Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

A Library of Congress photo tells many early automobile tales.

 

Picturing history, images in the Library of Congress digital collection offer rare insights into the early U.S. petroleum industry.

Details found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a Washington, D.C., suburb capture a scene of petroleum products and transportation infrastructure two decades after the first U.S. auto show. Originally printed from an eight-inch by six-inch glass negative, the Library of Congress image features Takoma Park, Maryland, and its railroad station on the northeastern border of the District of Columbia.

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Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum

Famous New York World reporter of 1880s would take charge of Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

 

She was one of the most famous journalists of her day as a reporter for the New York World. Widely known as the remarkable Nellie Bly, Elizabeth J. Cochran Seaman, investigated conditions at an infamous mental institution, made a trip around the world in less than 80 days — and manufactured the first practical 55-gallon oil drum.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.”

Nellie Bly's business card and her oil drum patent drawing assigned to her as Elizabeth Cochran Seaman.

Recognizing the potential of an efficient metal barrel design, Nellie Bly acquired the 1905 patent rights from its inventor, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked at her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.

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Iowa 80 Trucking Museum

Practically since its opening day in 1979, the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum has hosted an annual Jamboree attended by thousands. The trucking museum in Walcott has more than 100 antique trucks on display, including an 1890 Standard Oil triple wagon; a 1903 Eldridge; 1910 Avery tractor/gasoline farm wagon; and a 1911 Walker Electric Model 43.

The museum’s collection began thanks to truck stop founder Bill Moon, who had a passion for trucks and truck history. Every summer, the museum at exit 284 on I -80 outside Walcott, Iowa, hosts a variety of events for truckers and other travelers, teachers, students — and transportation history buffs.

“Bill had a passion for collecting antique trucks and other trucking memorabilia,” notes the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum website. “We are pleased to be able to share this collection with the general public. Every truck has a story to tell and can provide a unique glimpse back in time. Many rare and one-of-a-kind trucks are on display.”

Trucking Museum

“If you are the least bit into cars you will find the museum interesting and well worth the stop,” notes a visitor from Legendary Collector Cars.”From what we could tell, it looks like this I-80 Exit at Walcott Iowa is about to become the over the road truckers Disneyland in a few years.”

The museum, which offers short films about trucking history, attracts all kinds of visitors, from those interested in antique trucks to those wanting to learn the history of modern, big rigs. Exhibit spaces, which expanded in March 2012, now offer a free app for iPhones and Androids with audio narratives. (more…)

First Gas Pump and Service Station

Service stations gasoline pumps began in the 1880s as a device for dispensing kerosene at a grocery store.

 

Presaging the first gas pump, S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885. Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Bowser designed a simple device for reliably measuring and dispensing kerosene — a product in high demand as lamp fuel for half a century. His invention soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

Gasoline pump and hose deisgns illustration, 1915 to 1935.

Gas pumps with dials were followed by calibrated glass cylinders. Meter pumps using a small glass dome with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder as pumps continued to evolve. Illustration courtesy Popular Science, September 1955.

Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps had marble valves with wooden plungers and upright faucets.

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With the pump’s popular success at Jake Gumper’s grocery store, Bowser formed the S.F. Bowser & Company and patented his invention in late October 1887.

first gas pump S.F. Bowser volatile liquid dispenser patent 1887

Bowser’s 1887 patent was a pump for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum.”

As consumer demand for kerosene (and soon, gasoline) grew, Bowser’s innovative device and those that followed faced competition from other manufacturers of self-measuring pumps. In Wayne, Indiana, the Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company designed and built 50 of a new model in 1892, the company’s first year of business (learn more in Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump).

first gas pump "calm shell" early pump image from road map

S.F. Bowser’s “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pumps” became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when unattended.

Despite the competition, in the early 1900s – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful. His grocery store pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroked lever action.

Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. The S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” became known to motorists as a “filling station” as more design innovations followed.

The popular Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its “clamshell” cover offered security when the pump was left unattended (see the 1920 Diamond Filling Station in Washington, D.C.).

An early gas station attendant fills a n auto gas tank.

