Downwardly mobile: how trailer living became an inescapable marker of class

The bad rep started during the Great Depression—and never stopped

A family in their trailer home at Glenn L. Martin Trailer Village, a Farm Security Administration housing project in Middle River, Maryland, in 1943. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In 1954, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz starred in The Long, Long Trailer, a movie about two newlyweds who decide to spend their honeymoon in a trailer. The film, basically a goofy prop comedy in the style of I Love Lucy, was “frankly witless,” according to the New York Times that year, and the trailer a “contrivance strictly for ‘yaks.’” The shower head seems to attack Arnaz, and the trailer’s tilt turns Lucy’s attempt to cook eggs into slapstick. By the mid-fifties, the trailer, a modern cousin of the covered wagon, had been a fixture on the roads for a couple of decades, but ideas about the kinds of people who had them were still evolving. Though the movie was ostensibly about a middle-class couple looking for a luxurious getaway, it drove home the idea that there was something hilariously ill-fated, indeed absurd, about choosing trailer life.

The trailer has always held a special place in the American imagination. Once a symbol of freedom and mobility, it became — through waves of economic hardship and discrimination over the course of the 20th century — a testament to the limitations of the so-called land of opportunity. Stated another way, trailers became the province of the have-nots, and along the way, the pernicious myth of “trailer park trash” became core to a set of stereotypes about lower-class white people.

“In the forties and fifties, we were thought of as trailer trash,” says an interviewee in the documentary “Suburbs on Wheels: A History of American Trailer Parks.” “I don’t know if people didn’t want anything to do with us because we lived in these little buildings, but we just stuck together, we hung together, we stuck up for each other.”

The “little buildings” started as vessels designed to be pulled by cars, which were, in the years following World War I, suddenly abundant. Between 1922 and 1929, car production essentially doubled, from 2.27 million automobiles to 4.45 million. Although the Interstate Highway System wouldn’t be authorized for another generation, more cars meant more movement. In particular, it meant that families could travel as they hadn’t been able to before.

A trailer park in Edwards, Colorado, is overshadowed by the outcropping of multi-million dollar homes perched on the mountain above, near Vail Valley in 1997. (AP/E Pablo Kosmicki)

Trailer parks began as resting places for these newly mobile travelers. They were a safe place to stop, and many also accommodated tents. At the time, many trailers were homemade, built according to simple plans, though the manufacturing of trailers had been growing since the 1930s.

Of course, that was also the period of the Great Depression, when many were forced into a life of destitution and itinerancy. This was the era when the trailer park acquired its reputation as “trashy.” As more and more people used rolling domiciles as permanent homes, the once glamourous capsules went from representing freedom to representing its opposite: confinement and a lack of opportunity.

Trailer living became an even more entrenched way of life during World War II, when mobile home parks were used to accommodate factory workers, “sturdy families who’ve answered the call of production,” according to a government film advertising the Defense Housing Program.

Even as the trailer was repurposed for patriotic ends, those who lived in them were seen as low-class, even “squatters.” As Nancy Isenberg points out in her 2016 book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, the trailer industry attempted to rehabilitate its image in the late 1940s by doubling down on advertising the units as “trailer coaches,” with ample space set among well-kept neighbors. The manufacturing industry even “pressed for improved trailer ‘parks’ — an image that conjured well-manicured, family-friendly garden sites and was meant to cast off the temporary-sounding, refugee-bearing trailer ‘camps’ of World War II,” Isenberg writes.

The tension that the trailer represented — a strange duality of freedom and confinement — was borne out, according to Isenberg, in the pulp fiction of the time, which established a few enduring trailer park tropes. Novels with titles like Trailer Tramp and The Trailer Park Girls peddled stories of sexual deviance and, in particular, “easy” women engaging in no-holds-barred sex in the liminal world embodied by the “edge of town.”

Through these representations, the “freedom” of the trailer park was recast as rootlessness, even lawlessness. As Isenberg writes, “At their worst, such places have been associated with liberty’s dark side: deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringe of the metropolis.” The trailer is a bundle of contradictions: As an object, Isenberg writes, “the trailer is something modern and antimodern, chic and gauche, liberating and suffocating. Unlike the dull but safe middle American suburb, trailer parks contain folks who appear on the way out not up: retired persons, migrant workers and the troubled poor. This remains true today.”

Residents of the Royal Palm Trailer Park in Homestead, Florida, salvage possessions in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. (AP/Lynn Sladky)

As the century wore on, the trailer had a hard time competing with another wave of marginally more permanent affordable housing: the tract house. In the 1950s, developers began building out American suburbs, and the prefabricated housing options offered by construction companies like Levitt & Sons became the centerpiece of the postwar American Dream. And as Isenberg is careful to note, the Federal Housing Authority did not even begin insuring mortgages for trailer homes until 1971, which meant that owners faced “hidden fees and penalties” that offset their supposedly cheap price tags. This also made trailer residents a target of resentment, since they weren’t paying property taxes. Moreover, since desirable plots of land were used for new suburban home construction, trailer parks were often consigned to unappealing lots, which has led to them being the biggest victims of natural disasters.

All of these factors contributed to the American notion of the trailer park. But historical factors aren’t the only relevant ones to consider. As writer Emily Colucci argues on the blog Filthy Dreams, the “trash” in trailer trash, and at the center of a broader “trashy” aesthetic and sensibility, is in fact a form of excess. We see trash as overflow or excess, so we are more likely to see the trailer park as lurid and its denizens as inessential to the functioning of the community.

Though Lucy and Desi were arguably just cruising American highways in search of honeymoon adventures in The Long, Long Trailer, they were also part of a tradition of rendering ridiculous a life lived, even temporarily, in a substandard, socially unacceptable way. As Isenberg deftly establishes throughout White Trash, representation matters. With almost no cultural images of dignified life on the inside of a trailer, or in the often close-knit neighborhoods that trailer parks become, Americans cling instead to the simple, outmoded ideas about trailers and their inhabitants that they’ve held for nearly a century.

At Timeline, we reveal the forces that shaped America’s past and present. Our team and the Timeline community are scouring archives for the most visually arresting and socially important stories, and using them to explain how we got to now. To help us tell more stories, please consider becoming a Timeline member.

Downwardly mobile: how trailer living became an inescapable marker of class was originally published in Timeline on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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