Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Fill 'er Up
While perusing the Wisconsin Historical Society website, I spotted a curious title in the bookstore: Fill ‘er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations. A whole book about gas stations?
The first image to come to mind was the Texaco station in Back to the Future. Marty McFly is transported back to 1955. He watches a car pull up to the gas pumps. Four attendants run out to pump gas, clean the windshield, check the oil, and put air in the tires. Such service was unheard of in Marty’s 1985. And definitely not today.
During the earliest years of the twentieth century, motorists purchased unfiltered gas in metal or glass containers, necessitating a funnel and a chamois cloth filter to fill their tanks, as well as dexterity to reach the inconveniently placed tank. Filtered gas arrived in 1904, with hit-and-miss availability at general stores, blacksmith shops, or livery stables.
Gas sales increased as more cars filled the roads. Underground tanks and gas pumps with hose-and-nozzle offered safer, cleaner environments. A new business developed: the gas station. With no forerunners, how they looked or functioned was up to the owner. He didn’t need much: a small shelter for the attendant, a little room for business work, and a bit of space to stock supplementary products.
Hazards still existed. For businesses built up to the sidewalk, curbside pumps led to the danger of cars hitting the pumps, and they were banned in many places by the mid-20s.
Improved roads heralded the age of interstate travel and the dedicated gas station. Services included greasing racks, free air and water, restrooms, and crank case service. They were called filling stations because they didn’t have service bays.
The proliferation of gas stations caused an outcry. Located in prominent places, they were considered eyesores. People wanted better aesthetics. Retailers too wanted to avoid the perception of being ugly, dirty businesses attracting riff-raff intent on making fast money.
Architects came to the rescue, and soon filling stations resembled houses in Tudor or Colonial Revival that blended in with residential areas. Rivalry led to elaborate designs: castles, pagodas, Arabic mosques, windmills, Victorian fantasies. Commenting on one elaborate station in an upscale neighborhood, architect Alexander Guth remarked, “Were it not for the tall, whip-like pumps…this amusing little building, designed to shelter the dispenser of gas and oil, as well as provide a restroom for women travelers, would seem to be a bit of stage setting from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or the ‘Gingerbread Man.’”
As more and more women took to the road, gas stations sought their business. Women’s restrooms usually featured an outside entrance while the men’s room was accessible inside near the salesroom where they were enticed to make impulsive auto product purchases. Roadside sandwich-board signs touted Clean Restrooms. In 1938, Shell Oil joined forces with Good Housekeeping magazine to put a “Seal of Approval” on their premises, and Texaco sent women inspectors to certify their restrooms as “Registered Restrooms.”
The Depression did not adversely affect gas retailing. By now automobiles were an essential part of the American lifestyle. Gas companies broadened their businesses to include service bays and vehicle maintenance. The hydraulic hoist, invented in 1925, brought auto servicing inside and eliminated the need for service pits. Car washes and tire sales were added. Station attendants wore uniforms and pumped gas, checked the oil, cleaned windshields, and filled radiators in a bid for loyalty.
World War II brought gas rationing, not because of a gas shortage but to save on tire consumption. The average driver received an “A” rationing card, entitled him to three gallons of gas per week. As men left for military duty, women took over pumping gas.
S&H Green Stamps were a popular promotion, peaking in the 1960s. I remember collecting dishes from gas stations in the sixties. With each fill-up, customers received a glass dinner plate, dessert plate, soup bowl, mug, or other item. My mother accumulated a sixteen-place setting, much of it still used regularly.
Free giveaways faded into history in the 1970s. The oil embargo of 1973 also pushed full-service stations into the past. In a matter of months, gas prices jumped forty percent. Self-serve stations became the norm as a means of easing labor costs. Today’s gas customer can pay with a credit card at the pump and never even see a station employee.
Does anyone still have gas station giveaways?