How Gas Stations Have Totally Transformed Over the Past Century

How Gas Stations Have Changed


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How Gas Stations Have Changed

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, there are also many services and features road trippers would love to see make a comeback. We take a nostalgic look back at tanking up today versus yesterday.

Related: Road Trippers Go Out of Their Way for These 30 Convenience Stores

Gas Station 1930's
Free Library of Philadelphia

Drivers Could Buy Gas at Pharmacies and Hardware Stores

Before it was common to find filling stations (or, overseas, petrol stations) in the early 20th century, the first drivers could buy 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 shows a Spitlers Auto Supply in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which closed in 1931. Curbside gas and other venues went out of fashion after Gulf Refining establishing dedicated, drive-through stations, the first opening in downtown Pittsburgh on Dec. 1, 1913, with free air, water, tire and tube installation, and a lighted marquee to protect drivers from bad weather.

Related: 20 Fast Food Restaurants Then and Now

Abandoned Gas Station
Stylish Gas Attendant
Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Gas Station Attendant Uniforms Were Once Stylish

Today, you're lucky if you get a T-shirt or polo with a company logo as a gas station employee. In the past, 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 Conoco uniform patch that could be had for about $28.

Related: Route 66, Then and Now

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Attendants Took Care Of You
Howard Sokol/Getty Images
Bells Welcomed Drivers

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. Wondering how the hose and bell worked? A few participants took part in a chat on a Google Groups forum analyzing the system, evidence that the bell is not forgotten. You can even buy your own driveway signal bell on Amazon.

Route 66 | Pops Soda Ranch
Karissa S./Yelp

Gas Stations Used to Be Works of Art …

Gas stations as roadside attractions still exist — the increasingly rare tourist destination where the gas can seem secondary to the design or unique amenities. Quartz published the 10 "most beautiful" gas stations in the world, which may make you wish your next fill-up was in Finland, where one gas station has sleeping areas, a restaurant, and a sauna.

Related: Spectacular Outdoor Art You Can See for Free

Orangevale Orbit Gas
Orangevale Orbit Gas & Mini Mart/Yelp

… and Architecturally Significant

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 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.

Related: 76 Attractions to See While Driving Across the Country

Changing Technology Is Constant

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 evolve constantly to keep up with improvements in cars and customer demands for convenience. Charging stations for electric vehicles are the latest 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.

Related: How to Road Trip the Right Way With an Electric Car

How We Pay Has Changed

How We Pay for Gas Has Changed (And Continues to)

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. And where paying at the pump was once considered a major innovation, gas companies are enabling customers to buy gas via smartphones and other devices. (Are you using a card? Skimmers and other sneaky practices by thieves mean there are reasons to hesitate before paying with debit cards; there are more consumer protections with credit cards.) 

Related: 14 Car Innovations We Could See in the Next Decade (And One We Won't)

A Visit Would Include An Oil Check

A Visit to the Gas Station Once Included a Full Checkup

"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 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.

Related: 16 Ways Driving Has Changed in the Past 50 Years

Attendants Washed Windshields

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.

Related: Cheapest Oil Change: Jiffy Lube vs. Valvoline vs. Walmart and More

Air Pumps Were Prevalent

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.

Related: 10 Useful Car Features You Probably Didn’t Notice Before

Paper Maps are Harder to Find Now

Paper Maps Are Harder to Find

You probably haven't tried to walk into a gas station and get a map lately — chances are you haven't used a paper map in years. Diehards might continue the map quest, but with GPS, the trusty fold-up version has gone by the wayside. "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," writer Harold Cramer says.

Related: 28 Simple Things Today's Teens Don't Know How to Do

No One to Give Directions

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? Starting and ending directions with a memorable landmark helps the most.

Related: 44 Jobs That'll Soon Be Lost to Automation

Local Souvenirs are Hard to Find

Local Souvenirs Are Often in Short Supply

Gas stations may have quirky holiday-themed tchotchkes on the counter such as chocolate roses for Valentine's Day, but unless you're within sight of the Grand Canyon, Walt Disney World, or other touristy destinations, 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 to create your own bumper sticker (from $2.39).

Related: Cheap Souvenirs From All 50 States

Premium Prizes are Hard to Come By

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 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 such as 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."

Related: 30 Collectibles That Are Now Worthless

TV at the gas pump
TV at the gas pump by Ed McDonald (None)

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 gas these days. They might share the weather, celebrity news, or even a word of the day — and, of course, advertisements. 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, is in more than 24,000 locations nationwide. Perhaps more unnerving, companies such as GSTV may already know who is at the pump, based on credit card and smartphone location data, and play ads and content specifically tailored for you.

Related: 21 Ways to Get Better Gas Mileage

Parker's Market Urban Gourmet
Michelangelo S./Yelp

Food Options at Gas Stations Are Much Better

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 travelers with incredible food that you wouldn't typically expect. Some online features have also touted them as places for holiday gifts.

Related: Hungry? These Roadside Restaurants Across America are Worth a Detour

Gas Station Coffee is Much Better
Elisa G./Yelp

Gas Station Coffee Is Also Much Better

A simple cup of hot coffee might have been a welcome sip to a traveler even a decade ago. 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.

Related: The Secret History of How Coffee Took Over the World

They Used to Be a Place to Gather

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.


You Can Almost Always Find an ATM
Solar Panels are Increasingly Common
Synergy Power/Yelp
Clean Restrooms Can Be Hard to Find
Pick Up Groceries When You Fuel

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.

Related: 12 Ways to Fill Up for Less at the Gas Station