Initially little more than shacks next to a pump, by the 1920s American gas stations were evolving into the full-service outlets we recognize today. With over 15,000 pumps nationwide servicing an estimated 9 million American motorists, it was not an easy transition. The new curbside pumps, while convenient, caused such congestion in the city of Buffalo that the New York State Supreme Court banned 600 out of 700 stations from the business district. Full service stations soon replaced curbside pumps; by 1930, over 100,000 stations sold automotive accessories to motorists, along with gas, oil and grease.
As unregulated businesses, gas stations in the early 1920s consisted of a small building and pump. Early stations provided basic services, such as lubrication and tire repair, and sold oil, batteries and tires. As gas stations proliferated, large oil companies began to introduce coherent design elements to their outlets. By 1922, over 200 of Shell Oil Company's 1,841 stations shared color schemes, pump equipment and uniforms. These "unified models" accounted for over 40% of the company's retail gas sales.
Curbside pumps were introduced in the mid-1920s. Models like the Tokheim Cut 250 piston pump allowed drive-up sidewalk refilling on city streets. At first a welcome convenience, the curbsides resulted in traffic congestion caused by lines of cars waiting to refill on busy streets, and led 14 cities to ban the pumps by 1923. Following the ban, large-scale operators like New York's Standard Oil consolidated multiple pumps onto a single property, creating the first modern filling stations.
Driven by public concern over unsightly gas stations, oil executives under pressure from the City Beautiful movement began constructing more aesthetically pleasing outlets. The Union Oil Company covered their station roofs in Spanish tile, while the Atlantic Refining Company built a station that was a scaled-down replica of the monument to Lysicrates in Athens, Greece.
Gas station signs and billboards also received increased attention during the late 1920s. In 1927, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. sponsored a series of national design contests to foster visually appealing gas stations and signage. That same year, California's Standard Oil voluntarily removed 1,200 large billboards and ran a "Sign-ic" (scenic) contest designed to combat "objectionable advertising signs along the highway."
- Photo Credit George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images
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