The History of the Tent
It’s one of those early morning thoughts.
You’re lying in your tent, half awake, gazing at the leafy silhouettes the sun is throwing on the canvas wall, and you wonder, “How long have tents been around anyway? Who invented them? Did our distant ancestors use them?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like this before, you’re in luck. We have a magic, time-traveling tent right here. I’ll be your guide, and I’m going to take you on a tour, stopping off at some of the highlights in the history of this portable shelter.
Step right in, and we’ll be on our way.
As we travel to our first destination, how about a quick lecture? (Don’t worry, it’ll be short.) How do we define a “tent” anyway?
Essentially, a tent is a shelter made from a fabric covering that’s supported on a structure. “Fabric” in this case might be woven material or animal skins. The word “tent” comes from the Latin word tendere meaning “to stretch” – as in a piece of material stretched tautly across a frame.
Tents are typically, but not always, thought of as portable shelters and it has been that way for a long time. An alternative to caves or huts, early humans started to make the very first portable shelters as they moved around hunting and gathering, following the availability of food sources.
We’ll probably never know for sure exactly when humans started to make such portable shelters. Since the materials used to build these ancient shelters were biodegradable, they are less likely to be found in the archaeological record.
However, there are some prehistoric remains of interest, and we’ll have a look at those.
See, what did I tell you?
The lecture has ended, and we’re here at our first location: the Upper Paleolithic, a period of time that ranges from approximately 50,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago.
At least 28,000 years ago in Eastern Europe humans were devising dwellings from the gigantic remains of mammoths, those now-extinct beasts that look like elephants with shaggy hair. Various parts of the animals’ skeletons, including skulls and tusks, were used to form a structure for the dwelling, and the structure was then covered with mammoth skins.
We know about these dwellings thanks to another feature of this setup – rings of mammoth bones and sometimes rocks were used to secure the edges of the skins on the outside of the structure. Conveniently for us, these rings stood up to the passage of time and many have been uncovered at archeological digs.
Evidence of mammoth skin dwellings has been found in various locations across Eastern Europe, including the areas that we now call Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic.
Some of these structures were seasonal dwellings, used by hunters while they were away from home, hunting mammoth and other large game. Since these hunters often followed animals into areas where trees were scarce, mammoth bones provided a handy substitute for logs and branches.
The ground under these structures was somewhat dug out, providing more headspace, and helping with insulation, and some of these dwellings were quite large, measuring about 30 by 50 feet.
As you can imagine, these structures were not portable, due to the extreme weight of the mammoth bones.
Skins, Poles, and Portability
For our next stop, we’ll be visiting another group of hunters and gatherers, the peoples of the Northern Great Plains of North America.
Another prehistoric group, we know that these early Native Americans had started using portable fabric covered shelters by the Neolithic era (10,000 BC – 4500 BC), if not earlier.
These peoples’ main food source was bison, which moved around a lot as they grazed, making the peoples of the great plains semi-nomadic. Their answer to the portable shelter was the tipi.
The tipi, or teepee, was a conical dwelling traditionally built from animal skins covering a structure of wooden poles. There was a smoke flap at the top so that a fire could be kept indoors, while ventilating smoke.
Tipis made from tanned bison hides were waterproof, wind-resistant, well-ventilated, and provided good climate control in the continental climate of the Great Plains, where summers were hot, and winters were frigid.
We know that people were using tipi structures at least as far back as the Neolithic period because, like the mammoth-skin dwellers we met above, these people also used rings of rocks, called tipi rings, around their shelters. Prehistoric tipi rings are still visible in some areas.
It wasn’t just Native Americans, though that used this type of dwelling – in many places throughout the world, portable structures made from poles and skins were used by people with nomadic lifestyles.
In Northern Europe, spanning from Norway to Russia, the Sami people used similar shelters, called lavvu.
And speaking of chilly locations, everyone knows about igloos, but the Inuit also had a summer shelter made from poles and seal skins, called a tupiq.
Lattice Make Our Visit
Our next stop is another location with freezing winters. Welcome to Mongolia, circa 600 BC.
By this point in time humans had started keeping animals as livestock instead of just hunting them. Despite this change, some peoples were still living nomadic lifestyles as they moved their animals to different grazing grounds, as were the Mongolians of this period.
These Mongolians kept herds of sheep, goats, and yaks, a type of long-haired cattle. And enhancing their nomadic lifestyle, a new kind of dwelling had evolved – the yurt.
Yurt frameworks are a bit more complex than the previous shelters we’ve visited. Yurts are round dwellings made with a wood or bamboo lattice structure, a wooden door frame, roof poles, and roof crown.
Modern yurts may be enclosed in synthetic coverings, but the historic ensemble was covered with several layers of skins or felt.
Keeping animals, rather than just hunting them, had opened up a new material to be used for coverings: animal fibers, rather than animal skins. Felt coverings were not woven, but were instead matted together from sheep, goats, or yak hair.
Mongol yurts took about 2 hours to assemble. Despite their more complex frameworks, they were portable, and were typically transported by teams of yaks.
This dwelling was well-adapted to its location on the Central Asian steppe where the climate was extreme. Goat, sheep, and yak fibers offered excellent insulation while remaining breathable, and the round shape of the yurt held up to intense winds.
