Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Trailer as a Permanent Address

      Over the years, Wally’s idealistic vision of the Airstream as a traveling home has been buried under the negative views portrayed by popular culture. Today, the term ‘trailer’ conjures up a variety of images, none of which are – unfortunately – related to the iconic Clipper or any of Wally Byam’s Airstream legacies. All of these connotations were initiated by the idea of transforming one’s mobile home into a primary home – in other words, a permanent address. As the movement continued to grow, the picture of freedom and mobility that once surrounded the Airstream was steadily replaced by a string of stereotypes that branded trailer-dwellers as ‘rootless hobos’ and ‘homeless gypsies’.

“Small men, most of them, mousetrap makers startled by the customers banging at their doors, they have no exalted ideas about converting homeowners to nomadism…They want the trailer to be a vehicle, not a permanent address”
-        Fortune Magazine [about Wally Byam]

      Wally had never intended for his trailers to become permanent addresses. In fact, despite the potential he saw for sales amongst people like cotton pickers, wheat harvesters, mechanics and factory workers who migrated from job to job, he highly discouraged the notion of ‘living’ in a trailer. Nevertheless, many war-time couples who wed during the war turned to Airstream Clippers for temporary housing. Moreover, a surplus of university students was housed in the Clippers when no other residences could be found to accommodate them. It seemed that Wally’s voice in the issue was quickly overcome by the demand for affordable and mobile housing.

      Most trailers in the 1930s provided all that was necessary in a home – a small toilet, a kitchen, a bed, etc. However, people still needed a place to stop and rest at the end of the day. Consequently, gas station owners would wait for tired trailer owners and charge them 25 cents a day to plug into their electricity and have access to tap water. In this way, the first informal trailer parks were born. Some people simply never got back on the road. For others, not having a permanent address was a clever way of evading tax collectors and landlords. Most impressively, living in a trailer cost only $65 a month. Public opinion quickly turned against these trailer parks; many people were distrustful of them and believed that they would cause a great menace within the justice system with all the new laws that would have to be created for their regulation.  

      Wally Byam was aware of the buzz that surrounded his beloved creation. He once said, “We are determined to improve our public image, as the boys on Madison Avenue say, so that people change their absurd notion that we are homeless gypsies.” Unfortunately, the negative associations with trailers have only worsened since his death. Wally’s picture-perfect vision of a traveling home never returned to the popularity it experienced when the Clipper was first introduced. 

Easterling, Keller. Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America. Cambridge, MA:MIT, 1999. 

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