The Weird, Strange History Of America's Gas Stations

Gas stations didn't just spring into being as they are today. No, they have a long, strange history.
The Weird, Strange History Of America's Gas Stations

Electric cars are getting more and more popular, but for now, gas-powered ones have at least one edge: gas stations. Even the smallest US town will have at least one place to fill a gas tank, with more than 110,000 stations dotting the country. So how did the gas station become what it is today? 

To understand that, we need to explore the little regarded history of gas stations which didn't just spring into being as they are today. No, they have a long, strange history with some truly weird services cropping up over the years ...

Before Gas Stations

In the early days of automobile production, it wasn't clear what they would be powered by. In fact, the first taxi company in New York City used a fleet of electric cars when it was founded in the 1890s. However, outside of cities where buildings were connected to either municipal gas systems or early electric grids, when people thought of liquid fuel, they usually thought of kerosene for lamps and heating. 

Kerosene was typically sold at hardware stores where an employee would use a "Bowser" patent hand pump or siphon to fill containers out of a barrel. The same model was adopted for gas, so filling up often occurred in front of the local general store, pharmacy, dry goods emporium, or even in front of a stable owned by somebody who realized that horses were on the way out

The Rathbun Company's stable block in Deseronto, looking towards the north, with a man and horse in the foreground.

Deseronto Archives

"You can use the gas to burn your horse. Really, it's the kinder thing to do."

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The First Gas Station

Several locations claim to be the home of the "first gas station" based on being the first to pump directly into the car's fuel tank or to separate the pump from the tank for safety purposes. But when it comes to the modern idea of a gas station with a roof over the pumping area and a "drive through" traffic flow, the credit goes to the Good Gulf Gasoline, which in 1913 began serving customers in Pittsburgh, PA

1922 newspaper ad for a new Gulf station in Philadelphia, with a close view of the station

Gulf Oil

The alliteration was so cutesy that they dropped it as soon as possible. 

The luxurious pumping environs meant filling up at a steep 27 cents a gallon, yeesh, but they found themselves selling hundreds of gallons a day by the end of the week.

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Quality You Can See

When the gas pump technology matured a bit, businesses built primarily around gas pumps became common in the 1930s and '40s. Motorists now had some degree of choice in where they filled up. This led to a dizzying profusion of designs, styles, and gimmicks in gas pumps

The Airplane Service Station along Clinton Highway (US-25) in Powell, Tennessee, USA

Brian Stansberry

This one was designed in 1930 and was clearly a mistake. 

One feature that caught on but is entirely absent from the modern pump is "sight glass." This feature was important either because our grandparents could determine the octane of gas just by looking at it, or more likely so they could trust that they were getting the proper quantity. 

Gas Stations Of Future Past

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright absolutely loved cars. And he thought everybody else did too. Why else would he propose replacing Downtown Pittsburgh with a gigantic circular ramp that belongs in a Mass Effect level? His love of the automobile extended to his dream project, a sprawling garden utopia most closely resembling the hell we today know as "suburbia." He called the project Broadacre City and envisioned gas stations as the social and civic hub where everybody would meet up

Sketches for the Broadacre City project by Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

Otherwise, they get lasered by the flying saucers.

While his broader plans were (thankfully) never realized, there is a single example of his ideal gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota.

Pay At The Pump … Or Not

The modern introvert on the go is surely glad that gassing up is a relatively solitary experience. Simply feed your credit card into the machine, wave an RFID dongle, or use an app, and you can fuel up without facing another human. But this wasn't always the case. Self-service gasoline pumps didn't become the norm until the 1980s when the possibility of paying by credit card became standard. 

Of course, there are still places with particularly old pumps where you may still need to visit the cashier. In New Jersey and Oregon, it is actually illegal to pump your own gas, a state of affairs that caused much confusion during a brief suspension of the Oregon law in 2020. Mark your maps accordingly.

Gas pump

Sippakorn Yamkasikorn/Unsplash

New Jersey also bans email, so telegram boys get to keep their jobs. 

Snack Time

When pay-at-the-pump was first catching on, a lot of gas station owners were worried about what it meant for the future of their real business: the convenience stores. The margins on gasoline by the '80s and onward into the modern era were actually pretty poor. The REAL money was in the candy bars and pork rinds you don't want to admit you buy. Without people being forced to stand in front of all that temptation while waiting in line to pay for their gas, surely sales would go down?

Convenience store entrance in Los Angeles, CA. Shot on Minolta SRT 101.

Chase Yi/Unsplash

No one thinks they want BBQ Fritos, they have to come in first and lose control. 

In fact, the opposite happened. Since those with the force of will to resist the siren's song of sugar and trans fats didn't bother going inside at all, it meant shorter lines for the rest of us and a higher volume of sales. So next time you're perusing the donuts or pulling an Arizona out of the cooler, be glad you're there by choice.

Bigger Is Better

Gas stations aren't just for motorists though, they're also a necessary resource for the truck drivers who keep those very same shelves stocked. That's why many highway gas stations now offer showers and other accommodations to improve life on the road. 

You can find truck stops all over, but if you feel the call of the open road and want to just visit one, why not head to the Buc-ee's in New Braunfels, Texas? It's the world record holder of both the world's longest car wash and the world's largest convenience store.

Buc-ee's convenience store in New Braunfels, Texas

Larry D. Moore

Hey, you can't build a 65,000-square-foot convenience store. That's cheating. 

t also claims to have the cleanest restrooms in America. Not a claim I'm eager to check, but hey, you do you. Grab me one of those Frisbees with the beaver mascot on it while you're there.

The Future

Gas stations today may feel ubiquitous, but they don't have to. Interesting architecture can make a pit-stop feel like more than an interruption to your travel. And it may become even more welcome as we move into the future. Frank Lloyd Wright may not have built more than one station, but as we switch to electric cars that can take as much as half an hour to charge even with the best equipment, we might actually find ourselves meeting people at them. Or at least reading a book for a bit

R. W. Lindholm Service Station, 202 Cloquet Ave, Cloquet, Minnesota

McGhiever/Wiki Commons

We can get stations like the one Wright built. 
Hey, wait, come back!

We may begin rethinking what these places represent. Maybe we will begin to appreciate these spaces not just for being convenient and having a bathroom, but forcing us to get out and stretch our legs and contemplate our journeys. If not, at least there'll always be hot dogs and taquitos on the rollers and a light in the dark.

Top Image: Sippakorn Yamkasikorn/Unsplash

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