On showman’s vans, living wagons, and gypsy caravans

2 August 2009, from Writings

When I start telling people about tiny houses on wheels, it seems that lots of folks have come across Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. ‘So cute! A little cottage! A wee house!’ His designs are approachable, understandable, and definitely cute (even if most people still balk at 100 square feet of living space). Jay’s done a good job spreading the small-rolling-house meme, whether in newspaper articles, blog posts, TV shows, or word of mouth.

I, too, was initially enthralled by these miniscule transportable cottages. They have a certain simplistic American look: combine one part homesteader shack and one part modern RV; add a dose of Victoriana and a few shakes of California bungalow style. Tumbleweeds are far away from the crazily decorated buses and trucks of the 1960s, and yet far more charming than the usual stapled-together RV of aluminum and particle board. Not to slight Jay’s design: he’s done a wonderful job working within the constraints he’s set.

However, it’s not the only way to make a road-loving house. And as I explored around the edges of the Tumbleweeds, I found an entirely other historical pattern: the showman’s wagons of early 1900s Britain.

Showman’s wagons (or ‘waggons,’ in the British spelling), also called ‘living wagons’, developed out of the need for movable housing and storage for the entertainers and workers in the fairs and circuses of the late 1800s into the middle part of the twentieth century. Gypsy ‘vardos’ provided the basic pattern: an enclosed trailer built on a wagon frame, containing a sleeping area, heating stove, sitting area, and storage. Neither vardos nor showman’s wagons usually included a kitchen: cooking was more often done outside over a fire or stove, or in a central cafeteria. (In the fairs, a separate kitchen wagon often traveled along with the troupe.)

Caravans (photo by <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/76898237@N00/2452700408">cogalot1</a>)

The earliest wagons were built to be towed by horses. The wheels were high to ford the streams in the rough roadways of the time, as well as to allow the primitive suspension to give way to ruts and potholes. ‘Reading’ style wagons were simple boxes (although curiously still with complex angles and curves) that sat between the wheels, making them quite narrow; the later ‘ledge’ style allowed the interior to widen out above the height of the wheels. Still, they were fairly narrow, by modern standards – probably six feet – in order to fit on the smaller roadways.

As the railroads became a popular and efficient way to travel, the living/showman’s wagons were modified so they could be easily transported major distances atop railcars, then towed (sometimes by steam-powered tractors) a shorter distance to the site of the fair. The wheel size and understructure changed, although the British wagons never seemed to lose their overall height. Perhaps this was an advantage to the public/private crossover of the fair life: the entertainers used the wagons as a refuge; having them sit higher up would mean fewer curious passers-by ogling the private life of the freaks and carnies.

Interestingly, most showman’s wagons had definite private and public sides. Often one side contained the door and windows, while the other side was windowless, although still gaudily painted. Apparently some entertainers used this featureless side as an impromptu rear wall of a stage: by setting several wagons next to each other, erecting simple stages along the windowless walls, and a temporary roof over the stages, the entourage could create an attractive place to perform their acts. Alternatively, the windowless side could have simply been a plain wall facing the public area of the fair, and the side with windows and door acting as the private, internal space of the performers.

Contrast this with the gypsy-style living wagon, which, like the original vardos, often had the door located in the front of the wagon, and no restriction on which side the windows were on.

One of the most distinctive features of the wagons, and the element that most attracted me when I first saw these structures, is the raised, clerestory roof that runs the length of the wagon’s roof. In typical British neologistic fashion, this is called a ‘mollycroft.’ The main roof is nearly always slightly arched, probably to keep the rain from pooling; then the mollycroft rises about eight inches, and itself has a smaller arched roof of about the same curvature as the main roof. The mollycroft is usually about half to two-thirds the width of the main roof. A series of narrow windows, usually a half dozen or so, run the length of the upright area; these windows are wide but short casements, hinged at the top, which allows air to circulate. After all, the wagons were designed long before active air-conditioning, and some method was necessary to let fresh air in and for hot air to escape.

Inside, the mollycroft allowed not only air to circulate, but light to enter the interior at more angles than just the main windows. It also creates at least three spaces: the two areas on either side of the rise of the mollycroft, and the higher area in the middle. The additional headroom, along with the more substantial light, gives a far more full, spacious feeling than an interior that had a simple roof and only side windows.

Most wagons were decorated in the period of their time, primarily late Victorian and in quite high detail. Much of the interior furniture was built in, and very heavy: there was quite a lot of mahogany cabinets and even marble fireplaces!

Most showman’s/living wagons were six to eight feet wide, and from 12 to 30 feet long. It’s unclear how high they were, although I’m guessing they were usually around ten feet tall.

Around 1950, the classic style of the showman’s wagon gave way to what was called the ‘American’ style – that familiar lump of aluminum we know so well today. Fairs themselves faded, lost to the glow of the television. Now, most wagons are either sitting forlorn and rotting at the back of a yard somewhere, or have been restored or repurposed into retro displays or quaint B&Bs. A few wagons still fulfill their original purpose in the modern Travelers culture.

For me, the showman’s wagon is a more appropriate form than a peaked cottage grafted onto a trailer. The wagon look says ‘move’; the cottage seems to say ‘stay.’ When the cottage is moving, it looks like a traditional house somehow uprooted from its foundation; when the wagon is moving, it is only a wagon, streamlined for the air of the day. When the wagon is sitting still, it seems to say that it could move at anytime, where the cottage is enjoying its slow sink into the loam.

From a design sense, the simple linearity of the wagon, along with the openness of the mollycroft, seems to solve some of the design problems of the cottage, and calms its eccentricities. Instead of a raised, triangular loft with dubious ventilation, there is a sleeping alcove or chamber; instead of the harsh angularities of the peaked roof, there is the complex, organic curves of the arched roof.

Granted, there are downsides to the wagon: the complexity of the mollycroft call for some tricky engineering to ensure the roof doesn’t fall in, and without the de facto cathedral ceiling of the cottage, the wagon may feel a bit more cramped.

But the main reason my head is filled with designs for mollycrofted wagons is that I simply, and instantly, fell in love with the look: its peculiar British affect, the grace of its arched roof, its history tied to gypsies and carnies, and the clear love of the wagon itself for the far reaches of the road.