How Gas Stations Have Totally Transformed Since the Early 1900s

By   

View as:

Vintage gas station pumps
Photo credit: Pgiam/istockphoto

PUMP IT UP

Ever wonder what it was like filling up in the good old days? A lot different, that's for sure. While gas stations have undergone plenty of welcome changes over the years — including innovative convenience stores that are worth a detour — there are also many services and features that road trippers would love to see make a comeback. This year, as BP marks its 110th anniversary — the former British Petroleum Company grew out of the first commercially significant find of oil in the Middle East — we take a nostalgic look back at tanking up today versus yesterday.
Old fashioned drive up gas station
Photo credit: Courtesy of aoghs.org

DRIVERS COULD BUY GAS AT PHARMACIES AND HARDWARE STORES

In the early 20th century, gas stations were commonly referred to as filling stations (and petrol stations overseas). Before these stations came into prominence, early drivers could purchase gas — first in open containers and then from free-standing pumps — at venues ranging from pharmacies and hardware stores to blacksmith shops and grocery stores. In some cases, drivers would pull up to a simple curbside station with pumps, according to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. An example of these sidewalk pumps on the society's site shows a location of Spitlers Auto Supply Company in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which closed in 1931. Curbside gas and other venues went out of fashion after Gulf Refining Company establishing covered, drive-through stations. The first such dedicated station built by Gulf opened in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913, which offered free air, water, tire and tube installation and a lighted marquee to protect drivers from bad weather.
Abandoned gas station
Photo credit: zodebala/istockphoto

THERE ARE FEWER STATIONS THESE DAYS

According to Paste Magazine, "By the end of the 1920s, approximately 200,000 gas stations existed in the U.S., and they were helping drivers take the long haul." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 114,533 gas stations at the end of 2012. Reports have suggested that more competition, environmental regulations, and profit margins have impacted growth.
Old-fashioned gas station attendant
Photo credit: Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

GAS STATION ATTENDANT UNIFORMS WERE ONCE STYLISH

Today, if you're lucky you get a T-shirt or polo with a company logo on it if you work at a gas station. In the past, gas station attendants dressed to the nines, with bow-ties, button-down shirts, caps, and more. Today, vintage uniforms can also be collectible — a recent scroll through Etsy showed, for example, a "rare find" of a Standard Oil uniform patch that could be had for $20.
Old-fashioned gas station attendant
Photo credit: Howard Sokol/Getty Images

ATTENDANTS USED TO TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING FOR YOU

Today, an attendant pumping your gas is the exception rather than the rule. According to a feature published by the National Association of Convenience Stores, in 1947 the first self-service station was opened in Los Angeles with roller-skating attendants. Today, with the exception of New Jersey (where you're legally prohibited from pumping your own gas), it's most often a self-service world.
Gas station bell
Photo credit: Courtesy of amazon.com

BELLS ONCE WELCOMED DRIVERS TO GAS STATIONS

In the past, you would drive your car over a hose that would sound a bell, summoning an attendant who would come out… eventually. Wondering how the hose and bell worked? A few participants took part in a recent chat on Google Groups forum analyzing the system, evidence that the bell is not forgotten. You can even buy your own driveway signal bell on Amazon.
Pops Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Oklahoma
Photo credit: Karissa S./yelp.com

GAS STATIONS USED TO BE WORKS OF ART

Gas stations as roadside attractions still exist. These are tourist destinations where the gas is secondary to the architectural design or unique amenities, though these have become rare. Quartz published the 10 "most beautiful" gas stations in the world — and you may wish your next fill-up was in Finland, where one gas station has sleeping areas, a restaurant, and a sauna.
Tesla charging station
Photo credit: ricochet64/istockphoto

CHANGING TECHNOLOGY REMAINS A CONSTANT

Types of pumps (from handcranks and gravity-fed tanks to globe-topped tanks and computerized systems), grades of gasoline, payment methods — gas stations are constantly evolving to keep up with improvements in cars and customer demands for convenience. Today, charging stations for electric vehicles are another new development for the industry. For those who want to know more, the Union of Concerned Scientists posted pretty much everything you might want to know about these plug-in charging stations.
Paying at the gas pump
Photo credit: XTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/istockphoto

