Thursday, July 4, 2013

Book Review 290: The Gas Station in America

THE GAS STATION IN AMERICA, by John A Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. 272 pages, illustrated. Johns Hopkins, $32.95

Do yourself a favor and skip the first 38 pages, which are 38 pages of the most tedious academese I have ever encountered.

There is a bit of a puzzle here. To no one’s surprise, after the initial stage, in which gas pumps were stuck outside the doors of former livery stables, selling unbranded gasoline, the second stage involved branding and territorial conquests of markets. The competitors often tried to establish themselves by building attractive stations, fitted to existing neighborhoods.

A chapter is given to Pure Oil’s distinctive “English cottage” style. The next stage was the “oblong box,” indistinguishable from one owner to another, and all ugly. Pure was out of business by the time I was driving, but a few of its old stations were still around to show that gas stations could be attractive.

The building of gas stations was a very large business. Many chains developed prefab stations, some even that could be moved if traffic patterns moved. At one time there were over a quarter of a million active stations, and considering how many were abandoned, the total number built must have been around half a million at least.

Curiously, however, despite their enormous resources, no integrated company managed to go national. Texaco came closest but had to shrink.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that no chain ever thought of returning to stage 2 and trying to make inroads by design, especially since all gasoline was the same. The only possibilities of competing were price, location, possibly service, and attractiveness.

In the end, price prevailed.

Recently (though not where I live), “design,” such as it is, has reverted to stage 1, a pump (now automated) standing alone.

A detailed study shows how gas and gas-related businesses colonized the highway between Champaign and Urbana, Illinois. No surprises there. 

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