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Campers' Wash-Up Kit

Wash-Up Kit made by the Bay West Company in Green Bay, Wisconsin and distributed by the Yankee Paper and Specialty Co. of Menasha, Wisconsin in the 1920s.
(Museum object #1998.6.2)

"Are we there yet?" may well have been one of the more popular phrases heard on Wisconsin's bustling roadways during the 1920s. As automobiles became more attainable and the state's highway system grew ever-more extensive, recreational travel increased at unprecedented rates. This mid-1920s Bay West Wash-Up Kit made by the Bay West Company in Green Bay, Wisconsin and distributed by the Yankee Paper and Specialty Co. of Menasha, Wisconsin—"For tourists, campers, picnickers, hikers etc."—is an example of one of the many new products that catered specifically to an increasingly-mobile society. Handy kits such as this one, which contains disposable paper hand towels and a novel form of "paper" soap, provided some of the comforts of home for those who enjoyed travel and the outdoors.

Leisurely travel had actually begun to grow in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. More and more middle-to-upper class Americans, captivated by nature and outdoor pastimes like fishing and hunting took "to see the sights" and leave the chaos of the cities behind. Means of travel were difficult, however, and accommodations were scarce. The influence of photographer H.H. Bennett and his famous images of the Wisconsin Dells, published in major national magazines of the 1860s and 1870s, led to the Dells becoming a formidable tourist destination. Its rapidly expanding hospitality industry helped encourage visitors from across the Midwest.

By the early 20th century, travelers could expect to find inns or other lodging in the towns and cities where the railroad depots were located. But the freedom provided by the personal automobile often left rural-bound travelers stranded without public lodging. Families began to camp outside wherever they parked, often leaving behind messes and creating general irritation for the owners of the property where they slept.

After World War I, the frequency of these disturbances grew and some communities saw a chance to profit from tourism. They began to open free "automobile camps" located alongside new stores and restaurants. Amenities like washrooms, running water, and picnic tables were added as competition heated up between neighboring campgrounds, which numbered around 300 in the state in 1923. However, when visitors began to regularly overstay their welcome at the campsites, and "freeloaders" and other seedy characters became a nuisance, many of the once-free community campgrounds began charging for the right to stay. At the same time, privately-owned campgrounds also began to form, eventually outnumbering the public ones as well as generally providing better amenities.

Some of the largest draws for tourists in the early 1920s were in the northern regions of Wisconsin such as Menomonie, Chequamegon Bay, or the Apostle Islands. In Rhinelander, the "Wisconsin Land o'Lakes Association," an organization of 2000 members of that region's businesses, banded together to found tourist bureaus in Chicago and Milwaukee that produced promotional advertisements for Northern Wisconsin. Other popular destinations in the state included Lake Geneva in the Southeast, and Door County in the Northeast.

By the late 1920s, proprietors began to recognize the financial benefits of offering more structured housing on their grounds. Tents were exchanged for rental cabins in what became known as "cabin courts" or "motor courts." The popularity of the more private standing structures quickly led to the demise of the automobile camp. With the availability of amenities that also offered protection from the elements, tourists could take advantage of the beauty of the Wisconsin in all seasons, not just during the summer months.

[Sources: "Travel and Tourism" from Turning Points website (Wisconsin Historical Society), online at; "Are We There Yet? Sweet Dreams: The Evolution of the Motel in Wisconsin," website (Wisconsin Historical Society), online at]


Posted on July 05, 2007

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