Monday, May 9, 2022

Signs of the Times


QUESTION: I love old cars and have visited several antique automobile museums. Several of them, including the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, also have gas station signs on display. I’m also a big fan of the cable TV show American Pickers. One of the guys on that show had a real passion of old filling station signs. It didn’t take me long to purchase my first gas station sign. Now I have about a dozen. I buy and collect what I like, but I don’t know too much about why there were so many different signs used in early filling stations. Can you help me expand my knowledge?

ANSWER: Petroliana, the collecting of automobile and gas station memorabilia, is one of the hottest categories of collecting today. The signs used by these stations are just one of the many different items collectors love. While many were discarded after no longer being needed, many ended up stashed in old barns and garages. Signs from major oil companies 

, or antiques related to gas stations and the oil business, is a collecting area focused on advertising, with key subcategories being gas pumps, gas-pump globes, oil cans, road maps, signs, and major names like Mobil, Texaco, Standard Oil, Phillips 66, Shell, Sinclair, and Esso.

The first filling station was a city pharmacy in Wiesloch, Germany, where Bertha Benz, a German automotive pioneer, refilled the tank of her automobile in 1888. Other German pharmacies quickly entered the filling station business.

A filling station constructed at 420 South Theresa Avenue, Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1905 was the first filling station built to sell fuel and oil. Standard Oil of California built the second in Seattle, Washington, in 1907.

By 1910, over 500,000 automobiles roads highways and byways of the United States.  With that volume of cars on the roads, filling tanks from fuel barrels wasn’t efficient. Gulf Refining Company opened the first drive-in filling station in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.

Many early filling stations doubled as service stations and sold automobile-related products, as well as candy and soft drinks, and offered toilet services. 

In the early days of automobile travel, service stations were unfamiliar and often poorly lit at night. So lighted gas-pump globes and other oil company signage were key to reassuring and drawing in motorists. And since pumping gas was a new experience, early pumps allowed motorists to see if the gasoline was clean through a small glass window, and later to watch the price as they pumped the gas.

While some cities today have a gas station on every corner, complete with huge signs illuminating a variety of multinational oil giants’ slickly produced logos, the industry was a whole lot different when cars first appeared on the roads in the early 20th century. Gas stations were extremely rare, generally doing business only in larger cities and on the busiest highways.

In the 1910s, the market began growing, as did the competition, especially among lubricating oil companies. The first signs advertising lubricating oil, produced in a variety of materials, including baked enamel, sheet steel, and tin, appeared in grocery stores: Sign makers used lithography to print signs on tin and silk screen to print signs on sheet-steel.

These signs allowed a store to tell its customers which automotive products and brands it sold, which, in turn, lured customers inside. The signs were often clever and engaging. One particularly rare sign by Oilzum Motor Oils and Lubricants, for example, featured an attractive graphic of a man in a hat, along with this tongue-in-cheek slogan: “If Motors Could Speak we wouldn’t need to Advertise.”

In the 1920s, gas stations became more common, as did gas pumps, which brought about a new type of sign—the pump plate. Attached to gas pumps, they advertised the pump’s brand of gasoline. The plates came in a variety of shapes—round and otherwise—and a wide range of sizes, from as small as five inches across to more than a foot wide.

The Burdick Sign Company of Chicago produced the majority of these of porcelain, which made them both attractive visually and more durable in almost any kinds of weather. Porcelain signs remained common through the 1950s, despite a decrease in production during World War II.

People collect signs bearing a variety of company names, though the most coveted are often the smaller, regional brands—Signal, Gilmore, and Wilshire, with its distinctive Polly brand gas and parrot logo. Of course, signs from bigger brands such as Shell, Standard Oil----as well as its descendants, Mobil, Exxon, and Esso—and Philips 66 have large followings, as do signs from oil-and-gas brands like Sinclair, Pennzoil, Valvoline, Zerolene, Sky Chief, Tydol, Derby, Derby, Conoco, Union 76, and Frontier.

Aside from plate pumps, some people collect “lubesters,” the signs attached to oil and grease dispensers. Warning signs are also popular with collectors. “No Smoking Stop Motor” signs, for example, are one popular niche within this category. Finally, some of the rarest gas-and-service signs are those used at marine and aviation stations.

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