Auto-Camping, From Coast to Coast 1916

I have so many vintage fashion magazines that I usually don’t bother with the homemaker types such as Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s.  But the one above was older, and I really don’t have many magazines from the 1910s, so I picked it up, seduced by the words, “Spring Fashions.”
Inside I found a deal-making story:  “From Coast to Coast, A Nine-Thousand-Mile Vacation for Two for  $350.”  The story is the first person account of Beatrice Backus and her teacher husband’s decision to drive from Massachusetts to San Francisco during his summer break.  In 1916 the automobile was still relatively new, and many parts of the country did not have any paved roads.  There was no highway system, no AAA, no reliable maps for many places.  But that did not stop these intrepid travelers who decided to auto-camp their way across the country and back.
The article details everything to modifications made to their car (they put the back of the front seat on hinges so they could lower it into a sleeping surface) to how much they spent on food and gas (20 cents per gallon!)  In many places they bought their food from farms they passed because there were no stores within miles.
She even described the clothing they took:
“We decided not to encumber ourselves with unnecessary clothes.  What we needed we carried in two suitcases which were also packed on the back seat.  I brought along all my old shirtwaists which were good for just one more wearing, and some that my family and friends had contributed, so that as soon as one was soiled I threw it away.  My husband did the same with his shirts.  Then we both wore good serviceable suits – I had a khaki skirt and middy blouse – that showed the dust practically not at all.  I took along a pongee gown for special occasions.  In order to keep warm, we carried heavy sweaters, in addition to our coats, and in the high altitude we found heavy underwear none too warm.  Traveling in a car is usually cool under any circumstances.  Then, of course, I had several veils, which I wore, two or three deep, through the dustiest parts of the road.”
(Pongee is a type of silk, naturally tan in color, and often coarsely woven.)
The trip took eleven weeks, and with the exception of a night or two in a hotel in Denver, every night, even in the city of San Francisco,  was spent in the car.
And just to prove people were doing such things, here’s a photo from my collection showing a similarly inclined couple.  By the looks of that tent, they got a lot of use from it.
The 1910 Abercrombie & Fitch catalog explains the appeal of auto camping:
“This is the very newest out-of-door sport and the complete outfits of its originators were designed and built by us.  We catalog automobile tents, sleeping bags, cooking outfits, food outfits, in a word, complete automobile camping outfits which will enable the owner of a touring car to take a party for a trip completely across the continent without being dependent on hotels or even stores for accommodation or food supply.  It is a splendid sport and the mobility of the motor car gives a marvelous travel range to those who engage in it.”
The term “auto-camping” slowly fell out of favor, perhaps because the tent was replaced by the travel trailer.  Sometimes, though, you see the two concepts intermingled, as in this 1930s photo of a trailer camp.


Posted by Jan:

This is fascinating! What a wonderful sense of adventure they had 🙂 

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 12:22 AM

Posted by Sarsaparilla:

I have to use Jan’s word too – FASCINATING! And it’s so neat that you’ve got a photograph of a couple auto camping, just like in the McCall’s article. 

I always learn so much when I visit your blog. Thank you!!
– Susan

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 3:10 AM

Posted by Lin:

love the idea of camping being a new outdoor ‘sport’. And, frankly, I want one of those early camper-adapted vehicles. It doesn’t look too different to what one would do with a Landrover in the wilderness nowadays… 

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 3:19 AM

Posted by Karen/SmallEarthVintage:

Very interesting! I love the pants on the lady in the last photo. 

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 6:37 AM

Posted by Holly:

I love that they slept in the car even in San Francisco 

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 7:11 AM

Posted by Em:

Loved the description of what they wore–wonderful post! 

Tuesday, November 30th 2010 @ 11:58 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

I’d been looking for a photo of an auto tent for a very long time, and that one showed up on etsy about a month ago. Now I know why etsy calls it “pounce”! 

Friday, December 3rd 2010 @ 6:10 AM

Posted by Angela:

How cool! Any chance of a scanned pdf? I would love to read the whole article! Have you seen the great articles posted at
Thank you for posting this! 

Sunday, December 5th 2010 @ 9:40 AM

Posted by Jennifer:

Agreeing with Angela, would love to read that whole article. Reminds me of driving up to Alaska with my parents. I spent a few nights sleeping on the seat in the front of the truck. Of course….was a smaller child then lol. 

Sunday, December 5th 2010 @ 11:36 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

I’m afraid I’m pdf-clueless. If someone could steer me to some easy instructions, I’d be glad to try it. 

And I check out What a fun site!

Sunday, December 5th 2010 @ 12:12 PM

Posted by Angela:

I have a mac, and the only way I know how to make a pdf is this: start to print a file, but instead of clinking the “print” button on the printer window, use the drop-down menu on the lower left to “save as PDF”.
On a PC, I have no idea. But if you want to scan the pages and send them to me, I can put them all together in one pdf file and send if back to you. You may have to send the scans separately, depending on the size. If you feel like doing it at all.  

Monday, December 6th 2010 @ 4:42 PM


Filed under Camping and Hiking, Proper Clothing, Road Trip

5 responses to “Auto-Camping, From Coast to Coast 1916

  1. Pingback: Auto Camping, Revisited « thevintagetraveler

  2. Pingback: Prairie Schooner, 1937 Style « The Vintage Traveler

  3. Pingback: The Nostalgia » Pleasure Travel in the 1910s

  4. Pingback: The 1930s Travel Trailer Camping Craze | The Vintage Traveler

  5. Pingback: Prairie Schooner, 1937 Style | The Vintage Traveler

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