The history of the gas station
By Ira Rosofsky
In 1900, there were 20 million horses and only 4,000 cars in the United States. Where there are gas stations today, stables and blacksmith shops stood.
In its early days, the oil industry existed to manufacture kerosene, a fuel for lamps. Gasoline was a waste by-product of this process -something usually thrown away.
Early motorists, looking for this abundant waste product, went to their local general store or kerosene refinery and filled up a bucket from a barrel of gasoline. This practice was not exactly convenient or safe.
The need for cheap and plentiful gasoline grew as the need for kerosene fell with the rise of electric lighting. In 1905, about 25,000 cars were manufactured in the United States, and Sylvanus F. Bowser perfected a pump that would take gas out of a barrel and fill a car's tank. The world's first "filling stations" started opening that same year.
Typically, a general store would place a pump out front on the sidewalk.
Soon, cars were snaking up and down Main Street, blocking the movement of pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages.
This problem grew much worse by 1910, when there were 500,000 cars looking for gas and blocking traffic while doing it.
A new type of filling station began to appear - the drive-in. Sometimes covered by a canvas awning, the pump would be located on a lot off the street, and maybe the pump would even stand next to a store that sold auto supplies and food - a business similar to the gas station we know today.
Around the same time, the government broke up Standard oil, which controlled most of the oil in the United States, into a number of smaller companies.
Suddenly, many new companies were competing for customers. Gas was cheap and plentiful. How did a new company get motorist to buy its gas rather than a competitor's?
In 1914, Standard Oil of California developed a standard design for its 34 gas stations. The company also put their employees in uniforms, provided free air for tires, and gave away road maps. When you drove into a Standard Oil station, you might have a whole team pumping your gas, checking your oil and tires, and cleaning your windshield.
Oil companies competed by seeing who could provide the most free services.
Architect Robert Venturi has called the gas station one of the world's first examples of a "decorated shed." A decorated shed is the opposite of a building designed to look beautiful, such as a cathedral. It is a building with this main architectural purpose: to be a backdrop for a sign that advertises what is sold inside. On any commercial strip, signs are what first catch the eye, not usually the design of the buildings.
From signs and slogans, motorists knew then as they know now that they could find something reliably comfortable and familiar no matter how far from home they traveled. Just as many people are "lovin' it" at any McDonald's of today, you could "trust your car to the man who wears the star" at any Texaco gas station in the 1930s.
The basic gas station design has remained the same over time: a big sign over a shed containing auto supplies and snacks; a pump with an awning; and bays for service.
However, not all stations were completely standardized. Just as distinctively different food stands exist, distinctively different gas stations were built.
They were usually not part of a chain and relied on looking different to attract attention. Some of these buildings are what Venturi called "ducks" - buildings designed to look like what they are selling. The name came from a business shaped like a duck that sold ducklings on Long Island, New York.
In Maryville, Missouri, motorists could fill up at a gas station shaped like a gas pump. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, you can see a preserved Shell Oil gas station in the shape of a shell. Other stations, while not quite "ducks," were still unusual. Many East Coast gas stations looked like lighthouses. Other gas stations were designed in the shape of teepees or windmills. These remarkable shapes were attempts to draw attention while competing with the overly familiar national chains.
Unusual designs became less common as the large oil chains came to dominate the sale of gas, much as national department store chains have put local general stores out of business.
However, old gas stations are not forgotten. Many enthusiastic people are devoted to the hobby of pctroliana. They collect old gasoline signs, oilcans, even old gas pumps. Many of them dream of restoring old gas stations in much the same way as a group restored the shell-shaped Shell station in Winston-Salem.
In comparison, the corporate gas station has remained purely practical.
Perhaps the greatest change in the gas station experience started in the 1970s, when gas started becoming scarcer and more expensive. The oil companies realized that it was expensive to provide free maps, free windshield washings, and free air for your tires. Now they will be happy to sell you a road map, let you wash your own windshield, and charge you a quarter to put air in your tires.
And you have to pump your own gas.
It is expensive to pay for a squad of people to fuss over your car.
Today, one clerk takes your money while you do all the work.
Is this convenience worth the loss of the fun of getting gassed up at a lighthouse?