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c. 1950s

The age of the Airstream

The iconic trailer that brought the spirit of aviation to the motorist

Airstream trailers parked with American flags at a camping convention in Hershey Pennsylvania 1970 (Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Outfitted in shining aluminum and shaped like a bullet, the beautifully monikered Airstream trailer can justifiably be described as an icon of the road.

The man to thank is one Wally Byam. 

In the 1920s, Mr. Byam built a trailer is his backyard out of compressed wood, and then sold DIY kits. His business grew from there, but was transformed in 1936 when Byam copied the design of another trailer.

That trailer, the Bowlus Road Chief, was actually the very first aluminum trailer, and was designed by William Hawley Bowlus.

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You may not know that name, but you may be familiar with his work – Hawley Bowlus had overseen the design of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 record-breaking aircraft the Spirit of St Louis

The purpose of the streamlined shape, and the aluminum, was to reduce wind resistance, and therefore increase fuel economy. 

All that aside, it was also instantly recognizable, and, together with its name, seemed to bring the spirit of aviation to the motorist.

Tellingly, of more than 400 trailer companies in operation before WWII, only Airstream survived.

But any doubt as to its status as the definitive US trailer was cast away in 1969, when an Airstream was used to quarantine the returning Apollo 11 astronauts, after their visit to the moon.

They were visited by President Nixon, and released once it was determined they had not picked up a Lunar bug. 

Airstream is still going strong, and its streamlined silver trailers have become a shorthand for 1950s America.  Especially so in Europe, where Airstreams are very much the go-to choice as with businesses wanting to communicate a sense of retro-cool.

1942
A view of trailers housing workers and their families at a magnesium mine, Nevada. Only airstream was to survive the war.
Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
1946
Sylvia examining a model of a California trailer park intended for rented to ex- military personnel
Keystone / Getty Images
1950s
A vast trailer park with many Airstreams in evidence
GraphicaArtis / Getty Images
1950s
The distinctive Airstream shaped nestles amongst a group of trailers.
Lost Colour Library
1956
A line of Airstream trailers as far as the eye can see parked on a country road
Underwood Archives / Getty Images
1960s
An Airstream convention
Underwood Archives / Getty Images
1961
Breakfast at an Airstream trailer gathering
Underwood Archives / Getty Images
1969
President Nixon greets the returning Apollo 11 astronauts, quarantined in an Airstream
NASA
1970
Airstream trailers parked with at a camping convention, Hershey, Pennsylvania
Ralph Crane / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
1970
A long line of Airstream trailers wait for parking space at a campground during a trailer rally.
Ralph Crane / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
An Airstream trailer parked in Maine
Joe Sohm / Visions of America / UIG via Getty Images
An abandoned airstream, Bagdad Cafe, California, USA.
Lou GRIVE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

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