Today self serve and the mini mart is the order of the day. However, just a few short years ago the corner station was more than a place to fuel the car and grab a cold soda. We trusted the man behind the star and when we were far from home, the flying red horse was a welcome sight. Unless a clean restroom was needed, we never left our place beyond the wheel and yet we were assured the fluids were topped off and the air pressure in the tires, including the spare, was correct. In addition, when we pulled away we had clear view of the road ahead.
The full service station, like the two-lane highway, the tail fin, and the Edsel, is a thing of the past. However, even for those who fondly remember the sound of the bell, the smell of new tires on a hot summer evening, white uniformed attendants, and those calendars with pin up girls the origins of the service station is largely another forgotten chapter in the history of our love affair with the automobile.
Early explorers of the Allegheny Mountains of what is now Pennsylvania made note of numerous springs and streams that had surfaces covered with a thick, slick substance. They also noted the Indians believed these waters to have curative powers and that when ignited these waters would burn intently.
With the development of the area, the American entrepreneurial found a lucrative use for these “rock oil” springs. In the 1840’s Samuel Kier built upon the claims of the native people, bottled the foul smelling liquid and pedaled is a cure for bronchitis and consumption with the recommendation that three teaspoonfuls per day was necessary.
However, Kier was also eager to capitalize on the other properties of this rock oil. Numerous mill owners in the area had skimmed the oil from the surface for use as a lubricant and in lamps. Nevertheless, the impurities made it a hit or miss proposition until Kier developed a process for distilling it.
The success of Kier’s business prompted others to follow suit. E.L. Drake decided that purposely drilling for the oil would be more productive than skimming water from the waste ponds from wells or streams. His first endeavors near Titusville exceeded his wildest expectations.
The huge profits realized from this first well, twenty-five barrels a day, at $18 per barrel from a $3,000 investment, prompted others to try their hand and the rush was on. Soon farming the rocky soil was abandoned as well after well was sunk.
Medicinal usage soon was abandoned, as the product was refined into kerosene of which a one-gallon jug sold for more than a barrel of crude oil. However, the refining process created another problem; waste disposal as a barrel of crude produced three percent kerosene and forty percent pure waste, a substance known as gasoline.
In the years to follow engines were developed that would burn this waste product but almost as many burned kerosene. With the advent of the horseless carriage, these engines were adapted to this application but the majority of manufacturers preferred steam or electricity. As a 1903 advertisement for the Jaxon noted, “Steam is reliable and easily understood.”
As a result, the consumer who opted for a gasoline-powered automobile would be akin to one purchasing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle today. Gasoline was available only at bulk depots usually attached to refineries or on occasion by special order in glass one-quart jars through the local general store.
Gasoline at bulk depots was stored in cylindrical steel drums atop a platform. The motorist or an employee of the station would, by gravity fill a five-gallon can with unfiltered gasoline that in turn was poured into the vehicle with the use of a funnel and cloth to strain impurities. Some luxury car manufacturers offered as an option a removable strainer in the neck of the tank.
Storage and the dispensing of fuel in this manner when coupled with spilled fuel and gasoline soaked rags was a serious danger. As a result, many municipalities restricted bulk stations to the extreme fringes of the community.
Incredibly in spite of these shortcomings, the sale of gasoline powered automobiles escalated dramatically and by 1903, the number of vehicles sold in the United States exceeded 8,000. To keep pace with the corresponding demand wholesalers began selling pre-filled one-gallon containers to general stores, livery stables, bicycle shops, and even drug stores. Ironically, horse drawn tank trucks or open delivery wagons were the primary means of delivery.
In 1905, Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig of St. Louis formed the Automobile Gasoline Company, a simplistic prototype for early service stations. To large metal tanks similar to those at bulk depots was attached a long hose with filter, a valve, and measuring gauge. Promoted as the first gasoline station it was located near the railroad for ease of fuel acquisition for the company. Within twenty-four months in addition to the main station, the duo was operating forty smaller stations throughout the area.
In retrospect, the formation of the Automobile Gasoline Company seems to be one of those ideas that are so painfully obvious it is hard to believe no one thought of it before 1905. The brilliance of Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig’s concept spread faster than flames through a dried Christmas tree and soon similar operations were opening throughout the United States.
With the concept of a standardized operation where motorists could find the same quality of fuel and level of service at numerous locations Standard Oil of California (Socal) took it to the next level. In addition to refueling, these stations featured displays of motor oil, tires, and similar items, which in turn boosted potential profit. However, one key component was still missing – the gas pump.
Sylvanus Bowser is truly one of the unsung heroes from the pioneering period of the American auto industry. In 1885, he developed, perfected, and patented a device to pump kerosene. From these humble foundational beginnings, the S.F. Bowser & Company began a leader in the development and production of petroleum industry related products.
In 1905, the company introduced a highly refined version of the original pump. The Bowser Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump utilized a metal tank enclosed in a weather resistant wooden storage cabinet and featured a revolutionary pumping unit with predetermined quantity stop and vent for release of potentially explosive fumes.
As there was virtually no regulation in regards to the operation of a filling station the Bowser units were soon sprouting from street corners and sidewalks throughout the country. The proliferation of the Bowser pumps was so wide spread for years to come all gasoline pumps regardless of manufacturer were referred to as Bowser’s.
Necessity may be the mother of all invention. For John Tokheim, owner of a small hardware store in Thor, Iowa, necessity was the well spring from which world changing ideas sprang.
It began with an idea for an improved well pump. This in turn led to a better way of pumping kerosene for retail sale. Moreover, this in turn led to a pump designed specifically for the pumping and sale of gasoline.
In the spring of 1906, the Tokheim Dome Oil Pump was ready to serve the customers who stopped by his store for gasoline. His pump was ingenious – a combination visible and cylinder measuring unit with mechanical counter geared to the amount of fluid in the cylinder that allowed for the reading of total gallons pumped.
The unit built of hollow tubing and cast iron with all moving parts being rust proofed or made of brass. The entire pump, attached to a heavy cast iron stand, was finished in either red or black enamel with gold trim.
By 1910 what was once a waste by product in the refining of kerosene, gasoline, was the number one selling petroleum product in the world. To a large degree, this was the result of oil companies increased attempts at ensuring quality through standardized outlets and the introduction of a practical electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac that proved to be the death knell for steam as well as electric cars.
In 1914, Standard Oil of California issued a booklet of guidelines for prospective station operators. Additionally they were also acquiring existing businesses in prime locations.
The next evolutionary step in the development of the gas pump came from the shops of Gilbert & Barker. The T-8 introduced in late 1913 operated in similar manner to the Tokheim pump but featured a dial indicator reading the number of gallons and an etched glass globe with the name of the oil company or station on top.
However, there was a key flaw in all these pumps, which left the consumer at the mercy of station operators. With rudimentary mechanical skills, it was possible to “tweak” the measuring of gasoline in the station owner’s favor.
Spearheading the development of pumps that ensured honest operation that in turn boosted consumer confidence in a particular brand was Tokheim with its 290 Hi-way Hand-operated Pump. This pump featured an improved plunger design that allowed fourteen strokes to fill the visible ten-gallon glass cylinder on top that was marked in one-gallon increments. In the suction line beneath the pump, an internal filter removed contaminants as well as water.
Now the stage was set and the props were in place for the modern era of the gas station with white uniformed attendants, gleaming rest rooms, and promotional items to ensure customer as well as brand loyalty.

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