Years Of Hitting The Road - Airstream Style - Yields Colorful Ephemera

February 5, 2013

(Excerpted from Airstream Memories, by Joan Brunkowski and Michael Closen, published by Schiffer)
The legendary Airstream travel trailer, with its unmistakable shiny aluminum airplane fuselage design, has been the world’s most recognizable RV for over 80 years. The remarkable success story can be told through the unique medium of collectibles and memorabilia. We only wish we had become of age in time to have met, and perhaps even gotten to know, Wally Bram (founder of Airstream.) He somehow managed in his vast creation of Airstream to have bottled up travel adventure and to have marketed it effectively to the world. He was very bright, highly educated, and quite worldly. He grew up in the era of the real beginning of development of the recreational vehicle, and he was savvy enough to truly understand the big picture about matters affecting RVs. Those of us who now look back to the early decades of the 1900s cannot really appreciate the complex circumstances. Times were changing rapidly and things were not as primitive as we might think. By the 1920s, RVing was here to stay - in the forms of auto camping, homemade travel trailers (and a few homemade “motorhomes”) and some commercially made coaches. Already, by the 1920s, magazines and books about auto camping and RVing were being published; tens of thousands of RVs had been constructed; thousands of campgrounds had been constructed; and thousands of campgrounds had been established.
Before Airstream was created in the early 1930s, many cultural and technological events and trends had come together to lay the foundation for Airstream’s successful history. And, Wally Byam was certainly aware of them. A basic understanding of the matters will be useful, for there are several common threads from this background information.
The most significant background factors to note are: (1) the many vehicle “roll” models that would influence the invention of travel trailers; (2) the birth of the automobile and the rapid advent of auto camping; (3) the art deco movement and the resulting streamline influence on design; and, (4) the creation of a vast array of boxy travel trailer brands, all of which look basically alike. Out of this mix, Wally Byam and Airstream burst onto the scene and have reigned supreme, for 80+ years.
In hindsight, there could have been no doubt that the travel trailer would be created, because (even before the automobile was invented) there were so many models of wheeled vehicles suggesting the prospect of a recreational trailer that would transport passengers, would serve as a carrier of clothing, food, and supplies, and would provide enclosed sleeping quarters for extended travel. These vehicles included many types of horse-drawn carriages (such as the gypsy wagon, the circus wagon, the covered wagon, the church wagon, and others). Also included were railroad passenger cars (especially those with trolley-style roof designs and those used as camping cars (which could be pulled onto sidings and used by wealthy patrons for overnight stays in outdoor settings).
The period of the 1920s-40s was the peak of the era of the art deco movement with its avant-garde designs and with particular attention focused upon streamline design in transportation (such as in the construction of locomotives, steamships, automobiles, and airplanes). Color was important too, as revealed by the creative and dramatic novelty of colors and their pastel shades (which we now call retro).
However, even in the era of art deco, the hundreds of companies in the fledgling travel trailer industry seemed to center their attention upon the shoe box design of trailers, largely with dull exterior colors, with weighty construction materials, and with little creativity. Perhaps, that mentality was understandable in a new industry still coping with basic concerns about building roadworthy and dependable coaches, and fearing survival because so many competitors were in the trailer marketplace.
Even in the 1930s, the airplane was a new and exciting phenomenon for most of the population, because they had never flown in a plane. And, airplanes were sleek and shiny and modern. Commercial aviation for the masses was decades away. Owning an airplane was unattainable and unimaginable for almost everyone, but owning an Airstream with its airplane fuselage design and its bright airplane aluminum surface was possible.
Several reasons explain why the Airstream travel trailer became a true American icon. Among them are the design features of Airstream trailers, which have elements that make them stand above all others as unique and memorable - including Airstream’s shiny aluminum exterior and its airplane fuselage shape. And, equally significant are both the construction and quality control, reasons for Airstream’s dependability and longevity.
Yet, Airstream could not have achieved nearly as high a place in RVing without its aggressive and masterful publicity efforts over the last 80+ years. Indeed, those publicity steps have made Airstream THE legendary American travel trailer. That advertising included a large number of picture postcards, brochures, and other publicity pieces produced by Airstream and by numerous other companies which included Airstreams in their ad campaigns.
The key elements of the publicity efforts initiated by Airstream’s founder and publicity genius Wally Byam were (1) his thoughtful and compelling slogans to describe the allure and reality of owning an Airstream trailer (2) his national and international caravans and rallies, and (3) his remarkably aggressive and effective advertising campaigns.
From almost its beginning, Wally Byam understood the value of a simple and memorable company philosophy, particularly if it were reduced to a series of clever and meaningful pictures and slogans that could be widely publicized. The images and catch phrases have stood the test of time, and remain as persuasive for Airstream today as they were decades ago. Most notably among the slogans is: “SEE MORE. DO MORE. LIVE MORE.”
Many years ago, especially in the 1950s, Airstream mounted a most successful advertising campaign, the cornerstone of which was the effective photography done by Ardean Miller. The Miller family was going on Wally Byam’s European caravan in 1956. Ardean’s wife Norma was going to write a major article about the caravan for National Geographic Magazine, and professional photographer Ardean was to take the pictures for that article. Byam saw that Ardean was a very talented photographer and hired him for Airstream. The rest is history, because for the next twenty years Ardean took the thoughtful and memorable advertising and publicity photos that helped make Airstream a legend.
Importantly, Airstream was the beneficiary of a great deal of free publicity from the producers of other products and services, because other companies wanted to be positively associated with a product as trusted and successful as Airstream. Thus, campgrounds, insurance companies, auto and truck manufacturers, cigarette makers, and other corporations often included Airstream trailers in publicity photographs. Since Airstreams are so instantly recognizable, the exposure was invaluable to Airstream.


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