Centennial Oil Stamp Issue

Petroleum commemorated with 120 million stamps in 1959.


A centennial oil stamp commemorating the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry was issued on August 27, 1959, by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who proclaimed: “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry. It has supplied most of the power that has made the American standard of living possible.” 

As the sesquicentennial of the first U.S. drilled to produce oil approached in 2009, a special committee sought U.S. Postal Service approval for a commemorative stamp. The committee and petroleum historians twice petitioned for a commemorative U.S. stamp similar to one issued for the petroleum industry’s centennial of America’s first oil well. (more…)

Alley Oop’s Oil Roots

Depression Era cartoonist Victor Hamlin worked as an oilfield cartographer in West Texas.


The once widely popular newspaper comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a young Texas cartographer who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps.

Alley Oop appeared for the first time in the summer of 1933 when Victor Hamlin, a former Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reporter, published fanciful tales about a caveman.

Hamlin began syndicating his daily cartoon in the Des Moines Register in Iowa. His Paleolithic Age idea for the comic strip, which would run in more than 800 newspapers, reportedly began in a small oil “company town” in the Permian Basin.

The West Texas oil town of Iraan (pronounced Eye-Rah-Ann) later proclaimed itself as the inspiration for Alley Oop. Hamlin’s comics trip character was conceived in the arid region’s earliest oilfields.

On July 20, 1920, a wildcat well in Mitchell County erupted oil on land owned by Texas Pacific Land Trust agent William H. Abrams. Just weeks earlier, another W.H. Abrams well had revealed an oilfield in Brazoria County south of Houston.

Commemorative 1995 32-cent stamp for Alley Oop cartoon character

A 1995 U.S. postage stamp commemorated the Alley Oop character of Victor Hamlin, a cartoonist from the Yates oilfield company town of Iraan, Texas.

After the latest Abrams well was “shot” with nitroglycerin by the Texas Company (later Texaco), the oilfield discovery well produced from the Permian Basin, which would prove to encompass 75,000 square miles in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

In May 1923, when the Santa Rita No. 1 well roared in on land owned by the University of Texas, major oil companies joined independent oil companies in a rush to explore the full 300-mile extent of the basin.

Iraan first appeared as a company town following the discovery of the prolific Yates oilfield in October 1926. The town’s name combined names of the townsite owners, Ira and Ann Yates.

Discovered in southeastern Pecos County, the Yates field brought prosperity to Midland, Odessa and other communities by producing more than 40 million barrels in just three years.

Oilfield Cartographer

According to comic-strip historian Mike Hanlon, the young cartoonist from from Perry, Iowa, came up with the idea for Alley Oop while working in the Permian Basin oilfields. Hamlin, who reportedly witnessed the first oil gusher at Iraan, had been hired by an oil company as a cartographer making site maps.

As the boom town Iraan grew in the late 1920s, Hamlin worked in the new West Texas oilfields. “He could watch dinosaur bones being removed by the steam shovels and scrapers as they cleared the sites for drilling, wells, and pumps,” Hanlon explained in “The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs.”.

The future creator of Alley Oop developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

According to Steve Stiles website post “The Man Who Walked With Dinosaurs,” Hamlin began doing artwork for petroleum industry publications, “before one day, while wandering through the desolate landscape of the oilfields, began musing about the dinosaurs who had once roamed through the very same territory.”

Alley Oop Oop

The official start date of Hamlin’s famed caveman as a daily comic strip was August 7, 1933. The adventures of Alley Oop in the prehistoric nation of Moo would also appear in many Sunday newspaper pages. 

Decades after the roughnecking days of Iraan ended, the band “The Hollywood Argyles” in 1960 sang Alley Oop was “the toughest man there is alive.” Their song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.

With improved drilling and oil recovery techniques, production from Yates oil wells has continued. By the beginning the 21 century, the field was estimated to have one billion barrels of recoverable oil remaining. Tourists visiting West Texas can take a break at the Alley Opp RV Park on the northwest edge of Iraan. 

Although Hamlin retired in 1971 (he died in 1993), his daily strips (now by Jack and Carole Bender) have continued to appear in hundreds of newspapers. In 1995, the former oilfield cartographer’s Alley Oop was selected as one of the 20 U.S. Postal Service commemorative Comic Strip Classics postage stamps.


Recommended Reading:  Yates: A family, A Company, and Some Cornfield Geology (2000); Alley Oop’s Ancestors: The Newspaper Cartoons of V.T. Hamlin (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Alley Oop’s Oil Roots.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/alley-oop-origin-in-permian-basin. Last Updated: July 5, 2022. Original Published Date: August 2, 2015.

Oil in the Land of Oz

Did L. Frank Baum’s 1880s “Castorine” company inspire the Tin Man?


The oil can of the Tin Man in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz perhaps can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields, where L. Frank Baum founded a petroleum lubricant business before becoming the famous children’s book author.

“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” explained Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.

Illustration from 1900 children's book Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Before publishing his children’s book in 1900, L. Frank Baum sold a popular axle oil from a company he founded in Syracuse, New York.

Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother started an oil products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oil for a living. In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their small business offering lubricants, oils, greases — and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

 Baum's Castorine Company axle oil ad, circa 1880s

L. Frank Baum — whose father found success in Pennsylvania oilfields — served as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which he founded with his brother on July 9, 1883.

Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years.

“He was a traveling salesman for the company,” noted a 2011 exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

oil can

L. Frank Baum’s sales trips may have influenced Oz. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

The Kalamazoo exhibit’s text also explained that although the petroleum lubricating company enjoyed some success, the business “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”

Baum wrote of his Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.” The frustrated businessman sold the oil venture. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.

Son of a Successful Oilman

L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum — one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood.

Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.

Baum's Castorine axle oil products tin advertising sign.

Baum’s Castorine products “are designed to extend machine life and reduce your maintenance costs.”

In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. “Frankie” was then only four and a half years old. Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run would bring his enterprising father great wealth.

“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” wrote Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.

“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers reported. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

As U.S. consumer demand for kerosene lamps skyrocketed, Pennsylvania’s oil region produced the new industry’s earliest tycoons, long before Standard Oil Company (also see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”).

By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company and was a well-established independent oil producer. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man.

When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.

The Pioneer Oil Museum of New York

L. Frank Baum’s father once owned an oil company in Bolivar, New York, where a museum today exhibits the region’s extensive petroleum history. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” according to historian Ronald G. Taylor.

“The plant, owned by B.W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor explained.

Although there were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil regions, there no longer was unlimited free enterprise in oilfields.

“John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution,” added Rogers in her book. “In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”

Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the planned pipeline. Despite the setback, Baum continued to find success with prolific oil wells in New York. 

After almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum (1821-1887) died in Syracuse, New York. His petroleum wealth had helped him acquire small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania and permitted his son to pursue writing, publishing journals, and writing for the stage — perhaps setting the stage for Frank’s future fame.

Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can

When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life — and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.

Detail of the Tin Man drawing by W.W, Denslow  from 1899 OZ series book by L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum sold his Baum’s Castorine Company in 1888. His many Castorine sales trips may have led to the idea of a Tin Woodman character for his book, illustrated by W.W. Denslow.

“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explained, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. Schwartz also discovered the company still manufactured industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.

“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz wrote.

“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he noted. “What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”

Learn about the historic Allegheny petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.


Recommended Reading: L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography (2002); Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story (2009); Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State (1949). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil in the Land of Oz.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/l-frank-baum-castorine-oil. Last Updated: June 30, 2022. Original Published Date: June 1, 2005.


Smithsonian’s Hall of Petroleum


The Smithsonian Institution’s “Hall of Petroleum,” which opened in the summer of 1967, devoted an entire wing to oilfield exhibits. The historic collection included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks, and other oilfield exhibits.

Today, with a collection of more than three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History includes surprisingly few related to energy history or U.S. petroleum exploration and production technologies. It wasn’t always so.


Oil Art of Graham, Texas

Alexandre Hogue and other artists depicted oilfields during the Great Depression.


The 1939 “Oil Fields of Graham” mural by Alexandre Hogue is on display in its original Texas oil patch community’s historic U.S. Postal Service building, now a museum.

When President Franklin Roosevelt created public relief projects, including the New Deal Federal Arts Program, Hogue and other artists were commissioned to paint American history on the walls of public buildings.


Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Oilfield Photographer John Mather

Thousands of glass-negative images documented the earliest scenes of U.S. petroleum industry.


Soon after the first American oil well in August 1859 launched the U.S. petroleum industry in remote northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England began documenting oilfield life among the wooden derricks and engine houses. Photographer John Mather created thousands of historic images and became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

The newcomer to America set up his first studio in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1860. The growing town was an ideal location for documenting the people and evolving drilling technologies of petroleum exploration and production. He would become the new oil and natural gas industry’s premier photographer, amassing more than 20,000 glass plate negatives.

oilfield photographer John Mather self portrait

John A. Mather, probably a circa 1900 self-portrait.

What photographers Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on Civil War battlefields, Mather accomplished in Pennsylvania’s oilfields. He would photograph a famous image of Drake, taken at the original site soon after the first oil well fire of October 7, 1859.

Like Brady, John A. Mather (1829-1915) abandoned one-of-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in favor of wet plate negatives using collodion — a flammable, syrupy mixture also called “nitrocellulose.” With one plate, many paper copies of an image could be printed and sold.

Oilfield photographer John Mather's famous image of Edwin Drake at his oil well

Iconic but often misidentified photo by John A. Mather shows Edwin L. Drake (at right) with a friend standing at the rebuilt derrick and engine house of the first U.S. commercial oil well of August 1859. An October fire destroyed the originals. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

However, unlike most of the era’s studio photographers, Mather transported his camera and chemicals into the industrial chaos of early Pennsylvania oilfields, where he became known as the “Oil Creek Artist.”

Like most of western Pennsylvanians, Mather also was susceptible to “oil fever,” and he hoped to drill a few successful wells.

