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Prior to 1905, automobile drivers pulled up to any hardware or general store or even blacksmith shop to purchase gasoline from a barrel. Drivers generally carried a bucket in their autos for this purpose. It was hardly safe or convenient.
Flint, MI 1910
In 1905, about 25,000 cars were manufactured in the United States, and Sylvanus F. Bowser perfected a pump that would take gas out of a barrel and fill a car's tank. The world's first "filling stations" started opening that same year in St. Louis, Missouri, the second gas station was constructed in 1907 by Standard Oil of California (which is now known as Chevron) in Seattle Washington at what is now Pier 32. Reighard's gas station in Altoona, Pennsylvania claims that it dates from 1909 and is the oldest existing gas station in the United States.
Those early filling stations were not the drive-in type that we've known all of our lives, instead the filling station owner would place a pump out front of their establishment on the sidewalk. The cars would just stop right in the midst of traffic and fill up. This problem grew much worse by 1910, when there were 500,000 cars looking for gas and blocking traffic while doing it.
This is when the drive-in stations began to appear with their pumps sometimes covered by canvas awnings and located on a lot off the main street next to a "store". These stores began selling auto supplies and food - just like what we see today.
Suddenly, gas was cheap and plentiful and this forced companies to compete for their customers which in turn brought about a new term for these gas stations -- "service stations". And service they did, right down to the attendants in matching spiffy uniforms who raced out to the customer's car, pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the oil and water, tested the air in the tires and politely asked the customer if there was anything else they needed.(!)
Now stations were finding it tough to keep existing customers and attract new ones leading owners to offer more and more services in order to stay competitive. How did a new company get motorist to buy its gas rather than a the fellow's down the street? Oil changes; tire repairs, changes or rotations; mechanic services; car washes and waxes were a few of the services station owners began offering and all at affordable prices.
Services for the automobile were not the only enticement used by station owners. S & H Green Stamps were offered by most major Oil Companies and almost all stations boasted "Clean and Sanitary Rest Rooms". Many many other giveaways were offered, from maps to toy cars and trucks as well as dishes and glassware which wasn't plastered with the name of the company either.
Just think about this for a moment...gas stations pumped your gas, checked the oil and water and tire pressure, cleaned the windshield and gave you a gift, all for the privileged of having you for a customer.
This is one of those times when change is not so good, eh?
You might enjoy the following links loaded with vintage photos:
Filling Stations in vintage photographs Click on the slideshow for this one -- very very good photos