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The History and Heyday of the American Gas Station

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Service station and merchantile, Sonoita Arizona

Service station and merchantile, Sonoita Arizona

American Service Station

Do you remember the ding of the service station bell which signaled a uniformed service station attendant to appear and offer to "fill-er-up?" After pumping your gas at pennies per gallon, the attendant would wash the windshield, check the oil, the battery and other fluids, and the air pressure in the tires. Do you remember pulling a cold bottle of soda from the icy water in the soda cooler and using the bottle opener to pull off the soda cap? Or getting a free map, a litter bag to hang off the knob on your radio or receiving trading stamps or other service station give aways? Or using the restroom without asking for the key? If these things seem familiar, then you remember the heyday of the American Gas Station.

By 1899, horseless carriages or early automobiles were considered as a fad for the wealthy. The limited number of roads and the conditions of the existing roads required motorists to carefully plan ahead to obtain fuel. Various types of animal and vegetable fuels were tried, but kerosene became known as the best fuel. The fuel had to be poured by hand, strained through a chamois cloth and funneled into a small opening. To further complicate the process, the fuel tanks did not have gauges, so the process was both complicated and dangerous since kerosene frequently splashed out and fires occurred.

By 1904, the number of automobiles had increased and kerosene and gasoline which is a refined form of kerosene were being sold in one gallon tins. Two men, Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig of Missouri, developed a gravity fed tank system using a garden hose to fuel autos at their American Gasoline Company. They are credited as the first to establish the American Gas Station. Other companies followed by mounting fuel tanks onto wagons that used gravity fed systems to deliver gasoline. Soon, it was logical to place the fueling wagons at various sites along the roads.

John Tokheim was the first person to develop a hand operated gasoline pump that accurately measured fuel. (Tokheim pumps in various forms are still around today.) Henry Ford also had a huge impact on American history when he developed the assembly line for the Model T and later the Model A Ford, which took the automobile from the wealthy to the mass market, and America became a nation of automobiles. Of course it was only natural that autos would need fuels, parts, tires and accessories, and another thriving industry was created. Refining industries rushed to create better gasoline to garner their share of the industry and in the first rush, they created unattractive, shoddy buildings to sell their gasoline. Shell Oil Company was the first to see a need to choose a color (yellow) that motorists could identify with Shell products and to create uniform metal stations with a stylized easily recognizable design. By the 1920s, refining companies were developing fueling stations that appeared as small attractive "little houses."

As the competition between refineries grew, the 1930s and 1940s was a time of new marketing strategies. Service station attendants in "snappy" company uniforms that offered a variety of auto service became common. As autos became more sophisticated, various grades of gas and oil products were developed. Stations began giving away everything from toasters to glasses to attract customers. Curb signs touted "The Cleanest Restrooms" trading stamps,touring service guides, and free maps. Alas, by the 1960s, self service stations that offered gas several cents cheaper that the full service stations were becoming popular. The price of gas was the driving factor in sales.

Old roadways were abandoned in favor of new freeways and the gasoline shortage of 1972 signaled the end of the classic service station. It is estimated that over 218,000 closed during or shortly after 1972. Separate tire company stores, were followed by separate brake alignment shops, lube shops, and new discount auto stores became common place. Pumping gas became self-service as most people favored cheaper gas over customer service. The heyday of the American Service Station was over.

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Gregory Hasman from Denton TX on May 10, 2011:

Very well written. Although I was not around during their hey day, I enjoy looking at older pumps with the globes on top and thinking about what it might have been like in a 1954 Buick Roadmaster driving in for service at a Sinclair; or riding in a 1914 Model T and getting curbside service.

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