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“Sizes & Styles to Suit Any Fancy”

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I never gave much thought to the history of mobile homes or manufactured housing. For the most part, I thought these developed in the mid to late 20th century.   That was until I ran across the 1861 newspaper advertisement that sparked my curiosity and is featured in this post.

advertisement To the People of Washington and vicinity and those who intend to people it. Derrom's Patent Cobination "AMERICAN UNION" PORTABLE BUILDINGS. The simplest, lightest and cheapest In the World. Combining Neatness, Utility, Efficiency and Diversification. Features a drawing of the building that has a door and window
From the National Republican (Washington, D.C.) December 18, 1861

As you can see, this is an advertisement for a “portable building”  submitted for a patent by Andrew Derrom in July of 1861.  According to Derrom’s obituary, this invention was used by the U.S. Army and later in Venezuela.  He saw his patent as a way to:

“…afford a cheap, light, portable house, which can be conveniently transported and conveniently erected either on the campground, on the farm, or in any locality to which it is adapted , and which can also can be conveniently converted into an open pavilion and changed in appearance or arrangement at the will of the occupants;

…It will be obvious that the plan of my invention is such that the parts of single houses may be used in the erection of a series of connected houses by leaving out an end at one place and a side at another, or, in other words, the parts of several small houses may be put together so as to form a closed structure or any desired uninterrupted capacity for the accommodation of a large number of troops…

Derrom wasn’t the only one with this idea.  Also in 1861, David N. Skillings (patent number 33,758) and his patent echoed Derrom:

…The object of my invention is to provide a neat, durable, cheap, and portable house – one which can readily be put up and taken down in a short period of time and by any person of ordinary intelligence.”

…A house constructed in my improved manner can not only be constructed at a small expense, but the parts of it are light and can readily be transported from one place to another and speedily taken down and set up and constructed on a small scale would be very serviceable to the army as a hospital, being preferable to a tent made of canvas. It will also be very advantageous as a temporary or permanent habitation for parties who desire a neat, cheap, and comfortable house, and, besides, it can be mace of any size and form, as may be desirable.

patent drawing shows a building with one window on a short end and a door on the long end
Patent 33,758 for a Portable House from David N. Skillings, November 19, 1861.

An article by Margaretta Jean Darnall in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, indicates that later there were still others thinking along the same lines.

  • Netta G. Rood in 1882 (patent number 256,860)
  • Lorenzo Forrest in 1884 (patent number 305,584)
  • Otis Hall Smith in 1884 (patent number 297,863)
  • Andrew Lindblad in 1888 (patent number 388,424)
  • George L. Harvey in 1889 (patent number 414,976)
  • William M. Ducker in 1887 (patent number 355,441)
cover of the catalog Honor Bilt MODERN HOMES Sears, Roebuck and Co. Chicago and Philadelphia with drawing of a two story wood house with a carport and trees in the back
Honor Bilt Modern Homes. c1928

In the 20th century urban planners and architects like Grosvenor Atterbury were looking at prefabricated houses as a way to supply desperately needed housing at an affordable price.  One well known example is the Sears Catalog Homes which were ready-to-assemble kit houses sold by Sears from 1908-1940.  According to the Sears Archives web site, Sears Modern Homes sold about 70,000 – 75,000 of these kits. There were three different lines, depending on the finances of the potential buyer (Honor Bilt were the most expensive), and purchasers could even do some customization.  Eventually there were about 447 different designs, including one called the Fullerton.  Sears’ ability to mass-produce meant that these homes were affordable for buyers who previously would not have been able to purchase a house. Technological advances in building materials and advances in construction techniques meant that by the 1930’s prefabrication was making inroads in the housing market.

Derrom and Skilling both developed their products during wartime, so it makes sense that the next big boom of portable and prefabricated buildings/dwellings was tied to a war – this time the Second World War.  Just as in Derrom’s day, the military needed to house troops (as well as other defense workers)After the war, a housing shortage that had developed gradually before and during the war meant there was a big need to get people in housing faster and more economically and prefabricated houses were seen as one solution.

and old truck on a dirt road with trees int eh background with the flatbed contain fabricated walls
Worker just arriving from southern Louisiana trying to get job on Camp Livingston. In back of his car he has a portable house. Alexandria, Louisiana. c1940 FSA/OWI Collection

You can trace the growth in the usage of mobile/manufactured housing by looking at the U.S. Census of Housing data. The 1940 Census of Housing considered trailers/mobile homes and the like, part of “other dwelling places” along with boats and tourist cabins.  By the 1950 Census of Housing trailers were being counted separately and the 1960 Census of Housing differentiated between those with permanent foundations and those that were mobile.  By the 1970 Census of Housing (in Summary Table 15), a dwelling could be defined as “mobile home or trailer” and also included statistics on those that were occupied by owners or renters as well as those occupied all year round.

a workman on a partially built structure that has one floor and not roof or ceiling but two panels with windows being put into place
Rocky Mount Lumber Co. Construction of portable house two at Johnson & Wimsatt lumber yard V. ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Theodor Horydczak Collection

The manufacturing of portable buildings like trailers, as well as modular and prefabricated homes, has continued.  Both have proved important for general housing needs as well as being utilized after emergencies.  For example, trailers were used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a way to provide temporary housing during the rebuilding process, as well as with the actual rebuilding when some returning homeowners used modular and prefab houses to replace their destroyed homes.  Increasingly, there are companies developing and selling eco-friendly prefab options for eco-conscious consumers.

While manufactured homes and the more portable mobile homes or trailers are not exactly the same thing, they are similar and share a history.  Derrom’s and Skillings’ concepts and reasons for developing their products don’t seem much different than they would be today.  No matter what name they go by – manufactured, mobile, modular, prefabricatedtoday’s companies can see the seed planted by Derrom, Skillings, Harvey, and others.

If you want to explore further:


  1. Col. Andrew Derrom was my great-great grandfather.

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