Marion Byam disliked sleeping in a tent. She also wasn’t a fan of cooking in the woods without a real kitchen. So in 1929, her husband, Wally Byam, an entrepreneurial media man, started tinkering with a Model T chassis and soon created perhaps the most recognizable vehicle the world has ever known—the Airstream.
The bullet-shaped camping trailer wasn’t the first RV. But in the boom years following World War II, it emerged as an icon of the open road, with its Art Deco design and proven reliability. Some eight decades later, it’s synonymous with summer vacations, and so deeply wedged in the nation’s psyche that you needn’t have either owned or traveled in one to feel nostalgic for it.
The Airstream has inspired poems and songs, and appeared in movies such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Raising Arizona, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; the Apollo 11 crew stayed in one upon returning from the moon. It embodies old American ideals of exploration and kinship; it’s essentially a covered wagon made of near-indestructible aluminum, big enough for the whole family and the dog.
The Airstream has come a long way since the days of Wally Byam; the Nest, a stylish fiberglass 16-footer, debuted in April. Nonetheless, to strike out with one in tow remains a rite of summer and a symbol of our most precious freedoms: to explore and to roam.
This article is part of our Summer School series, a comprehensive guide to acing the year’s best season.