The Tin Can Tourists: Early Photographs of RV Campers

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The opening of highways to the southern states during the second decade of the twentieth century allowed newly mobile northerners and adventurous men and women from around the nation to see the unique sites and communities of Florida’s interior, away from the more developed cities and destinations on the east and west coasts.

In 1915, the Dixie Highway Association and interested state officials began planning a network of paved roads that would eventually stretch from Miami to the northern border of the United States. A number of other auto trails, including the Atlantic Highway, Lone Star Trail, and Mississippi River Scenic Highway, also terminated in Florida. The number of automobile tourists visiting the state increased dramatically every year, and Florida’s rural areas and small towns began to change as well.
From early automobiles, modified to carry sleeping quarters, kitchen equipment, and barrels of water, to the sophisticated campers as luxurious as nice homes, Florida’s vacationer-explorers used their beloved vehicles to find out-of-way locations of interest and comfortable places to live for a few days or weeks. The original tin can tourists of the 1920s pioneered camper travel, and the practice became ever more popular among the booming families after World War II and increasingly-mobile retirees journeying south.
Trailer parks developed to cater to the waves of new visitors bringing their accommodations with them. Roadside attractions and amusement parks likewise developed facilities to meet the needs of the expanding variety of campers and trailers. Snowbirds, young families, and mobile workers all found Florida welcoming, and more permanent trailer parks appeared recreating the familiarity of village life, only with movable structures comprising its residents’ homes.
The Tin Can Tourists of the World (T.C.T.) was an organization of camping and “trailering” enthusiasts founded at a Tampa, Florida campground in 1919. The goals of the group were to provide its members with safe and clean camping areas, wholesome entertainment, and high moral values. The origin of the term “tin can” in the name is not clear. Some have suggested that it refers to the campers’ reliance upon canned foods. Others have asserted the name refers to the small Ford automobile of the era, the Model T or “Tin Lizzie,” which was a popular and affordable automobile option among middle class Americans from which the majority of T.C.T. members came. The modified automobile driven by Tin Can Tourists often included large metal barrels for carrying water attached on the vehicles’ exteriors. The original recognition emblem of the T.C.T. was a tin can soldered to the radiator cap of a member’s car.
The Tin Can Tourists association formed to coordinate the conventions of the new and expanding practitioners of automobile-camper travel. Many of the images included in this section are from a collection at the Department of State, State Archives of Florida that documents the organization and activities of the Tin Can Tourists of the World from between the 1920s and 1940s:
Tin Can Tourists at De Soto Park, December 25, 1920.

Tin Can Tourists camp, Gainesville, Florida, ca. 1920s.

Cooking barbecue at a Tin Can Tourists convention, Arcadia, Florida, ca. 1920.

Barbecue at a Tin Can Tourists convention, ca. 1920s.

View of the Tin Can Tourists camp, Gainesville, Florida Date: ca. 1930. Before the modern highway, side hotels were the tourist camps all over Florida, such as this “Tin Can Tourist Camp” in Gainesville. Gainesville had many tourist camps, and this one dates from the years immediately following World War I when traveling became popular and automobiles became more plentiful.

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