When you think about modern moving companies, what comes to your mind? Most likely, it’s the image of big trucks and tractor-trailers. But, did you know that the moving industry started from very humble beginnings?

What were these first moving companies like? And, how did they become the huge businesses that they are today? Let’s delve into the story of how this multi-billion dollar industry consisting of thousands of moving companies today came to be.

The First Movers: Wagon Train Pioneers

The very first “movers” were those who made the journey West through the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. In the 1800s, about 500,000 people moved westward on foot, on horseback or in covered wagon trains. Groups of families would travel together, hauling their belongings in covered wagons. Around three to five wagons made up each wagon train. 

Traveling this way – as a group – meant they could help each other with packing, loading and unloading belongings and goods on and off wagons. They also helped each other through river crossings, ascending and descending rocky terrain, injuries and diseases, and runaway wagons. Thus, having the assistance and companionship of others were essential to survival in the trails, as the westward journey through unknown territories and various obstacles lasted for weeks. 

Transporting Livestock Via the Transcontinental Railroad

By the mid-1800s, there was a dramatic increase in the movement of settlers to the West, especially after the discovery of gold in California in 1848. However, the long-distance travel across plains, deserts, rivers and mountains was filled with difficulties. 

The alternative was traveling by sea to San Francisco via Cape Horn and the Isthmus of Panama. But, the six-month journey exposed settlers to the risk of contracting yellow fever and other diseases. And, traveling across the country wasn’t cheap – nearly $1,000!

With the establishment of the first transcontinental railroad in North America, the cost to get from the West Coast to the East Coast dropped significantly to $150. The 1,911-mile continuous railroad line linked the country from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska, a 3,000-mile journey that used to take months but now only took under a week. The result was easier transport of resources, as well as people, from the east to the west and vice versa. 

The trains could only travel on the main railroads, however, so the first moving companies used horses and wagons to transport goods to their warehouses near the train station or alongside the rail tracks. The term Storage In Transit (SIT), or the temporary storage of items pending further transportation or delivery, was first used in these trackside warehouses. The goods would then be loaded into a train car to reach its next destination, where another company would have to unload and deliver the goods in wagons to their final destination. These small, local companies were known as wagon firms.

The first shipments mainly consisted of livestock because buying and selling animals was a main source of income for many people at the time. Later on, household goods and other personal belongings also began to be transported via train. 

This moving scenario began around 1850 when the first moving companies started to offer professional relocation services and reached its peak during the First World War.  

Moving Goods Through Motor Vans

With World War I came a dramatic increase in the number of paved roads in the country. Paved roads were necessary for easier and faster military production and transportation. The war also meant motor trucks and fuel were mostly used by the military. As a result, people went back to using the railroad system to move goods.

Fortunately, a moving company founder, Ward B. Hiner, repurposed trucks called “motor vans” to move household goods from state to state. Moving via motor vans proved to be a more cost-effective and simple method than the railway system and its cumbersome use of wagon firms and warehouses. 

However, while these motor vans’ long-haul deliveries were fully loaded during the trip to their destination, the return journey proved to be “deadhead” trips, i.e., a complete trip without any freight. While drivers tried to search for customers for the return journey, this effort usually ended up being a waste of time and profits. 

To solve this inefficiency issue, a group of moving companies formed the Allied Van Lines, a cooperative non-profit, in 1928. The alliance would share information on jobs and jointly organize trips to cut wasted time and maximize profits. Allied Van Lines is still in existence today as SIRVA.

After World War II, demand for movers across the entire United States rose with the return of soldiers who needed to relocate for their new jobs or families. As a result, moving companies sprung up everywhere, and some of those founded during this time are still in business today.    

Modern Moving Companies

With 40 million Americans making local, long distance and international moves, the multi-billion dollar moving industry in the country is one of the largest worldwide. Despite this, about 90% of the moving industry is composed of small businesses, according to the American Moving & Storage Association. And, despite the passage of time and the advent of new technologies, the moving industry’s mission remains the same: providing efficient and safe transport of customers’ belongings to their next home. 

In addition to consolidated shipping and the typical move, movers now also offer DIY and self-service moves. DIY moves allows customers to rent a truck or trailer, as well as other moving equipment such as cargo belts, furniture pads and dollies, so they can make the move on their own. Self-service moving companies, on the other hand, sells space on their trailers or shipping containers which are then driven by professionals to the customers’ new location or destination.

History of moving companies

Today, there’s bound to be a moving company wherever you are located in the U.S. Thanks to the internet, smartphones and social media, it’s easy to find reviews of moving companies online so you can find the best one to suit your needs. And, a few phone calls is all it takes to schedule your next move. Moving has never been easier!