TCS Daily


100 Years of Fill 'Er Up

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - December 16, 2005 12:00 AM

This Holiday season most of you who will be traveling will go by car, and all who do so will inevitably visit that most ubiquitous fixture of the American commercial landscape, the gas station.

In most cases it won't be a gas station per se, but a convenience store with many gas pumps and possibly (though more and more rarely) a few lube and service bays. You will pull up to a pump, slip your credit card into a slot somewhere on its face ("remove card quickly," you will be digitally admonished), wait a moment and then pull the fuel hose from its cradle and fill your car with gas.

Your only interaction with a human being will occur if you go inside the glass and extruded aluminum cube at the center of the pump plaza to get a coffee or a Coke, maybe some premium-priced aspirin from the sundries aisle, or a couple chili dogs.

The convenience and anonymity of the self-serve gas station/mini-mart is the for-better-or-worse culmination of a century-long evolution that remains a classic example of market-developed infrastructure.

Although there are numerous enticing prior claims lost in the mist of early American automobiledom, it is believed that the first gas station was established in St. Louis, Mo., in 1905, by two gentlemen named Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig. Their first station's gas tank was reportedly a converted water heater.

Their Automobile Gasoline Co. soon had 40 sites in and around St. Louis consisting basically of a shed and a cylindrical steel tank raised on a platform with a garden hose attached. No pump. It was "gravity fill," with a crude filter behind the shut-off nozzle at the end of the hose to screen out impurities.

Prior to this, gasoline had been purchased directly from oil company "bulk plants" or from general and hardware stores, drug stores, blacksmith shops etc., usually in five gallon cans. Intrepid motorists always carried a funnel with a chamois or cloth strainer in their considerable kit. Pouring the gasoline from the bulky cans through this funnel/strainer was a messy, time consuming, and dangerous process.

Many cars, like the fabled Model T Ford, came with a sturdy wooden stick marked off in gallons, to place in the gas tank to check the fuel level. The first gas gauges were expensive aftermarket options.

The same year that Grenner and Laessig got into business, the S.F. Bowser Pump Co. introduced the "Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump," which looked like a small wooden outhouse with a steel tank inside. The tank had a hand lever attached to a piston pump with mechanical "stops" which allowed for the dispensing of gallons and fractions of gallons through a short hose.

In 1906, John J. Tokheim improved on the Bowser pump by devising the Tokheim Dome Oil Pump, which featured the "visible register," a mechanical counter combined with a graduated glass cylinder above the hose to give the operator and consumer a more exact measure of how much fuel was being dispensed.

Many advances in gasoline pumps were made in ensuing years as the number of automobiles increased rapidly and oil companies realized that gasoline -- a refining byproduct that had often been discarded or sold as cheap stove fuel or cleaning fluid -- was becoming a profitable commodity.

By 1914, gasoline would surpass kerosene as the major product of oil refineries. While wholesaling to retailers, oil companies also continued to retail gasoline directly to the consumer. A 1915 magazine ad for Atlantic Gasoline, for instance, shows a well-dressed motorist in his driveway next to several five-gallon cans of Atlantic gas as he pours another into his huge touring car. "Get a shot of this liquid power injected into your tank," urges the ad copy, noting that "Atlantic trucks and tanks deliver any quantity, anywhere, anytime."

But the convenience of retail pumps was self evident. Tokheim became an innovative leader, but hundreds of gas pump companies competed for the burgeoning new business. Their products were, and still are to collectors, marvels of industrial design, beautifully painted, elaborately decorated and usually topped with lighted globes bearing the brand logo. These ever-more technologically refined gas pumps proliferated more quickly than gas stations themselves. Merchants were installing them at the curb in front of their stores, barber shops, grocery stores. Even livery stables and bicycle shops put them in to feed the rapidly growing American appetite for gasoline.

The plethora of pumps along sidewalks and road berms became a traffic hazard and more. Cars lined up along the curbs of busy streets to get gas. Some of the pumps were not particularly safe or not properly operated. Gas spilled. Passing smokers were a danger. Horrific fires occurred. A great public outcry was heard. Soon, many cities began banning them.

But by this time the move to separate, distinct fueling stations was well underway. These were often vacant lots or a flat, clear place along a road with a shed and a tarpaulin stretched over the pump to protect the operator from rain.

John McLean, Seattle sales manager for Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) is thought to have coined the term "filling station" for the retail outlet he established in 1907 at a busy intersection next to SOCAL's Seattle bulk plant. (Actually, Sylvanus Bowser, founder of the Bowser pump company, had developed a kerosene pump in the early 1880s known as the "Filling Station.") McLean's station was little more than a 30-gallon tank on a wooden post and some racks to display other products such as motor oil (which was dispensed in returnable glass bottles).

SOCAL would have 34 gas stations in operation by 1914, but other locations around the country doggedly laid claim to having the first "drive-in" gas stations: A Standard Oil station in Columbus, Ohio (1912) and a Gulf Oil station in Pittsburgh (1913) were among the leading contenders. According to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, gas stations were the first American commercial buildings to be purposely set back from the street, bringing a major change to the look of urban business centers.

There were at least 15,000 gas stations in the United States by 1920, and the number grew rapidly as automobile sales rocketed upward with the introduction of installment buying. Between 1920 and 1929, more than 31 million passenger cars were sold in the U.S.

The effort to make a station stand out to the growing ranks of motorists resulted in extravagant architectural competition. Gas stations in the form of tea pots, Greek temples, Egyptian palaces, English cottages, art deco dreamscapes, log cabins, Indian teepees, you name it, spread across the land. By 1935 there were 200,000 of them.

