photo-shoot, today's post celebrates the history of the classic Airstream travel trailer. The Airstream has earned its status as an enduring icon of mid-century American design through its distinctive appearance and quality craftsmanship. 
(via Airstream Living
Origins
The lure of the open road began tempting Americans by the early 20th century and resulted in the popularity of car camping. The very first travel trailers appeared in the late 1920s as custom-built or do-it-yourself jobs. It wasn't until the Great Depression that travel trailers gained significance as a niche market.
A Bowlus Road Chief, the predecessor to the Airstream (via Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht)
In 1933, gifted aircraft engineer named William H. Bowlus developed the Bowlus Road Chief, a travel trailer that would later become the Airstream Clipper. This trailer was innovative in its use of a lightweight aluminum alloy which was both rust and shrink proof. It was the first trailer to feature a monocoque design, meaning that the trailer body and chassis were a single integral unit. The unique design and material resulted in superior performance and quality. However, by 1935 the Bowlus Company went bankrupt due to poor business and marketing choices.

Enter Wally Byam
In 1935, a young entrepreneur named Wally Byam bought the Bowlus company at its bankruptcy auction. Byam's marketing brilliance and design know-how made the Airstream travel trailer an internationally recognized phenomenon.
Wally Byam (via)
The Airstream brand was in many ways a natural extension of Byam's personality and values. Born and raised in Oregon, Wally developed a passion for traveling and the outdoors at an early age. As a preteen, he independently  herded a flock of sheep for an entire summer. By 16, he had already served aboard two sailing vessels. Byam graduated with a degree in history from Stanford in 1921 before settling in Los Angeles where he began a career in publishing.

Byam's career in trailer manufacturing began as a hobby. As a "backyard mechanic", Byam began making his own trailers in the late 1920s. After publishing a successful DIY trailer guide, Byam founded a custom-built trailer company. After buying the Bowlus company's unique design, he improved its livability features which Bowlus had ignored. Byam released the very first Airstream Clipper in 1936 to notable acclaim.

A 1936 Airstream Clipper (via Airstream Living)

Airstream Becomes an Icon
After production halted during WWII, the economic boom of the 1950s saw the Airstream become an icon. The Airstream combined wanderlust and domestic bliss seamlessly into a beautiful streamlined package which fascinated newly prosperous Americans. In 1952, Byam created international caravans of Airstreams traveling together. He continued to lead these months-long expeditions almost every year up until his death in 1962.
(via)
These caravans were not vacations for Byam, but an opportunities for field-research, problem solving, customer relations and publicity. His caravans travelled through South America, the near east, Asia, Europe and Africa. The rigorous and often harsh road conditions as well as the direct feedback from fellow caravanners allowed Byam to test and improve all aspects of the Airstream. These journeys were covered by Time, National Geographic and Life.
An Airstream caravan at the great pyramids (via)
Perhaps the most notable of the caravans, Byam's last Airstream voyage fulfilled his lifelong dream to travel from Capetown, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. During this voyage, Emperor Haile Selasie of Ethiopia met the group and toured an Airstream. This same caravan also camped directly at the base of the great pyramids. If that is not one badass adventure, I don't know what is!

Emperor Hailee Selassie (center) tours an Airstream with Wally Byam (left) (via Wanderlust Airstream at 75)

By the 1960s, Airstreams were a symbol of land travel with a distinctly space-age aesthetic. Airstreams were even used by NASA as facilities for astronauts. After Byam's death in 1962, the company was run by his close protegee Art Costello before being sold to a conglomerate in 1967. By the 70s, the Airstream brand had shifted away from Byam's original vision.

Today vintage Airstreams have made a huge comeback. Used and coveted by actors, artists and designers, they represent a peak in American leisure, manufacturing and design. Although strongly associated with the mid-century, Airstreams are still in production, many with retro themes and references.
(via)
I hope you've enjoyed learning about the history of these unique mobile shelters. I love mid-century Airstreams so much! You should expect more posts dedicated to them pretty soon.
heart,
--m

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4 comments:

  1. I have always wanted one of those! :D

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is fascinating...road planes without wings! Do you have photos of the interiors? Was there a standard design to the interiors? What was the cost of an early AirStream?

    ReplyDelete
  3. good questions. I have a couple photos of interiors, but haven't got
    the clearance to publish them online as of now (they were personally
    shared with me by a relation of Byam). Early Airstream interiors were
    basically all customized although there were some very basic standard
    floor plans.
    Airstreams have always been moderately costly due to their quality and
    technological innovation. They would have been about $4,000 each in
    the 50s, give or take. That's at least about 25,000$ today if I
    understand correctly. Of course, in their defense, this is the cost of
    quality, especially considering as those same Airstreams are still
    usable today.

    ReplyDelete

looking forward to hearing from you!