Manufactured in 1911, an S.F. Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” pumped gas on North Capitol Street in Washington D.C., in 1920. The Penn Oil Company’s pump’s topmost globe, today prized by collectors, survived only as a bulb. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

With the addition of competing businesses such as Wayne Pump Company and Tokheim Oil Tank & Pump Company, the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, became the gas-pump manufacturing capital of the world.

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Some enterprising manufacturing companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.

Oil tank truck for Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product.

Penn Oil Company filling stations were the exclusive American distributor of Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product made up of “50 percent gasoline and 50 percent of chemicals, the nature of which is secret.” The secret ingredient was likely alcohol. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

First Drive-In Service Station

Although Standard Oil will claim a Seattle, Washington, station of 1907, and others argue about one in St. Louis two years earlier, most agree that when “Good Gulf Gasoline” went on sale, Gulf Refining Company opened America’s first true drive-in service station.

Gulf Refining Company had been established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1901 by Andrew Mellon and other investors as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year to exploit the Spindletop oilfield discovery in Texas. The company’s motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.

Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, an architect purposefully designed the pagoda-style brick facility that offered free air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation.

Gulf Refining Company's first U.S. auto service station in Pittsburgh, circa 1910.

Gulf Refining Company’s decision in 1913 to open the first service station (above) along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was no accident. The roadway had become known as “automobile row'” because of its high number of dealerships. Photo courtesy Gulf Oil Historical Society.

“This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere,” noted a Gulf corporate historian. “The evidence indicates that these were simply sidewalk pumps and that the honor of the first drive-in is that of Gulf and Pittsburgh.”

The Gulf station included a manager and four attendants standing by. The original service station’s brightly lighted marquee provided shelter from bad weather for motorists. A photo of the station, designed by architect J.H. Giesey, may or may not have been taken on opening day, according to the Gulf Oil Historical Society.

“At this site in Dec. 1913, Gulf Refining Co. opened the first drive-in facility designed and built to provide gasoline, oils, and lubricants to the motoring public,” noted a Pennsylvania historical marker dedicated on July 11, 2000.

Early gas pumps seen curbside at parts store.

Spitlers Auto Supply Company, 205 Commerce Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, closed in 1931. It was an example of curbside pumps used before Gulf Refining Company established covered, drive-through stations.

The drive-in station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon on its first day, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“Prior to the construction of the first Gulf station in Pittsburgh and the countless filling stations that followed throughout the United States, automobile drivers pulled into almost any old general or hardware store, or even blacksmith shops in order to fill up their tanks,” the historical commission noted at ExplorePAhistory.com.

The decision to open the first station along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh was no accident. When the station was opened, Baum Boulevard had become known as “automobile row” because of the high number of dealerships that were located along the thoroughfare.

first gas pump earliest road maps of 1920s Gulf Oil

Until about 1925, Gulf Refining Company was the only oil company to issue maps. Gulf was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Map image courtesy Harold Cramer.

“Gulf executives must have figured that there was no better way to get the public hooked on using filling stations than if they could pull right in and gas up their new car after having just driven it off the lot,” noted a commission historian.

In addition to gas, the Gulf station also offered free air and water — and sold the first commercial road maps in the United States. “The first generally distributed oil company road maps are usually credited to Gulf,” said Harold Cramer in his “Early Gulf Road Maps of Pennsylvania.”

first gas pump Smithsonian museum Bowser pump exhibit

This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank and “clock face” dial. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.

“The early years of oil company maps, circa 1915 to 1925, are dominated by Gulf as few other oil companies issued maps, and until about 1925 Gulf was the only oil company to issue maps annually,” Cramer explained. That would change.

Founded in 1996, the Road Map Collectors Association (RMCA) preserves the history of road maps to educate the public about America’s automobile age, also documented and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution (see America on the Move).

While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh could be considered the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.

first gas pump collection of pumps in oil museum

Collectors value station memorabilia, including this pump and globe exhibited at the Northwoods Petroleum Museum outside Three Lakes, Wisconsin, established in 2006.

