What Gas Stations Looked Like Through the Lens of the Past Century

A staple of both urban landscapes and rural crossroads, gas stations have long served as crucial touchpoints in the everyday lives of motorists. Over the past century, these establishments have undergone significant transformations, reflecting broader changes in automotive culture, architectural trends, and consumer habits.

The 1920s

In the early 20th century, the advent of the automobile era marked the birth of the first gas stations. These were simple, often makeshift setups where motorists could refuel. Initially, gas pumps were installed outside general and hardware stores, and the service was just that—fuel and nothing more. The architecture was rudimentary, sometimes featuring a single pump with a fuel attendant on standby.

The 1930s to 1950s

From the 1930s through the 1950s, America experienced what could be called the “Golden Age” of gas stations. As car ownership surged, so did the demand for convenient refueling spots. Gas stations of this era started resembling the classic image most people conjure: a small, box-like building with a canopy-covered drive, two or more pumps, and uniformed attendants offering full service, which included washing windows, checking oil and tire pressure, and even a friendly chat.

This period also saw oil companies establishing corporate identities, with distinct branding adorning each station, and franchise operations emerging. The architecture became more deliberate, with visible, bright signage and designs intended to catch the eye of motorists.

The 1960s and 1970s

The mid-20th century brought significant changes, characterized by the introduction of self-service gas stations during the 1960s, shifting the role of attendants and altering the interaction between stations and customers. The era also saw an architectural departure from the charming service stations of the past to more utilitarian structures.
This period heralded a diversification of services. Stations started to incorporate convenience stores, offering food, drinks, and basic automotive supplies. Some even expanded further, including car washes, auto services, and fast-food outlets, gradually morphing into the prototypes of modern gas stations.

The 1980s to Present

From the 1980s onward, gas stations have continued to evolve, with a marked shift toward larger spaces and a broader range of amenities. The modern gas station is now not only a place to refuel your car but also yourself. Many of these establishments offer a variety of fast food options, extensive convenience stores, restrooms, and more.

In terms of architecture, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a mix of styles, from the revival of retro aesthetic elements to sleek, contemporary designs. The focus has also been on branding and customer loyalty, with stations offering loyalty programs and price promotions.

Environmental awareness has influenced recent trends, with more stations offering alternative fuels like electric charging stations for EVs, biofuels, and hydrogen fuel cells in some regions.

#1 Mr. Crary at Pan American service station on North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, 1925.

#2 Car fueling up at a gas station in New Jersey, 1927.

#3 Trailers serviced at a gas station in New Jersey, 1950s

#4 New thatched-roof gas station in England, United Kingdom, 1930.

#5 Simons service station on South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, 1931.

#6 Service station at South Victory Boulevard and West Providencia Avenue, Burbank.

#7 Hane Brothers service station in Southern California, 1934.

#8 Standard Oil gas stations in Southern California, 1935.

#9 Right and wrong ways of service and restrooms at service stations in Southern California, 1935.

#10 Ab Jenkins, Salt Lake City mayor, known for setting land speed records with his Duesenberg “Mormon Meteor,” 1935.

#11 Fuel pump employee fills a car in Danvers, Massachusetts, 1937.

#12 Gas Station and Gospel Mission in Cleveland, Ohio, 1937.

#13 Gas attendant fills spare cans at New York City gas station complying with Governmental Conservation Edict, 1941.

#14 ‘No Gas’ sign at Gulf petrol station in America during WWII, horse-drawn buggy as alternative, 1942.

#15 Woman pumping gas at Shell station in New York during World War 2.

#16 Woman replaces men in vital war industries, working at a gas station.

#17 Man leaning on gas pump at filling station in Ohio with antique displays, 1940s.

#18 Virginia Lively works at gas station in Louisville, Kentucky, 1943.

#19 Man fills gas tank at Texaco station and rest stop in Wendover, Utah.

#20 Self-service gas station in the United States, 1945.

#21 Agip petrol station with pumps and bar in San Donato Milanese, 1950s.