HOW WE PAY FOR GAS HAS CHANGED (AND CONTINUES TO CHANGE)

In the past, you'd pull out your wallet and pay the man. Today, it's a tap of the screen, a scan of the credit or debit card, or cash. Cash isn't king, though, when you have to go inside the gas station to pay. However, there are reasons to hesitate before paying with debit cards, due to skimmers and other sneaky practices by thieves. Credit cards offer more consumer protections than debit cards, so take heed. Where paying at the pump was once considered a major innovation, gas companies are now looking to enable customers to purchase gas via their smartphones.
Oil check
Photo credit: Highwaystarz-Photography/istockphoto

A VISIT TO THE GAS STATION ONCE INCLUDED A FULL CHECK-UP

"Check your oil?" For decades, that was the question when you pulled up to the pump as full-service station attendants would check everything from the oil level to tire pressure. Today, most drivers head to Jiffy Lube or other dedicated service shops if they're in need oil or fluids. But since Mobil Oil suggests that it's not optimal to check oil when the engine is hot, maybe the end of this trend isn't the worst thing.
Washing windshield
Photo credit: AndreyPopov/istockphoto

ATTENDANTS USED TO WASH WINDSHIELDS

Just as an attendant would check your oil in the past, you'd also have your windshield — front and rear — washed while your gas was being pumped. It was an expected part of the service. Today, you may find a squeegee and some dirty water near the pump if you're inclined to do it yourself.
Air and water pump
Photo credit: alamostudios/istockphoto

ADDING AIR TO YOUR TIRES WAS PART OF THE EXPERIENCE

Not every gas station has a (working) air pump anymore. In the past, if the attendant wasn't available to help, you could pull to the side and check the air in your tires yourself, sometimes for free or for the price of a quarter. Today, a station with an air pump is increasingly a rarity — though, thanks to today's technology at your fingertips, you can plug in a zip code to FreeAirPump to find one near you.
Vintage Orbit Gas Station
Photo credit: Orangevale-Orbit-Gas-Mini-Mart/facebook.com

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN USED TO PLAY A LARGER ROLE

Have you ever said, "Look at that new beautiful gas station they're building?" Probably not, but gas stations are also a way to track architectural trends. Gizmodo.com tracked the architectural evolution of the filling station with its survey of more than 60 examples. Today, you may encounter an occasional retro-inspired station or a rare innovative design by a notable architect, but more often than not, stations are designed with utility in mind, not aesthetics.
Paper map
Photo credit: slobo/istockphoto

PAPER MAPS ARE OFTEN HARDER TO FIND THESE DAYS

Have you tried to walk into a gas station and get a map lately? Chances are you haven't even used a paper map in the last few years. Diehards might continue the map quest, but with GPS, the trusty fold-up map has gone by the wayside. According to writer Harold Cramer, "The first generally-distributed oil company road maps are usually credited to Gulf. In 1913 they opened the first drive-in gas station on Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh's east end and began handing out road maps."
Lost couple without signal coverage
Photo credit: Antonio_Diaz/istockphoto

DIRECTIONS FROM A PERSON CAN BE EVEN HARDER TO FIND

Today, it's rare to find someone working at a station who can give good directions. Most often a request for help will be met with a blank stare or "I don't live around here." Wondering what they should be doing instead? Mother Nature News says starting and ending directions with a memorable landmark helps the most.
Gas station and souvenir sign
Photo credit: Manakin/istockphoto

LOCAL SOUVENIRS ARE OFTEN IN SHORT SUPPLY

Gas stations may have quirky holiday-themed tchotchkes on the counter like chocolate roses for Valentine's Day, but unless you're within sight of the Grand Canyon, Walt Disney World, or other touristy destination, local souvenirs such as keychains, magnets or bumper stickers (remember those?) have become rare. And even when you do find a station that sells souvenirs, they tend to be generic items rather than anything locally made. Today, you can hit up BuildASign.com to create your own bumper sticker (from $2.24).
Hess toy truck
Photo credit: Courtesy of amazon.com

