News & Events
Discover Mid-America October 2008
Signs of yesterday’s romance with the car
by Robert Reed
Cheap gas, economically priced American-made automobiles, miles of open highway and a gleaming gas station on every corner.
That was the golden age of the automobile in America. Today most of what little remains of that sweeping era are the surviving signs that once marked the landscape. The restorations of gas pumps and even complete gas station re-creations have attracted auto buffs remembering post-war America’s love of the automobile.
And with that, from Aeroshell Gasoline to Willard Batteries, the signs emblazoned across the countryside forever beckoning in merry motorists. Their attraction was unavoidable. Their meaning was undeniable.
“Such signs served as advertisements for the company owning the gas station,” note Mark Anderton and Sherry Mullen authors of the book Gas Station Collectibles, “as well as for specific items available for sale in the station.”
As a general rule the skyline of the U.S.A. was generally dotted with porcelain signs that proclaimed the virtues of one particular gasoline brand or service station-related product. Today, porcelain signs of this genre are uppermost in collectors’ minds as well; however there were sometimes automobilia signs of other materials as well.
“So many different gasoline (types) were manufactured through the years, each with their own trade name, that many designs and companies are found on pump signs,” according to the Encyclopedia of Porcelain Enamel Advertising by Michael Bruner. “Some of these are of a more common nature, produced in the thousands. Others are rare, with only a few examples known.”
Even the very earliest auto-related signs could be interesting. The die-cut metal Miles To White Rose Service Station signs, for example, featured a youngster wearing checkered pants and holding a sign with the number of miles to go to find the service station. These signs, copyright in 1917, were a product of the strange sounding En-Ar-Co Motor Oil Company.
Another early bird was the Goodell Auto Oil Company, which used a green tree on a round logo to attract motorists during the early 1900s.
As the Roaring Twenties found a steadily increasing number of automobiles on the American road, the retail options likewise grew. Many Miles Transmission Oil signs featured a racecar logo in the early 1920s. Michelin Tires offered a balloon-like man sitting in a tire, and Brockway Motor Trucks proposed, “the right way.”
If anything the automobile product signs of the 1930s were even more animated than their forerunners. Passing motorists could catch a glimpse of Cargray Gold, Cities Service Koolmotor, and Bulko Gasoline depicting an elephant. Marathon Products offered a figure of a man running and the slogan, “best in the long run.”
Elsewhere in the 1930s, Goodyear Pathfinder Tires signs promised “ a dependable tire at a low price,” and Hood Tires provided “neighborhood tire experts.”
Gasoline rationing as a result of World War II had a devastating impact on auto ownership and motoring early in the 1940s. Still some creative signage continued along the nation’s roadways and highways including Invader Motor Oil’s knight on a horse and Fleetwood Motor Oil’s airplane logo.
By 1945, “the stuff of dreams for most people included a new car, a set of good tires, and a world without gas rationing,” observes Stephen Sears in the book The Automobile in America. People could afford to drive a little bit more too — personal income had risen 68 percent between 1939 and the late summer of 1945.
Meanwhile, Sears compares the “auto mania” of the 1950s to the 1920s, only more so.
The 1950s generation “easily embraced the auto culture with a fervor easily matching that of the 1920s generation,” he notes. “There was the same enthusiastic acceptance of the automobile as an instrument of change — change in living patterns, in recreational habits, in social status. There was no pause in auto-fueled urban and industrial decentralization or in the rush to the suburbs.
“New shopping centers, new drive-in businesses, new highways, continued the alteration of the face of America to accommodate a nation of motorists.”
And with the movement was a steady march of signs that signaled the wave of “auto mania.” Choices included Blue Sunoco, Pontiac Service, Shell, Quaker State Motor Oil, Fire Chief from Texaco, Shamrock Kerosene, Indian, Keystone and even Texaco Marine White Gasoline.
If the golden age of the automobile and its accompanying signs did not end in the late 1950s, it certainly lost much of its glimmer. The national economy went off the road into a recession in 1957. Among other things it jolted those motorists who were driving huge, domestic-made, gas-guzzling cars that barely averaged 12 miles to the gallon. Soon the trend among American consumers was toward a lighter foreign-made vehicle that would require less gasoline.
Even so, Americans would not entirely surrender their freewheeling automotive ways. “By decade’s end,” observed Our Glorious Century, edited by Edmund Harvey, Jr., “the automobile had joined the flag and apple pie as quintessential symbols of American life.”
A few bright, new gasoline-related signs were popping to view in the 1960s. Sterling Super Blend appeared on a giant letter Q, and Union 76 Plus was decked out on a flashy orange oval sign. Texaco Diesel Chief signs followed a familiar theme and used plenty of red to make the point.
