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Gas Stations

Gas Stations

Gas stations are embedded in our urban and rural landscape, pervasive symbols of the automobile's domination of twentieth-century society. Like the fast-food restaurant, the motel, and the shopping mall, gas stations are buildings whose very existence was generated by the automobile. The gas station also demonstrates the extent of corporate control over our lives. On a more philosophical note, they represent what one writer has referred to as "a potential point of pause" in our unceasingly mobile culture.

Gas stations have changed over the course of the century from strictly functional to multipurpose. Their evolution allows us to glimpse the development of a consumer society in the twentieth century, fueled by the power of advertising and increasing corporatization. Early motorists purchased their gasoline by the bucket from a dry goods or hardware store. The first gas stations were simple sheds or shacks with a gas pump. By the 1910s, however, they began to take on a unique identity in the landscape. Oil companies created standardized buildings for the distribution of their product. The Texas Company (Texaco), for example, constructed its first station in 1916. Each distinct station provided a means of corporate identity. Since the motorist was in no position to judge the quality of gasoline and therefore distinguish any one brand from another, the oil companies had to instill brand loyalty in their customers. The distribution of gasoline was therefore linked from the beginning to a marketing/advertising system. Corporate logos and slogans were created to help the public identify with the company. Visible gasoline pumps, which allowed the motorist to see the product as it was pumped into the car, led to the practice of dyeing gasoline with colors like red, blue, or purple in an effort to distinguish one brand from another. Companies also began to diversify the range of products and services available to the public. Maintenance and repair services turned the filling station into the all-around car-care station.

The standardization of the 1910s gave way to the eclecticism of the 1920s. Oil companies' drive to make their product identifiable led to the creation of exotic eye-catching buildings designed to look like Greek temples, Chinese pagodas, and Swiss chalets. By the end of the 1920s, a nationwide gasoline distribution system was in place in America that has not changed since. At the same time, a highway-building boom allowed motorists to expand their range of travel. Gas stations arose along the new highways to provide necessary and convenient services. These non-urban stations were dedicated as much to the customer as the car—they offered amenities for the new long-distance traveler unnecessary in urban locales. Stations offered clean rest rooms, free maps, soft drinks, and snacks. As traffic increased and the automobile culture expanded, gas stations attracted other businesses, such as motels and diners, to their location. The desire to make the customer feel comfortable also led these early stations to clothe their employees in military-style uniforms, which added an air of legitimacy to a still relatively novel enterprise. Slogans like Texaco's "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star" also encouraged consumer comfort.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the eclectically styled gas stations of the previous decade diminished as a new, "modern" design aesthetic—reflecting public fascination with images of the future—swept through the industry. Stations emphasized clean surfaces and streamlined curves. "Art Deco" or "Moderne" style gas stations became popular symbols of the new machine age. Oil companies hired famous designers to update and promote their image. In 1934, Norman Bel Geddes provided a new design for the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (now Mobil), which proved too avant-garde and was never built. In the same year, Walter Dorwin Teague was hired by Texaco for the same purpose. His streamlined box design was an instant success and was used in more than 10,000 stations across the country. Teague created a universally adaptable form and an immediately recognizable symbol for Texaco products. Other companies attempted to duplicate this achievement but were not as successful.

By the 1950s, a "functional" aesthetic began to prevail in the design of gas stations across the country. Historic and modern elements were rejected in favor of a design that emphasized function. Logos became more important as symbols of corporate identity. The impact of television as an advertising medium lessened the need for the gas station to serve as a three-dimensional billboard. For example, the Pure Oil Company sponsored a television quiz show in 1950, in which the company's slogan "Be Sure with Pure" was constantly repeated. The Texaco Star Theatre, with Milton Berle, was the most successful of these ventures—the show was the most popular television program in America in the 1950s.

The nature of the gas station began to change in the 1960s with the emergence of self-service stations and convenience stores. Self-service actually dated back to the 1930s, but in the interim most states had passed legislation requiring that only station personnel attend the pumps. The link between gas station and grocery store was even older; in the 1910s, many general stores in rural areas also had a gas pump. Also developing during this time period were truck stops and "highway hubs"—small nodes of consumerism at highway interchanges.

In the late twentieth century, as repair and maintenance services have come increasingly within the purview of specialty shops and automobile dealerships, and gasoline pumps have been added to convenience stores as a secondary service, the traditional filling station is almost extinct, but as long as our society remains dependent on the automobile, the gas station, in whatever form it may take, will be a permanent part of our landscape.

—Dale Allen Gyure

Further Reading:

Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Jennings, Jan, ed. The Automobile in Design and Culture. Ames, Iowa State University Press, 1990.

Vieyra, Daniel I. "Fill 'er Up": An Architectural History of America's Gas Stations. New York, Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1979.

Witzel, Michael Karl. The American Gas Station: History and Folklore of the Gas Station in American Car Culture. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1992.

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