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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Fill 'Er Up
by Bob Brooke


Remember the days when your dad pulled the family car into a gas station and a friendly young man would come out and ask you how much gas you wanted? And while the gas gurgled into the tank, he would clean the car’s windshield and lift the hood to check the oil, wiping the dipstick with a rag hs pulled from the back pocket of his overalls. Those were the days.

And those memories are what drive petroliana collectors, that is collectors of gas station equipment and memorabilia.

The passion petroliana collectors have for vintage gas pumps and the globes that adorned them certainly proves one man's trash is another man's treasure, since the quest for such relics often leads them to city dumps and farm pastures. When found, most of the castoffs are rusty shadows of their former selves, yet there are many willing to spend a small fortune to resurrect what they consider coveted items.

The Search for the Elusive Glass Globe
Relentless in their search for globes, collectors seek names like Richfield, Magnolia Petroleum, Veltex, Husky. Kendall, Fire Chief, Lion, Signal and Red Crown. Sentimentality drives the petroliana market because it's difficult for a collector to see an old globe and not want to own it, particularly if he—the majority of petroliana collectors are men—already owns a previsible or visible gas pump or the more familiar clock-face pump.

In its heyday "global" lighting was perhaps the best advertising idea ever conceived by gasoline companies. For years, they elevated globes of different sizes and shapes to the tops of gas pumps, yet these had nothing to do with moving the gas into the automobile. It was merely an artistic way to identify various petroleum companies.

Prior to the automobile in the early 20th century, people used kerosene and gasoline for lighting. They purchased these fuels at general stores, which kept them inside or outside of the building. The storekeeper hand-dispensed the desired amount into a measuring container, then carried it to the automobile where he would pour it through a funnel into the gas tank.

In the late 1880s, Sylvanus F. Bowser of Fort Wayne, Indiana, invented a method to pump kerosene, and later gasoline, from one container to another. By the turn of the 20th century, he had developed the first outdoor pump to dispense gasoline. Since then, gas pumps have undergone at least five major design transformations affecting size, appearance, capacity, material and internal mechanisms.

Once the dangers of above-ground storage became known and the pump theory became reality, John J. Tokheim of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took the process a step further by introducing an underground receptacle to hold the gasoline. In 1901, Tokheim patented a pump that could measure the amount and price of fuel taken from it.

Its logical placement was "curbside," where a driver could pull up to a permanent hand-operated pump located above ground with a hose connected to it, allowing the fuel to flow into the car. Beginning in 1907 and for the next 13 years, the curbsides, called “previsibles,” soon dotted American streets. Though they weren’t large, and while they solved one problem, they created a couple of others.

To accurately measure the amount of gasoline sold, early manufacturers put “ stops” on the pump, usually in small increments, allowing the purchaser to regulate the amount he wanted. Unfortunately, the popularity of doing curbside business often created "traffic congestions," forcing city officials to place limits on the number of pumps installed within each municipality.

The "visible" pump came along in the 1920s, along with the concept of a "filling station," an off-street building with the sole purpose of selling only gasoline. A visible pump serves a dual purpose. The tall glass cylinder on top of the gas dispenser allowed the customer to see both the fuel and the amount being pumped into the car.

Though many companies produced this type of visible pump until about 1925, the best-known manufacturers were Bowser, Tokheim, the Wayne Pump Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Bair Pump Company of Adrian, Michigan.

The "clock-face" pump appeared in the late 1920s, using meter and dials to indicate the number of gallons sold. A "visi-gauge" was sometimes placed on the side, allowing the customer to watch how much fuel went into his car. Until the computer pump came along, often a printed card showing increment prices per gallon and the tax rate also would be attached to the sides of the pumps.

The globes accompanying those early pumps fall into four categories. The first style used from 1900 to the early 1920s, was a one-piece glass model, very generic with no lens, advertising "gasoline" or "filtered gasoline." Most were made of milk glass rather than clear glass.

Next came the metal frame globes, used from 1925 to 1932, with a glass lens, followed by the glass body with glass inserts, used from the late 1920s through the early 1960s, but more prevalent in the mid-1930s and '40s, and finally, the plastic bodies with glass inserts. Although some of these were produced in the 1930s, they were more commonly seen during the 1950s.

Manufacturers etched, painted, raised, baked, or cast oil company names onto the globe. Body styles and size could be quite different from the usual round and smooth globe. One example was called a "ripple" because of its outside texture. Produced by the Gill Glass Company of Pennsylvania, it reminded some of snake skin. The Hull Glass Company, also of Pennsylvania, made another style that featured a concave body center.

Vintage pumps and globes range from several hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on whether it is original, restored or a reproduction. Condition, rarity, design and in the case of globes, the company logo, are very important.

The oil companies recognized the popularity of these early pumps, and it wasn't long before they required filling stations to own them. Of course, this included the specialized advertising of each company whose names perched on the domes of individual receptacles.

Most collectors want what they grew up with—a reminder of their hometown service station where they first worked, their first car or a certain brand of gasoline they first used. Since it is almost impossible to find an original pump or globe that doesn't need a "facelift," collectors are always on the lookout for topnotch restorers and sources for replacement parts.

While the older, original pumps and globes may be vanishing, they can still be found at swap meets, flea markets, antique malls or antique shows. There are also numerous collector organizations and sources such as the Internet, and classified ads in local newspapers that could prove helpful. Those who can't afford this older memorabilia have turned to the multitude of accessories 'that are available. Remember, what is used today will be collectible tomorrow.

The Birth of the Service Station
In the 1930s, filling stations became "service stations," branching out to help customers with additional services such as lubrication, tire repair, oil changes, etc. A variety of interesting items, which are now available to petroliana collectors, came into use.

Petroliana buffs may choose from many interesting cabinetry designs produced from the 1930s through the beginning of World War II. While the giant oil companies survived the Great Depression, they didn’t develop any new designs for their stations.

Twin pumps, originally used in the visible and clock-face era, came into vogue in the early 1950s, dispensing two grades of fuel from the same space from which one had been previously sold. Several years later, Sun Oil and Wayne Pump Company perfected the "Custom Blender," allowing multiple grades of a product to be dispensed through a single hose.

By the 1960s, oil companies began modernizing the older, sometimes ornate, gas pumps. Their replacements were square dispensers with chrome exteriors looking as if they had arrived from outer space.

While the older, original pumps and globes may be vanishing, they can still be found at swap meets, flea markets, antique malls or antique shows. There are also numerous collector organizations and sources such as the Internet, and classified ads in local newspapers that could prove helpful. Those who can't afford this older memorabilia have turned to the multitude of accessories 'that are available. Remember, what is used today will be collectible tomorrow.

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