PREMIUM PRIZES ARE HARD TO COME BY

Branding is not a new thing, even if it wasn't called that back in the day. Gas stations would not only emblazon maps with their logo, but would also give out premiums for purchases, such as drinking glasses, figurines, coins, and for adults, ashtrays, lighters and bottle openers, creating a contemporary collectible category along the way. These days you can still buy a few branded items like the Hess toy truck — a hugely popular holiday collectible — but other types of memorabilia are hard to come by. The National Association of Convenience Stores reports that, even as self-service stations posed a threat to old-fashioned filling stations, "The major oil companies continued to compete with one another via unique gimmicks — such as gasoline-pump shaped salt and pepper shakers and promoting clean restrooms."
TV at a gas station pump
Photo credit:

WE NOW WATCH TV AT THE PUMP — AND THE TV IS WATCHING, TOO

Video screens on many gas pumps keep you company as you pump your own gas these days. They might share the weather, celebrity news, or even a word of the day — and, of course, advertisements. Fuel and "education" is something GSTV, for example, has been "providing the most informative and entertaining experience to mobile consumers" since 2006. Planted right in your face while you're pumping gas, the looping videos may drive some of us crazy, but they show no sign of going away. GSTV, one of the largest purveyors of the screens, already has screens at roughly 18,000 stations nationwide and growing. Perhaps more unnerving, companies like GSTV may soon be able to know who is at the pump, based on credit card and smartphone location data, and play ads and content specifically tailored for you.
Parker's Urban Gourmet
Photo credit: Parker's Market Urban Gourmet/facebook.com

FOOD OPTIONS AT GAS STATIONS ARE MUCH BETTER THESE DAYS

The old gas stations of the past might have some gum for sale, but today it's a virtual supermarket at your fingertips. There are potato chips and aspirin, wine and eggs, and more. If it's 3 a.m., you can still snag a hot dog and pick up beer, cigarettes, or lottery tickets. And if you're really lucky, you may just stop into one of the gas station convenience stores that lure travellers with incredible food that you wouldn't typically expect. Some online features have also surveyed the most "baffling" items sold at gas stations, while others tout them as places for holiday gifts.
Gas station coffee selection
Photo credit: Elisa G./yelp.com

GAS STATION COFFEE IS ALSO MUCH BETTER THAN IT WAS

A simple cup of hot coffee might have been a welcome sip to a traveler of old even a decade ago. Today, that doesn't cut it anymore as you have your choice of a dozen blends, flavors, creamers, sweeteners, and even lid type. Gas-station coffee is actually a thing deserving of ranking by USA Today.
Man pumping gas
Photo credit: andresr/istockphoto

THEY WERE A PLACE TO GATHER AND GOSSIP

The town gas station, much like the diner or dentist's office, used to be a place to hear the latest gossip. While you may run into a neighbor these days, the gas station as the place where everyone in town would go — and be seen — is simply not the way of today. The New York Times noted nearly a decade ago how small towns now more often turn to the web for community forums.
ATM in a gas station
Photo credit: photographereddie/istockphoto

YOU CAN ALMOST ALWAYS FIND AN ATM THESE DAYS

Back in the day, you paid with cash. Today, the gas station is often the place to get cash thanks to ever-prevalent ATMs. National ATM Wholesale reports that besides banks, convenience stores and gas stations are the most popular places for ATMs.
Arco gas station with solar panels
Photo credit: Synergy Power/yelp.com

SOLAR PANELS ARE AN INCREASINGLY COMMON SIGHT

A reflection of today's increased awareness, some gas stations are being built with an eye on the environment. To save energy, solar panels are often integrated into their canopies.
Gas station restrooms
Photo credit: Pgiam/istockphoto

CLEAN RESTROOMS CAN BE HARD TO FIND — WITHOUT A GUIDE

Traditionally, roadtrippers stop at the gas station for both gas — and relief. These days, though, you will not always find an open — or well-maintained – facility. Because of that, surveys such as the annual ranking by GasBuddy, an app that tracks fuel prices, revealing the cleanest gas station restrooms in every state is a must-read.
Costco gas station
Photo credit: slobo/istockphoto

YOU CAN NOW PICK UP GROCERIES WHEN YOU FUEL UP

Warehouse clubs such as Costco and supermarkets often have on-site gas stations where prices are tied to their membership or frequent-shopper cards. Instead of two trips, today's multitasking consumer can do it all on one property.

Cheapism.com participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product through a link on our site. This helps support our work and does not influence editorial content.