“At the turn of the century, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit,” noted Kurt Ernst in a 2013 article.

“In 1905, a Shell subsidiary opened a filling station in St. Louis, Missouri, but it required attendants to fill a five gallon can behind the store, then haul this to the customer’s vehicle for dispensing…A similar filling station was constructed by Socal gasoline in Seattle, Washington, opening in 1907,” Ernst explained in his article “The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.”

One-hundred years after the Gulf Refining Company station opened, America’s 152,995 operating gas stations included 123,289 convenience stores, according to Ernst. On average, each location sold about 4,000 gallons of fuel per day, “quite a jump from the 30 gallons sold at the Gulf station in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.”

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Photographs of early service stations remain an important part of preserving U.S. transportation history (also true for architecture, pump technologies, advertising methods, and more). The American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park offers insights revealed in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a station in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

The Library of Congress maintains a large collection of service station images, as do other libraries and organizations listed with it in AOGHS photo resources.

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Recommended Reading: Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1993); Fill’er Up!: The Great American Gas Station (2013); The American Highway: The History and Culture of Roads in the United States (2000). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) 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. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First Gas Pump and Service Station.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/first-gas-pump-and-service-stations. Last Updated: September 3, 2023. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.

 

  

America on the Move

 

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has educated millions of visitors about America’s transportation history since “America on the Move” opened on the first floor in November 2003.

The General Motors Hall of Transportation exhibits include the 1903 Winton that was the first car to drive across the country; a 1959 Chicago Transit Authority “L” mass transit car; a 260-ton locomotive built in 1926; and the history U.S. Route 66 — the “People’s Highway.”

“America on the Move” also exhibits a 1931 red Ford truck representing oilfield service companies from Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Route 66 exhibit in Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

An exhibit about the history of Route 66 — commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s — is part of the Transportation Hall at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Bruce Wells.

The $22 million Transportation Hall encompasses 26,000 square feet and displays more than 340 historic objects. The space features 19 historic settings in chronological order reflecting the nation’s relationship with great and small roadways.

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“America on the Move replaces exhibits of road and rail transportation and civil engineering installed when the National Museum of American History opened as the Museum of History and Technology in 1964,” notes the American on the Move website page.

“We would not do an exhibit about cars and trains, or even a transportation history exhibit. It would be an exhibit about transportation in American history,” the site adds.

The Smithsonian's exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system. Photo by Bruce Wells.

“America on the Move” features the Smithsonian’s extensive transportation collection using multimedia technology — and a large displays, including PS-4 class steam locomotive (No. 1401) built in 1926. The exhibition educates visitors about the history of U.S. transportation infrastructure, and “reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.” (more…)

America exports Oil

The Elizabeth Watts shipped hundreds of barrels of petroleum from Philadelphia to London during the Civil War.

 

The 19th century U.S. petroleum industry launched many new industries for producing, refining, and transporting the highly sought after resource. With oil demand rapidly growing worldwide, America exported oil (and kerosene) during the Civil War when a small Union brig sailed across the Atlantic.

Soon after Edwin L. Drake drilled the first American oil well in 1859 along a creek in northwestern Pennsylvania, entrepreneurs swept in and wooden derricks sprang up in Venango and Crawford counties.

The cargo brig Elizabeth Watts transported the first oil exports in 1861.

Launched in 1847 by the shipbuilding firm of J. & C.C. Morton of Thomaston, Maine, the Elizabeth Watts was about 96 feet long with a draft of 11 feet. The 224-ton brig made petroleum history during the Civil War.

As demand for oil-refined kerosene for lamps grew, oilfield discoveries created early boom towns like one at Pithole. Moving the resource from oilfields also brought the beginning of the petroleum industry’s transportation infrastructure.

“Doubt and distrust that preceded Drake’s successful venture suddenly fled before the common conviction that an oil well was the ‘open sesame’ to wealth,” reported Harpers New Monthly Magazine. After his historic discovery near Titusville, Drake bought up all the 40-gallon whiskey barrels he could find to transport his oil on barges down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh refineries. (more…)

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