Statistics from the American Automobile Association show 28 million people owned cars in 1920.
Automobiles brought a new kind of adventurous freedom to the average family. Previously it was mostly the very wealthy who had the means to travel.
Camping trips in the family automobile became extremely popular. Soon people began hitching up homemade trailers or “car houses” to their automobiles and started expanding the distances they traveled, looking for new areas to explore. Exotic Florida was one such destination that beckoned with it’s famous sunshine, beaches, spectacular fishing and orange trees.
The state quickly saw an economical advantage of having so many “motor tourists” coming to visit. They liked seeing the previously empty roads full of cars and increased road building.
More paved roads would mean more tourists, so thought the state.
These pioneering motor-tourists unknowingly became a big influence in several ways in Florida, but especially for the state’s early road development. By 1930, the state bragged it had 3,000 miles of paved roads.
The motor-tourists also had a huge impact on the birth of the many pre-Disney road side attractions that Florida became known for, some of which were very quirky. And many were so taken by tropical living they eventually purchased property contributing to Florida’s land development.
Automobile travel groups began popping up, catering to these new traveling campers. The most popular and well-known organization was formed in 1919 in Tampa and was called the T.C.T. which stood for Tin Can Tourists. The purpose of the travel groups was to provide members with information about clean campsites, good roads and entertaining sites to visit.
Tin Can members evidently took themselves and their group quite seriously. They soon wanted to recognize and socialize with each other. Also, some vendors and campgrounds offered special prices to them. So, as to identify themselves, members started soldering a tin can to their radiator cap. And later, when they got together, they could express their delight in meeting other members by exchanging a secret handshake or singing their theme song. When passing each other on the road they would display secret hand signals.
The catchy name was already in use before the group was legally formed. The origin of the name is a little hazy. It is thought some local residents dubbed them so because many of the early cars were called Ford Model Ts, nicknamed Tin Lizzies. But also the travelers were well known for packing their cars and trailers with canned goods before they left home to make for more economical travel.
Although the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, the Tin-Caners kept traveling. In 1938, the organization claimed it had nearly 30,000 members.
By the mid 1930s, Englewood had one trailer park/campground on Manasota Key, and in 1935 another opened on the mainland. Today it still remains on Old Englewood Road as Shady Haven Mobile Home Park. This encouraged some intrepid motor-tourists to find their way to tiny Englewood.
In 1937, Englewood’s L.A. Ainger Jr. and his wife Muriel, took over the ownership and operation of Ainger’s Market, the grocery store L.A.’s father had started in the 1920s.
L.A. remembered, “The tin can tourist customers, well, they were farmers, mostly from the Midwest. Here’s one way how they got their name. They brought their whole winter food supply with them. They would come in homemade trailers that would be stuffed full of canned, jarred, salted stuff or whatever it took to preserve it. They didn’t buy much of anything, maybe some bread, eggs, sometimes a fresh chicken.
“The tin can tourists all became fishermen instantly, and this is what used to be said about ‘em. If they opened a jar of something for dinner today, before they went to bed that night that jar would be filled with fish or something to take back north with them. Well, you couldn’t blame ‘em. It was poor times, wasn’t much money going around.
These early pioneering motor tourists or trailer-ites, however, have an important place in Florida history. They proved to have an enormous influence on Florida as they evolved into the modern day RVers.
Wow! How times have changed. The Tin Canners were known for being beyond frugal and were not welcomed by many merchants. But take a look at today’s statistics for RVers.
Bonnie Elliot is the former, now retired, Park Administrator of Riverside RV Resort on Kings Highway in Port Charlotte, going toward Arcadia. She emphasizes the importance of today’s RV industry in Florida.
“The most recent in-depth study of the economic impact by the RV industry on the State of Florida was done by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in 2016. The total direct Economic Output of all things RV, for 2016, was $966.2 million. I do not believe these numbers include the incredible impact to local economies by the ‘snow bird campers’ such as buying groceries, enjoying local restaurants, participating in golf or bowling, shopping.
Another huge component to the impact is to the Florida charitable causes they support.
TCT officially dissolved in the late 1960s. An old car club dedicated to preserving the vintage campers of different sorts uses the name of the early motor tourists, Tin Can Tourists
Note: Some information is from The Family Motor Coaching Magazine.