Service stations and gasoline pumps began with a device for dispensing kerosene at an Indiana grocery store in the late 1880s.
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’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product that had been in demand for half a century as lamp fuel – soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.
Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps held the same amount of fuel as the standard 42-gallon oil barrel.
Bowser kerosene pumps used marble valves, a wooden plunger and an upright faucet. 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.
Within a decade – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful.
First Pump, First Station
By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.”
The original Bowser pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroke lever action.
Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. More design innovations followed. The popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its “clamshell” cover offered security when the pump was left unattended (see the Diamond Filling Station of 1920 in Washington, D.C).
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.
Some enterprising manufacturing companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.
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.
The motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913. Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, an architect purposefully designed the pagoda-style brick facility offered free air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation.
“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.
“On its first day, the station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon. On its first Saturday, Gulf’s new service station pumped 350 gallons of gasoline,” explained 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.
By 1913 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.
“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,” notes 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.
“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 noted.
The Gulf Refining Company was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family, along with other investors, as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year – to exploit the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas.
While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh may have been the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.
“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 The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.
“Today, 152,995 gas stations dot the landscape, including 123,289 convenience stores,” Ernst reported. On average, each location sells 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.”
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 Library of Congress maintains a large collection, as do others posted in AOGHS photo links.
The article Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park also offers insights that can be found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a station in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information: Article Title: “First Gas Pump and Service Station.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/first-gas-pump-and-service-stations. Last Updated: May 28, 2020. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.