The nation hit a bump in the road early in the 1970s. In 1973 after months of paying around 35 cents a gallon for gasoline, the price in some parts of Florida hit a stunning $1 a gallon.
“Americans, who had long regarded cheap energy and rising prosperity as birthrights, faced a colder, grimmer reality,” concluded Our Glorious Century of that time in history.
Today, the signs of yesterday’s romance with gasoline products are catching the fancy of collectors. Texaco Fire Chief, Lee Tire, Pennzoil, Tydol, Valvoline, and Last Chance Garage signs are re-appearing in auction houses, antique malls and other outlets.
As a general rule auto- related signs from the early 1900s through the 1960s in good condition are included in the most favorable automobile age. Bright colors and distinguished graphics rate high with collectors. Typically more unique signs such as those making reference aviation or marine fuels and services command higher values.
John Logsdon got pulled into collecting by being attracted to petroleum-related signs. One acquisition lead to another, motivating Logsdon some 22 years ago to helped start the Iowa Gas Petroleum Collectors Convention Swap Meet and Auction held in Des Moines, IA.
“Ours is the world’s largest gas event, for the true collectors,” said Logsdon, who with Ron Hoyt puts together the show every year in early August.
Logsdon said some 200 dealers assemble for the show though he notes that increasingly small shows are “springing up around the country.”
Part of that growth, said Logsdon, is because of petroleum memorabilia’s appeal in home décor. “The value (of items) has skyrocketed lately because of the decorating factor,” he said.
Leevona and Tim Blair, owners of Keeper’s Antique Mall in Harrisonville, MO, have a large inventory of oil and gas collectibles, from signs, to globes, to pumps. The family is such avid collectors the business’ mailbox sits inside a brightly painted gas pump out front of the mall. Son Eric Blair built the gas pump/mailbox, painted green, naturally. He has his own oil/gas collection at his home.
“The demand is strong,” said Tim. “Gas and oil are one of those things that stay stronger than anything else.”
The appeal, said Leevona, is because “people relate to the things you were growing up with. If it was a muscle car from the ‘60s, then you might want a bit of décor that goes with it, the ‘old garage look’ — if the wife would let him,” Leevona added, laughing.
In a small warehouse not far from Keeper’s houses the “world’s largest oil and gas collection,” said Tim.
Johnnie Collings has been collecting some 30 years, and his private collection is amazing to behold. A wall full of gas globes, hundreds of oilcans, early 20th century pumps — a warehouse full of color, unique shapes, specialty uses and auto-love.
“Always been in the gas business,” said Collings, “kind of automatically … since 1958, right out of high school.”
In addition to having an impressive collection, Collings is an old-school hot rodder, owning a built-up 1953 Ford pickup with a Windsor V8 engine. But that hasn’t distracted him.
“I’m still buying — auctions, flea markets, word-of-mouth. It’s still pretty active,” he said.
Fifteen miles or so north of Harrisonville, Jeff Wilson in Pleasant Hill goes to work each day at his gas station. But he doesn’t pump any gasoline at Gas from the Past.
Wilson restores old gas- and oil-related products, including pumps and even old Sun diagnostic machines — pre-computer chip models. But he also fashions sofas from the rear ends of ‘50s Chevys and Cadillacs, landscapes yards with things like an old oil tanker truck, or what he calls “yardafacts,” and restores old bicycles, pedal cars and soda machines.
“I was just a regular body man (as in repairing automobiles) and my artistic side emerged,” said Wilson.
He does his work in the garage of his restored gas station. The station sits inside a building in Pleasant Hill’s downtown that has been a meat processing business, grain storage facility and GMC dealership. Together with his father Dan Wilson, they repaired the building and then re-assembled an old Gulf station inside, one they hauled back from Kentucky. Like the majority of major brand gas stations — called an “icebox station — built in the 1940s to 1960s, it was made of porcelain panels, which, said Wilson, can be like “a puzzle” to assemble.
“They were low maintenance, easy to keep clean, just hose them off,” said Wilson.
Wilson’s business is brisk. He said most of his work comes word-of-mouth and for private collectors, though he has done restorative work for museums, including Science City at Union Station in Kansas City.
He grew up in Pleasant Hill and views his business as a way to help revive the town and return some good memories back to him. He is a member of the local historic preservation committee.
Looking out his front window, Wilson will point out places where businesses once operated and the streets he rode his bike on when he was a kid.
“It was a better time then,” he said.
Keeper’s Antique Mall, Harrisonville, MO, 816-380-7175
Gas from the Past, Pleasant Hill, MO 816-779-0298, www.gasfrompast.com
Ferris Wheel Antiques, Topeka, KS, 785-862-8850