By Nicola Hellmann-McFarland, Special Collections Library Assistant
What exactly is a “house car”? It is, indeed, what it sounds like -a house that is also a car, very much like any other recreational vehicle (RV). However, it is often custom-built on a truck frame or a small bus, converted into a bulky sleeper and touring car made to allow its driver and inhabitants to romance the road with maximum convenience, celebrating their freedom to explore.
This was the idea of Winfield L. Markham from Lakewood, NY, who took to the road with his box-shaped house car in the early days of the Great Depression during the winters of 1930 and ’31. One of our latest additions to the Florida Photograph Album Collection at Special Collections, an album entitled “Motoring through the Depression: To Florida & New England by ‘House Car,’” showcases this excursions.
Camping-friendly alterations were generally made to cars almost as soon as they were introduced. Allegedly, the first version of a house car was the Pierce-Arrow’s Touring Landau from 1910 (America’s premiere prestige automaker at the time), which attracted quite a crowd when it was shown at the Madison Avenue Motor Show in New York that year. It was a nifty car to own, and only three Landaus were made, one of which was purchased by cereal magnate Charles William Post. A few years later, refusing to be outdone by Post, another famous cereal magnate, Will Keith Kellogg, requested his own vehicle -only fancier, of course. Known as the “Ark”, it was built from a white motor truck and was modeled after a classy Pullman railroad car.
The house car owned by Winfield L. Markham was not as dandy as those owned by Post or Kellogg, but it sure went places. In it, he made at least three long trips – a 5000 mile trip to Florida with a friend, a 1675 miles trip through New York and the New England States with his mother and a party of friends, and another trip to Florida, again with his mother and the same friends.
One of Mr. Markham’s hobbies was to produce travelogues of his trips, and he documented these voyages by taking many photographs of the places he went, with or without his travel companions posing in them. Afterwards, he arranged 95 of his images in a beautiful, hand-made photo album, each neatly captioned with typed titles, echoing both the diversity of the places traveled and the curiosity and eagerness of the travelers to explore unknown territories.
In his images, Mr. Markham’s eye for the quirky managed to capture the details of life on the road and his appreciation of nature side by side with his interest in cultural history. On one of the trips south to Florida, for instance, Mr. Markham and his travel companion Glenn W. Harris had made a stop in Georgia at the site of “Stone Mountain,” the gigantic memorial to the Confederacy of which had only been partially completed at the time –a surprising scene for today’s onlooker-, and in the following year, on their way back north from the Sunshine State, the group traveled through Florence, SC, where Mr. Markham took pictures and also gave a lecture at what his photos’ captions describe as the town’s “first colored high school”.
His pictures also reflect a fascination with Florida’s lush nature. He visited the state’s “Largest Cypress Tree” near Orlando twice, and there are several images in the album depicting the beauty of Florida’s royal palms and live oaks.
Furthermore, he documented himself and his travelers savoring Florida’s oranges, a Seminole Indian man fishing in the waters of the Everglades, and scantily-clad bathers and suit-wearing businessmen side by side at Miami Beach.
During his trip through New York and New England, his images brought a different set of interests into focus. There are images of the travel party roughing it between boulders in the Adirondack Mountains and marveling at the 228 feet high Taughhannock Falls near Ithaca, NY. The travelers were also captured admiring some Art Deco at Bok Singing Tower near Lake Wales and enjoying the simple pleasure of an Atlantic Ocean beach.
Throughout the entire photograph album, we get to see the quirky house car, framed by the great outdoors of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on a snowy road somewhere in North Carolina, gawked at by a group of nosy school children in Clinton, NC, and appearing majestic by the rolling waves of Daytona Beach.
In our day and age, we often take travel experiences for granted and might not even be easily impressed by them anymore. But in 1930 when personal motorized transportation -let alone inside a bulky custom-made house car- was still a relatively new thing and other American states beyond one’s own hometown were thought to be far and mysterious destinations, it is easy to imagine how much of an adventurer’s heart Mr. Markham and his travel companions must have had to embark on such long expeditions. They belonged to the early camper culture of Americans, following their wishes to take to the road and explore their country while enjoying “the intimate pleasure of traveling in a vehicle that was both an oversized car and an undersized house.” (Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger B. White)
The photo album, “Motoring through the Depression: To Florida & New England by ‘House Car,’” can be viewed as part of the Florida Photograph Album Collection at Special Collections on the eighth floor of the Otto G. Richter Library.