As all this was occurring a new technological refinement in gas pumps changed the way people thought about their gasoline purchases. 1933 saw the development of so-called "contometric" pumps, in which a complex clockwork mechanism computed not only the gallons being pumped, but the running total of the cost. By the mid 1930s motorists were buying "two dollars worth" rather than 20 gallons. (Believe it or not, in the early 30s there was such a glut of gasoline due to huge oil strikes in Texas that it was selling for about 10 cents a gallon.)

The 1930s were the years that the "classic" service station took form. Oil began to be sold in sealed cans rather than re-usable bottles. Major oil companies built trademark stations with standardized art deco designs reflecting "modern motoring." Excellent free roadmaps, free air, free water for thirsty car radiators, and, best of all, clean rest rooms, became staples of the high traffic stations.

An emphasis on clean, bright restrooms became an important competitive edge as the big oil companies vied for customers. "White fleets" of cars bearing oil company logos prowled the nation's roads, their drivers making random inspections of the rest rooms where their brand of gasoline was sold.

Americans above a certain age can hardly be blamed for a certain lack of enthusiasm for today's self-service gas stations, because they remember the sights and sounds of a time when there really was "service" in a service station.

At large stations in populous areas, your car's wheels crossed a vacuum hose as it approached the pumps. This rang a familiar bell in the station, alerting the attendants, who bounded out to your car with a greeting salute in their gray, tan, or sparkling white uniforms with black leather bow ties and black-billed caps. In bigger stations, two or three attendants swarmed your auto, one misting the windshield with cleaner and wiping it clear; another raising the hood to check your oil and battery, while a third knelt down with a gauge to check the air pressure in your tires.

You relaxed in your car, listening to the familiar ring of the pump bell that sounded as each gallon passed into your tank. Then, with an appreciative puff on your pipe, you rolled down your window, handed the attendant your four bucks for a fill-up, and were on your way.

Of course the stations weren't all that way. Many were simply small businesses where the owner waited on you, or perhaps had one or two "pump jockeys," local teenage motorheads who got to use one of the service bays after hours to work on their old cars.

In such stations there was a manly atmosphere one usually associated with barber shops and pool halls. There was cold pop in the cooler, a pin-up calendar or two on a wall hung with fan belts and radiator hoses. There might be one or two beat-up chrome dinette chairs upon which a fellow could pitch backwards and perch precariously with his feet up on a grimy desk piled high with dog-eared car, girlie and hunting magazines.

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to a stop at Elry Emert's garage in Stahlstown, Pa. Elry would come out to the pumps with a smile on his ruddy face. He usually wore a dark gray work shirt, tan galluses for his matching pants and a green cloth ball cap. He'd start the gas pumping, then come forward and chat with my Uncle George as he washed the windshield and checked under the hood.

I'd wander back into the long dark interior of the garage with its stone fa├žade. There was a pot-bellied stove way in the back near the grease rack. A few of the locals, mostly retired farmers, would be gathered back there, smoking their pipes and ruminating through a hash of local news, rumors and hunting and fishing stories.

Their banter provided a background as Elry went about his work on the cars in the shop. Once in a while, he'd put in a word or two, or in his quiet manner defuse a sharp argument. I noticed that his face was always clean and that he never went out to the front to pump gas or talk to a customer without scrupulously cleaning his hands.

The 1950s were the final glory years of the classic service stations. In my little town of Ligonier, which has rarely had over 2500 residents, there had once been at least 15 stations, and a few curbside pumps, but by the time I graduated from high school in 1959 there were only five in the town limits and a handful on the four main approaches to town.

Now they're all just memories: Butch Stouffer's with its silver and red World War II surplus Dodge Power Wagon tow truck; Joe Gardner's Esso station; "Aimer" Noel's, which specialized in tire sales and repairs; Kinsey's little station with its pumps right at the curb on East Main. And, of course, Blue Ridge, the Esso station at the west edge of town, with its restaurant open 24 hours a day .

The 1960s and 70s, as the Interstate Highway System was being rapidly built, seemed to be the heyday of the big oil company station chains, with their structo-modern look. But gradually the 1947 invention of a man named George Ulrich, began its inexorable march across the gas station landscape -- the self-service pump.

Today, there are approximately 167,000 retail gas stations in the United States, the vast majority of them self-serve. Only about 10 percent of these stations are owned and operated by big oil companies. And as the Wall Street Journal recently reported "Big oil companies are already exiting the business, discouraged by low profits and logistical headaches."

Meanwhile, many big box retailers and supermarkets have been enlarging their share of the retail gasoline business. The modern gas station in a corner of the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, Costco, or a regional supermarket, is fast becoming a staple of the commercial landscape. The profit margin on gasoline is very thin, and in some cases it is sold as a "loss leader" to attract customers.

In my home area of Pennsylvania, the Sheetz chain of discount gas stations are standard stopping points for thousands of people on their way to work or during the working day. They do a huge business in coffee, cigarettes and sandwiches. The gasoline is one more "convenience."

Incidentally, only two states, New Jersey and Oregon, have laws prohibiting customers from filling their own gas tanks. Many gasoline retailers in both states have attempted to have the laws rescinded, arguing that they place them at a disadvantage to the self-serve operations in neighboring states.

Today, the gas station enters its second century as much of a necessity as it ever was. For many today they are the site of a faintly disagreeable chore which they must perform themselves and pay for as well. Me? I'm thankful for gas stations; thankful for that island of light in the night on a long trip; thankful for the by-and-large predictability and convenience of the whole thing.

Yeah, yeah, I know, the rest rooms may be less than tidy if not downright dank, and the bag of potato chips a bit expensive. But I'm glad I don't have to lug a five-gallon can out of a drug store and get out my funnel and chamois. That's real progress.

The author is a TCS contributing editor.

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