Having narrowly missed the opportunity for a one-sixteenth share of the Sherman Well, which would be “best single strike of the year,” Mather and three associates invested in several wells near Pithole Creek. He proved to be better at using a camera.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

Mather’s investment in exploratory wells at Pithole Creek did not lead to commercial quantities of oil. He tried again on the Holmden Farm off West Pithole Creek. His unsuccessful effort was among the last wells to be drilled at the infamous oil boom town of Pithole.

Years later, Mather acknowledged that excitement of the Pithole drilling boom was so great that he temporarily “forsook photography for the oil business.”

Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio traveled up and down Oil Creek as he produced more than 16,000 glass negatives, later described by the trade magazine Petroleum Age as, “so perfect in finish it stands the test of time.”

oilfield photographer John Mather sitting in his studio

John Mather photographs courtesy Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine and Drake Well Museum, Titusville. Above, the interior of his Titusville studio, circa 1865.

Many tried, but few people in the increasingly crowded oil region would rival the wealth of the celebrated “Coal Oil Johnny.” Meanwhile, the young U.S. petroleum industry would learn some hard lessons, including disasters like the fatal Rouseville oil well fire of 1861. 

Flood and Fire at Oil Creek

On Sunday morning June 5, 1892, and after weeks of rain, Oil Creek’s overflowing Spartansburg Dam failed at about 2:30 a.m. A wall of water and debris swelled towards Titusville and its oil works, seven miles downstream.

“On rushed the mad waters, tearing away bridge after bridge, carrying away horses, homes and people,” one newspaper reported about the flood’s devastation. Then fire erupted from ruptured benzine and oil storage tanks.

oilfield photographer John Mather oilfield images of workers and derricks

Oilfield workers pose on and among their oil derricks and engine houses in this 1864 John Mather photo from the Drake Well Museum collection in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Newspapers all over America carried stories of the disaster. In Montana, the Helena Independent headlines included: “Waters of an Overflowing Creek Become a Rushing Mass of Flames” and victims being, “Spared by the Deluge Only to Become the Prey of the Fire.”

Oilfield photographer John Mather women and children at Pennsylvania oil town.

John Mather’s photographs documented family life in remote early oil boom towns. He also briefly caught “oil fever” and unsuccessfully invested in a few wells in booming Pithole Creek field.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added: “The Waters Subside and The Flames Die Away, Revealing the Full Extent of the Calamity.” Oil City and Titusville were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth.” Mather’s studio flooded to a depth of five feet, destroying expensive equipment and most of his life’s work of prints from glass plate negatives.

photographer John Mather 1892 fire at Oil Creek steam  fire engines

Pennsylvania oil towns were “Nearly Wiped From Off the Earth” by an 1892 fire and flood that destroyed thousands of Mather’s prints and glass plates. Photo from Drake Well Museum collection.

As the fires and flood continued, Mather set up his camera and photographed the disaster in progress with his bulky equipment, which already was being rendered obsolete by new imaging technologies. 

Just a  few years before the Titusville flood, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced celluloid roll film and created an entirely new market: amateur snapshot photography. Expertise in preparing fragile glass plates and dangerous chemicals were no longer required. Instead, Kodak offered, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

oilfield photographer John Mather  and his floating studio barge

John Mather often used a floating darkroom to capture his historic images along Oil Creek.

As oil booms moved to discoveries in other states, including the massive 1901 “Lucas Gusher” in Texas, Mather worked little in his later years. His financial circumstances diminished with age and illness.

The Artist of Oil Creek died poor and without fanfare on August 23, 1915, in Titusville. His death certificate reported the cause as cerebral hemorrhage, “complicated by suppression of urine.”

Photographer John Mather's Pennsylvania oilfield in 1865

An 1865 John Mather photo of derricks at Pioneer Run – Oil Creek, Pennsylvania.

To preserve John A. Mather’s petroleum industry legacy, the Drake Well Memorial Association would purchase 3,274 surviving glass negatives for about 30 cents each. Today, the Drake Well Museum and surrounding park allow visitors to see rare artifacts and a visual record of the early U.S. oil and natural industry. Visit it and other Pennsylvania petroleum museums.

More Mather Resources

“Virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, and completely unappreciated — in these few words is a description of John Aked Mather, pioneer photographer, whose skill, devotion, and energy endowed the petroleum industry with one of the finest pictorial records of growth and development of any early all-American industry,” proclaimed Ernest C. Miller and T.K.Stratton in their January 1972 article, “Oildon’s Photographic Historian,” in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Volume 55, Number 1).

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

“Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions,” explained a NWPaHeritage article by Stephanie David and Brennen French.

The authors of “John A. Mather’s Photographic Studio” added that “Mather was In his obsessive desire to capture the industry in its entirety.”

American Oil & Gas Historical Society (supporting members only) original Research Folder.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfield Photographer John Mather.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/oilfield-photographer-john-mather. Last Updated: May 30, 2022. Original Published Date: March 11, 2005.


Pin It on Pinterest