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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Licensing Cars and Drivers Better Roads The Human Cost of Roads Fill 'er Up! Building and Selling Cars Fixing Cars Technological Choices Creating a Nation of Drivers
8: Americans Adopt the Auto

“Fill ’er Up!”

The American petroleum industry boomed as the automobile industry developed in the 20th century. As companies found more oil, refiners developed ways to produce more gasoline from each barrel. By the early 1920s most companies began to add tetraethyl lead to fuel to reduce engine knocking. This allowed car manufactures to build more powerful engines—but also exposed generations of children and adults to toxic levels of lead.

Texas oil field, 1919
Texas oil field, 1919

Americans searched for and exploited huge deposits of oil in the South and West. At the same time, fears that the supply would run short led American companies to look for oil elsewhere in the world, involving them in the politics of the Middle East, Mexico, and other oil-rich regions.

Oil workers, Wyoming, early 1920s
Oil workers, Wyoming, early 1920s

By 1919, nearly 100,000 men worked in the oil fields. Even more were employed building pipelines and working in refineries, corporate offices, and marketing. Despite the Depression, by the mid-1930s the oil industry employed some 1 million people.

Gas Stations

Before there were filling stations, consumers bought gasoline out of a barrel at the grocery or hardware store. But the new market for gas and consumer desire to buy gas more easily soon led to a landscape dotted with gas stations—more than 200,000 by 1935. Although it doesn’t seem revolutionary now, gas stations were the first commercial buildings to be set back from the street. The design accommodated cars without disrupting street traffic and eventually dominated the American retail landscape.

Pipeline workers, about 1900

Getting gas to consumers presented a challenge for producers. They built pipelines (90,000 miles by 1930) and used railroads, ships, and trucks to deliver petroleum.

Pipeline workers, about 1900
Atlantic Refining Company advertisement, 1915
Atlantic Refining Company advertisement, 1915

As more people took up driving, they demanded access to gasoline wherever they went, and the industry searched for ways to get gas to the consumer. This advertisement offers home delivery of gasoline in five-gallon jugs.

Canfield filling station, Lakewood, Ohio, 1918

By 1930 Americans were pumping more than 15 billion gallons of gas into their cars annually, mainly from stations like this one, which was designed to avoid
blocking the flow of traffic.

Canfield filling station, Lakewood, Ohio, 1918
Tokheim Oil Tank and Pump Company portable tank and pump, about 1910
Tokheim Oil Tank and Pump Company portable tank and pump, about 1910
S. F. Bowser and Company gasoline pump, 1916
S. F. Bowser and Company gasoline pump, 1916
Wayne Oil Tank and Pump Company gasoline pump, 1932
Wayne Oil Tank and Pump Company gasoline pump, 1932
Mobiloil gargoyle enamel sign, about 1930
Mobiloil gargoyle enamel sign, about 1930
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