Today, we ask where gas stations went. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
What do you call places that
sell gasoline? The Yellow Pages list them under
service stations, but they offer
little service these days. The first public
gasoline servers were simply called filling
stations. They were just curbside hand
pumps, and they began appearing in 1907. There was
no service in 1907, either. You did your own
repairs in those days.
Henry Ford and the great explosion of automobiles
after WW-I changed all that. Those millions of new
cars needed a huge infrastructure of supply. So a
new American institution came into being. It was
what we called the gas station.
The gas station started taking shape around 1910.
By 1920 it was well-defined. It was a small
building with gas pumps in front. But it also
offered supplies -- tires, batteries, and oil. It
offered simple services -- lube jobs and tire
In 1920, America had 15,000 gas stations and only
half that number of curbside pumps. By 1930, we had
over 100,000 gas stations, and curbside pumps had
all but vanished.
And so gas stations became a new American icon.
They joined the mimetic
architecture movement -- architecture that made
fun of reality. The roadside seized passing
motorists with a visual impact that could register
in seconds: cafes shaped like coffee pots or Indian
tepees, BURMA SHAVE signs.
The new gas stations made that impact in several
ways. Some were built like cozy bungalows to
welcome weary motorists. Some were futuristic,
calling up a modern world of speed and function.
And they carried the logos of the vast new
corporations now selling gasoline at 12 cents a
gallon -- Standard Oil, Marathon, Conoco, Mobil's
Flying Red Horse. Gas Stations offered uniformed
attendants. Advertising told us they were good
friends who wanted to serve our needs. "You can
trust your car, To the man who wears a star." And,
indeed, you often could.
By 1970 America had over 200,000 gas stations. Then
things began changing. By 1990, half those stations
were gone, and their number keeps falling. Today we
go to a service station for gasoline, candy, soda,
and a car wash. We seldom expect to find even such
elementary services as an oil change or a new
Today, batteries, oil, and tires last five times as
long as they once did. But cars have grown more
complex, and so has their upkeep. So this cultural
icon is vanishing, and most of us are only vaguely
aware of its death. Yet a whole way of life is
passing with it: White Castles, drive-in movies,
and, of course, that rubber tube we drove over to
sound a bell -- to tell a liveried attendant we'd
driven up, expecting to be treated like royalty.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Jakle, J.A., and Sculle, K.A., The Gas Station
in America, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1944.
Heimann, J., and Georges, R., California
Crazy: Roadside Vernacular Architecture,
Tokyo: Dai Nippon, 1985.
Margolies, J., The End of the Road.
New York: Viking Press, 1977.
Liebs, C.H., Main Street to Miracle Mile:
American Roadside Architecture, Boston:
Little, Brown and Co., 1985.
Venturi, R., Brown, D.S., and Izenour, S.,
Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1972.
Rowsome, F., Jr., The Verse by the Side of
the Road, New York: The Stephen Grene
Press/Pelham Books, 1965, 1990.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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