Saturday, July 2, 2005

The Filling Station

Today in the United States, if one is going to fill his or her car with gas, it will most likely be at a convenience store where he or she will pump the gas himself or herself. Gas stations, where attendants would wash one's windsheild, check one's oil, and pump the gas, have become relatively rare, at least compared to the number of them in the past.

It is not known precisely where or even when the first gas station opened in the United States. Some believe that it was opened in St. Louis, Missouri by the St. Louis Automobile Gasoline Company (a subsidiary of Shell) in 1905. Others argue that it was opened by SOCAL in Seattle, Washington in 1907. Either way, these were not gas stations as we know them today. At this time the gasoline was stored in a can kept behind the station. When someone needed gas, one of the station's employees would grab the can and go fill the car up. It would not be until 1913 that the Gulf Refining Company would open the first filling station as we know them in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the first gas station at which cars would be driven up to gas pumps to be filled. It was also the first station designed by an architect and the first station to give away road maps. On that first day they only sold 30 gallons of gas! It was not long before filling stations with their often distinctive gas pumps dotted the streets and highways of the United States.

It was also not very long before many filling stations expanded their services beyond filling gas, checking oil, and washing windshields. In fact, for much of the 20th century most gas stations would also have garages where oil could be changed and repairs to cars made. Such filling stations were called "service stations." The average service station sold little beyond gasoline and various products and services related to automotive upkeep (changing oil, airing up tyres, and so on). At most they might sell cigarettes, candy bars, and soda. Regardless, competition between filling stations was intense for much of the 20th century. Eventually, they would use various gimmicks to help sell gas. Among the earliest of these was the distinctive architecture of filling stations. A Mobil station would look different from an Esso station, which would look different from a Texaco station. Some service stations would go even further. Most Sinclair stations feature a statue of their mascot, Dino the brontosaurus, in front of their stations. Others adopted somewhat bizarre designs. In Seattle the Hat and Boots gas station is shaped like a cowboy hat; its restrooms are shaped like boots. By the 1950s many stations would offer various promotions. Among the most famous were the Green Stamps which could be redeemed for various merchandise.

One means the various petroleum companies had of promoting their stations were their various logos and mascots. Indeed, here in the United States the tallest signs one would see along the road were often those of gas stations. While some of the more famous logos and mascots have fallen into disuse, many are still around. Mobil still uses its red Pegasus or "flying horse" logo. Among the most famous advertising mascots is still Sinclair's green apatosaurus, Dino. As mentioned above, Sinclair stations sometimes even feature a model of him. Esso (now Exxon) was known for its running tiger. Shell has its famous yellow "shell" logo. Standard Oil of Indiana (later Amoco) used a red, white, and blue oval and torch design. Among the most famous petroluem company logos was the Texaco star. Featured prominently each week on The Milton Berle Show and later The Donald O'Connor Show, it is even mentioned in a song ("Walkaway Joe" by Don Henley).

It was not long after World War II that factors arose which would see an end to the service station as it had been for most of the 20th century. The first self-serve gas station was opened in 1930 by the Hoosier Petroleum Company, but the company's self-serve stations lasted only briefly. The fire marshal shut them down, maintaining they were a fire hazard! In 1947, however, Frank Ulrich opened a self-serve gas station in Los Angeles. Ulrich sold 500,000 gallons during the station's first month of operation. Other self-serve stations would open, first in California, then spreading to the Southwest and Southeast. Self-serve gas stations did not take off for some time. In the early Seventies the majority of filling stations were still full service. Eventually, however, the tables would turn and self-serve stations would outnumber full service stations.

Another factor which would see the decline of the full service filling station was the birth of the convenience store. In May 1927 Southland opened its first convenience store. The idea occurred to Jefferson Green, who ran the Southland Ice Dock in Oak Cliff, Texas, that he could make money by selling such necessities as milk, eggs, and bread after the local grocery stores had closed. From Green's idea and that first convenience store rose the 7-Eleven chain. Those early convenience stores were not open 24 hours--the 7-Eleven chain takes its name from the hours its stores were originally open. It would not be until 1961 that the first 24 hour convenience store would open. They also did not sell gasoline. The growth of the convenience store industry was slow prior to World War II. In fact, the term "convenience store" had not even been coined yet (it would not be until the Sixties). All of this changed following the Second World War. The number of Americans owning automobiles increased. So too did the number of Americans living in the suburbs. The convenience store industry began a period of rapid growth for those reasons. By the Seventies, most towns could boast at least one convenience store. In the interim many convenience stores started selling gasoline. This was more or less an outgrowth of the self-serve gas station. Eventually convenience stores would push out the full service stations.

While self-serve gas stations and convenience stores took their toll on the traditional filling stations, it was the energy crisis of the early Seventies that did the most damage to them. At that time shortages caused gasoline prices to rise significantly for the first time in literally years. As a result people tended to drive less, which meant, of course, that they were buying less gas. Many, many full service stations closed at this time. The self-serve stations managed to survive as they did not have to pay attendants to pump gas. The convenience stores survived as they had many other goods to sell. But the full service filling stations were hit pretty hard. To give one an idea of the impact of the energy crisis of the early Seventies, Huntsville once had three full service gas stations. We now have none (a convenience store and the local supermarket have taken their place). In fact, in the entire county I think there may be only one full service station left, and they don't even have a garage where they can repair cars!

I have to say that I miss full service gas stations. I must admit that I don't mind pumping my own gas (on the farm on which I grew up we had our own gas tank, so I often pumped my own gas anyhow). And I must say that I do like being able to pick up a soda or candy bars while getting gasoline at a convenience store. That having been said, there is also something to be said for sitting in one's car while an attendant fills his or her car with gas and washes the windshield. It has also impressed me as being pretty logical for the place where one gets his or her gas to also be the place where he or she can have his oil changed or his car repaired. While convenience stores are very nice, I think when the full service stations started to close en masse in the Seventies, the United States lost something very special.

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