#22 Mechanic and observer at Wilson Gulf service station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1946.

#24 Petrol pump attendant during gas stations strike in Paris, 1947.

#25 Pan Am Premium Gasoline view in Nashville, Tennessee, 1948.

#26 Mother and daughter consult map at Shell station in Virginia, 1949.

#28 Rowboat delivers gasoline to customers during flood in Hamburg, 1949.

#30 Vintage Gasoline Station in the United States, 1950s

#34 Bill France Sr.’s Daytona Beach Gas Station, 1947

#35 Attendants and Motorist at Phillips Service Station.

#38 Self-Service Gas Station in Pasadena with Signage, 1955

#39 Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller Refueling in New York, 1956

#40 Lemans’ Tire Shop with $9.99 Barney Oldfield tires, 1920s.

#41 “Toot-An-Kum-In” AMOCO station boasting filtered gas, 1920s.

#42 Four Wheel Drive Auto sales, the 1920s’ SUVs, 1920s.

#44 Gilmore Oil’s Gas-A-Teria, an early self-serve station in Los Angeles, 1948.

#45 Anglo-American Oil Company Petrol Station on Euston Road, London, evolved into Esso, specializing initially in lamp oil imports from the US, 1922.

#47 Caltex Petrol Pumps Display at Milan Trade Fair, 1950s

#48 Petrol Station Forecourt in Grimsby with Austin 1800, 1965

#49 Family from Fort Smith, Arkansas En Route to California

#50 Riverside County Highway Scene Featuring Cowboy’s Independent Service Station

#51 The Town of Caddo, Oklahoma, Source of Migrants to Pacific Coast

#52 Fourth of July Community Gathering at a North Carolina Gas Station

#53 Community Gathering at North Carolina Gas Station on Fourth of July

#54 Array of Service Stations Between Tulare and Fresno on U.S. 99

#55 Farmers’ Supply Co-op in Nyssa, Oregon with Safe Tire Repairs Sign

#56 Farmers’ Supply Co-op in Nyssa, Oregon, Artist Dorothea Lange

#57 Gas Station in Sankt Goarshausen, Germany, Fueling a Vehicle

#58 End of Gas Rationing Scene at Long Island City Service Station

#59 Automobile Club Meeting in the UK with Cars at a Petrol Pump, 1904

#61 Paris Local Buses’ Bus Refueling at Poissonniers Station, 1912

#62 Man Filling Up Car at Washington DC Gas Station, 1920

#63 UBE Associated Gasoline Station Promotional Photos, 1920

#65 Refueling a Car at Shell Mex Station in Clapham, London, 1921

#66 Roadside Gas Station Between Tulare and Fresno, California

#67 Police-Supervised Refueling at Total Self-Service Station in Alison Road

#70 Hollywood Gas Station Selling Gas for 2 Cents a Gallon

#71 Picturesque Standard Oil Gas Station Near Waterloo, New York

#72 Young Boy in Mini-Car Queuing at a UK Gas Station

#73 Texaco Gasoline Filling Station primarily for fueling gas tanks, 1920s.

#75 Spacious Texaco station with trees and full-service amenities, 1920s.

#76 Early “mall” offering loans, meals, and auto services, 1920s.

#77 Ford Sales and Service featuring a fleet of Model T’s, 1920s.

#78 Dome Gas promises premium fuel at 23 cents a gallon, 1920s.

#80 No-name gas and motor oil available for 20 cents a quart, 1920s.

#81 Early example of a self-service gas station, 1920s.

#82 World’s smallest gas station located in Detroit, 1930s.

#83 Smallest gas station next to the bus stop in downtown Detroit Lakes, 1930s.

#84 Sauer brothers at their tiny gas station before joining the military, 1930s.

#85 Jeff’s Texaco in the Newburgh, New York area, 1924.

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Written by Matthew Green

Andrew's writing is grounded in research and provides unique insights into the cultural and historical contexts of vintage pieces. Through his work, he aims to foster a greater appreciation for the value and beauty of vintage items.

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