The Vardo, Your Great Great Great Grandpop's RV
Many have questions regarding the origin or history of RVing when they first discover RV renting and all the possibilities it offers for travel. In fiction, television and movies, English Gypsy wagons have been depicted as vibrantly colored wooden homes on wheels pulled along by horses. However, reality is a bit more boring; traditional English Gypsies used their feet as their primary mode of transportation, and pulled their possession-filled carts themselves. Horse drawn Gypsy wagons have only been widely used for the last 150 years, and their abundance was unfortunately somewhat short-lived.
France was the site of the first wagons that were built for actually living in, although this didn't occur until around 1810. They were probably first used in England by traveling salesmen. It wasn't until the 1850s that Gypsies began using them as rolling homes on wheels.
Gypsies called their wagons vardos, which comes from the Iranian word vurdon. It was common for newly married Gypsies to commission the construction of wagons from specialized builders. Creation of a vardo took 6 to 12 months. Ash, pine, walnut, elm and oak are the various types of wood with which vardos were commonly made. Most were ornately carved, detailed with gold leaf and elaborately painted.
There were six main types of vardos that the Gypsies commonly used. They were called the Reaing, Brush, Bowtop, Ledge, Openlot and Burton. Their names came from their owners, the places they were built or from the builders who created them. Although they were all quite distinct from one another, they were as easy and comfortable to live in as wagons could possibly be, and many of them rivaled modern day RVs for comfort.
The interior of most vardos was designed much like modern recreational vehicles. One major room for cooking and relaxing, a raised berth with a double bed for adults and a smaller mattress below for children was the basic model for the average vardo. The sleeping quarters were frequently hidden from view behind sliding doors.
A typical day's travel in a vardo was only about 15 miles. Single horses normally pulled each vardo with a second one being added to navigate the wagons up hills. About every ten years, Gypsy vans were returned to those who built them to be repaired, patched and repainted. The wagons were often burned at the death of their owners because the Gypsies believed that the souls of the dead would not be at peace until their possessions were destroyed by sinking, burning or burying.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, vardos were as common on the road as RVs are today. Several factors combined to contribute to the decline of these rolling homes. Because of automation of agricultural equipment, less seasonal farm work was available. The advent of the automobile meant less horse drawn vehicles on the road. Television and cinema also played a part in the disappearance of the festive Gypsy wagons because they resulted in less of the types of fairs and festivals that Gypsies commonly participated in. By the beginning of the 1950s, those who had specialized in custom building vardos had died or retired, and no new craftsmen came along to take their places. Their spirit, however, has not died with them. Modern vagabonds who got their inspiration from Gypsies take to the roads constantly in RVs, and many groups form caravans just like their Gypsy counterparts did decades ago.
Unfortunately, most of the original Gyspy wagons have not survived. English weather is notoriously tough on wood, and woodworms are abundant in that country. However, some of the wagons have been preserved and are being safely kept in private collections and museums. A new generation of wagon builders are also attempting to recreate the vibrant Gypsy wagons of the past. We can only hope that the spirit of the Gypsy wagon lives on in reproductions as well as in the modern RV.