We may associate the yurt strongly with Mongolia, but it was also used by Turkic peoples ranging from East Asia to present day Turkey – and it is their word for this shelter that we use today. The Mongolians call it a ger.
Like most other early portable shelters, this one is built from decomposable materials so we can’t know for sure exactly when they were first developed. However, we do know that yurts have been around since at least 600 BC because an image of one was found engraved on a bronze bowl from this period.
A Hairy Development
Moving on to a warmer location, our next stop is the Arabian Peninsula where we’ll be visiting more nomads. This time it’s the Bedouin.
The Bedouin black tent, also called the “house of hair,” was a large, desert-adapted shelter covered with fabric woven from black goat or sheep hair.
Used from Northern Africa to Afghanistan, early versions of these dwellings were round, while later ones were rectangular in shape. One to seven structural poles might be used, and these shelters could be small or quite large.
The coverings for these structures were woven loosely for breathability. This development of using woven fabric made from animal hair allowed for much larger dwellings since the woven fabric was much lighter than animal skins.
If you’re wondering why the Bedouin used black fabric coverings in the hot desert, these were used primarily in the winter months. The black fibers in the covering absorbed heat from the sun, keeping conditions under the shelter toasty warm in a climate that cools off dramatically at night.
The edges of the covering had guy ropes that were secured with pegs or rocks. As in other locations, rocks left at camp sites give us clues in the present day. Judging from archeological evidence of rectangular camp outlines, these shelters may date back to 600-800 AD.
An hour was needed to strike the Bedouin black tent and it was transported by pack animals.
An Uncivil Accommodation
As time continued its forward march, tents continued to be used as portable dwellings, in times of peace, and in times of war – and our next destination lands us in a moment of strife.
During the US Civil War, a new type of tent was fashioned, and it wasn’t necessarily an improvement on the past.
While army officers were provided with nicer shelters, common soldiers were given quite meager accommodations. A simple sheet of cotton canvas supported by wooden poles formed an A-frame, and was pegged into the ground. There was no floor covering.
Because of this lack of comfort, soldiers thought they were so bad, they called them dog houses. The expression eventually got changed slightly to the term we are familiar with today, “pup tents.”
These structures slept two soldiers, and were notorious for letting water in through the bare ground. But although they were low on comfort, they were easy to transport.
Pup tents continued to be used for soldiers in combat in WWI, when Diamond Brand Gear started to provide tents and gear to the US Army. By WWII and the Korean War, this type of shelter had gotten a facelift, and came with more comforts than Civil War soldiers would have had.
We’ve seen the evolution of portable shelters go from animal skins, to felt, to woven animal fibers, to cotton fibers.
The next big development in portable outdoor shelters was synthetic fibers.The final stop on our whirlwind tour is in the 20th century.
Developed by Dupont in the 1930s, nylon became the next important covering material. Nylon fabric enabled the creation of shelters that were much lighter and more compact, allowing outdoors people to recreate with lighter packs.
During this time, chemical flame retardant and waterproofing coatings were also added to fabric.
Tents made from synthetic materials are used today for recreation, but also in many different circumstances where mobility is crucial. The nylon tents we supply the US Marine Corps are examples of this development in light weight, compactness, and durability.
Meanwhile, cotton canvas tents have been used for scouting since its inception, and have truly never gone out of fashion.
We’ve arrived back home, friends.
That was by no means a complete historical outline of how these shelters have been used throughout history (I didn’t even mention circuses or revivals!) but this tour should give you, let’s hope, an even deeper appreciation for the thousands of years of trial and error that have gone into creating your own tent.
And now that our tour has ended, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: there never was a magic tent, at least not in this article. But my, what a vivid imagination you have!
No worries. You don’t need a magic tent to travel back into time. If that’s your vibe, you can do it by stepping into one of our wall tents or compact tents. Sorry, no mammoth skins, but we have plenty of other choices!
The next time you wake up in a tent of your own, ponder these previous incarnations of your outdoor dwelling. You have a good shelter, food for breakfast, and time to relax. What more do you need? Air conditioning? OK, sure. A Moonroof? Why not. For more on the future of tents, check out our LMNL tent system.
Dyck, Ian. “Ancient cold weather adaptations in the Northern Great Plains.” Revista de Arqueología Americana, Jan.-Dec. 2001.
Guedes, Pedro, editor. Encyclopaedia of Architecture and Technological Change. Palgrave Macmillan UK. 2016.
Johanson, Donald, and Blake Edgar. From Lucy to Language. Simon and Schuster Editions. 1996.
Larsen, Olga Popovic and Andy Tyas. Conceptual Structural Design: Bridging the Gap Between Architects and Engineers. Thomas Telford Publishing. 2003.
Rosen, S., & Saidel, B. “The Camel and the Tent: An Exploration of Technological Change among Early Pastoralists.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 2010.
Saidel, B. “Coffee, Gender, and Tobacco: Observations on the History of the Bedouin Tent.” Anthropos. 2009.
Schoenauer, Norbert. 6000 Years of Housing. W. W. Norton. 2000.
Stronach, D. “On the Antiquity of the Yurt: Evidence from Arjan and Elsewhere.” The Silk Road. 2004.
Written by Kristina Hicks-Hamblin. Kristina is a freelance writer whose basic requirements include large quantities of time spent outdoors. She is partial to canvas wall tents and traveling back in time, though the latter occurs primarily in the pages of fiction. Read more at hearthwilde.