How did Airstream become an American icon?
Let’s trace its roots in advertising and the way it created a visual experience of the road from its origins to today.
In 1919, an up-and-coming advertising man named Wallace M. Davis, the advertising manager for The Daily Palo Alto, wrote a letter to Society Brand Clothes. An excerpt from that letter, soliciting a sale of advertising space, read:
“The average Stanford Man wants his clothes stylish…we believe Society Brand Clothing to be well worth the expenditure; no other national clothiers are advertising on the campus.”
After graduation, Davis changed his name back to his paternal name, and after the second World War he became known as Wally Byam.
During the 1920’s, Wally began to work with his lifelong friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. doing advertising for Neil’s Penny newspapers. As the years went by, Byam went in to publishing magazines about the shakers and movers in the emerging radio industry.
Airstream was born from advertising. The famous Airstream Torpedo appeared in Popular Mechanics and other magazines as a kit with prints and instructions on how to build it.
When the Airstream Clipper came out, Wally had this to say in the Los Angeles Times:
“Look into an Airstream. Sleek, svelte, daringly modern in an absolutely streamlined design. An airplane without wings. All-metal duraluminum fabrication, lightweight, great strength unequalled for safety and speed on the highway.”
After World War II, with sales sagging and a question as to whether Airstream might survive financially, Wally Byam conducted his first Airstream Caravan in 1951 to Mexico and Central America.
There’s no doubt that Wally’s advertising genius saved – and grew – his company. Caravans in Mexico, Central America, Canada, Cuba, Europe, Africa, and after Wally’s death, China and one that spanned the globe.
Publicity came from newspapers, magazines like National Geographic and Smithsonian, and more. Owners by the thousands travelled on caravans and millions across the world visited Airstreamers traveling in foreign lands. What marvelous exposure for a travel-tested product navigating the roads, bridges, and cities of the world.
And as they traveled, Airstream gathered knowledge that helped engineers improve each model, year after year. With that field research, Airstream continued to move further and further ahead of their competitors.
And people always looked forward to Airstream advertisements. Wally wrote columns talking about the Caravans, and the ads themselves were beautiful.
One of my favorites was a one-page ad showing Wally and Stella Byam with their “Gold Airstream” in the Ituri Forest. The photograph was taken from the lens of Pete Turner, like so many other advertising photographs taken on the African Caravan. He became a world-renowned photographer and a highlight in photography classes.
In the 21st century, you’ll find Airstreams in television advertising, enhancing products from the auto industry to pharmaceutical corporations. Weekly television programs have found that an Airstream makes an enjoyable component in their programming.
Airstream continues to do what they do best. They continue to build a product that not only meets people’s needs, but is an icon for the spirit of adventure and exploration.
Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn has silver in his blood. Each week, Pee Wee shares one of his many stories, including his experiences on the iconic Airstream Caravans, his time spent working in the Airstream factory, and the many Airstreamers he’s befriended, far and wide.