“HAM CAN” CAMPING Part Two: All the comforts.
Editor’s note; this is Part Two of four segments of the popular “Memories of El Monte” column to which our late colleague Richard Cortez contributed. They are about travel trailer manufacturing in El Monte and are guest written by author Wyman Kinders in tribute to Mr. Cortez.
Mr. Kinders owns a 1954 Empire 12 footer. Proudly, “Made in El Monte”.
Readers are encouraged to contact us at email@example.com with their recollections of those days.
With America’s newfound ability to “Hit the Road” on weekends and for vacations came the need for trailer manufacturers to provide greater levels of comfort and safety in their offerings. In the 1920′s and 30′s, what few trailers existed were mostly stick built sheds mounted on automobile frames and covered with waterproofed canvas. Some even had traditional roofs with shingles and chimneys. A few forward thinking builders created torpedo shaped units with aluminum skins that resembled dirigibles. There’s no question the “Airstream” trailers evolved from aircraft designs, even to this day.
As with any developing industry, there was soon a race to out-do the other make in terms of amenities, inside and outside of the trailers. Just as American car manufacturers were streamlining their models, trailer companies realized the modern look of their units increased sales. Aluminum skins riveted together like aircraft provided strength, light weight and reflectivity to keep interiors cooler. Fins were added to some models mirroring those appearing on cars. Color schemes similar to the two and three tones of the day were offered. Other automotive features appeared on trailers such as safety glass, large taillights, side marker lights, license plate frames, along with stylized hubcaps and impact bumpers, spare tire carriers and bigger, self actuating brakes. Added features included porch lights, entry steps, screen doors, opening vents, louvered windows and skylights.
But the exigencies of cost and interior space dictated trailer shapes for most manufacturers. Generally speaking, trailers built in the 1950′s were called “Ham Cans” resembling the old key-to-open shape of actual canned meats. Trailers from the 1960′s were a more squared shape and became known as “Toasters” since that’s what they looked like in profile. Efforts focused on putting the most amenities in even the smallest of trailers, and excluding showers, bathtubs and enclosed bathrooms, small trailers usually had full galleys with stove top, oven, ice box, counters, sink, and cabinets. Many offered pressure water systems, flush toilets and electric lighting and outlets. Sleeping comfortably was of paramount importance as most entry level trailers needed to be far better an experience than tents or hammock style camping to lure buyers. Double and queen sizes as well as drop down dinette table twin beds were common. It took 20′ or larger units to offer any real privacy for bathing and changing. But average tent camping was no different so most people made do with more intimacy. Trailer parks and campgrounds always offered showers, bathrooms, laundries, recreation halls and barbecues to add to the small trailering experience. They still do…
Other inside amenities included what homemakers expected of vacation cabins. Colorful curtains, durable vinyl seat cushions, the latest “Formica” counter tops, durable vinyl tile flooring, even carpeting in some. Highlights included thin Birch, Maple and Oak veneer paneled walls, cabinets and drawers. So extensive were the wood paneled units that many became known as “Birchwood Beauties”.
Today, such rich wood interiors are highly sought after by restorers and collectors. Of course everything 50′s was in abundance, such as “MelMac” plastic dinnerware, aluminum drink glasses and pitchers, woven grass place mats, cast resin bowls and platters impregnated with pink sea horses and sparkly sea shells and of course, every imaginable kitchen appliance, lamp and curtain design the fabulous designers at Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens could offer.