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The Gas Station in America

Book Review

by Ryan King

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The automobile didn't develop in a void.

In fact, as is obvious to anyone who steps outside their home, it became a cultural — as well as economic — tour de force, forever changing our course through history as we quickly embraced it and with it, drove the United States to growth and prosperity like no other nation before.

One of the most important factors in the success of both the automobile and the country, was the development of gas stations.

In the Gas Station in America, noted roadside historical geographer John A. Jakle and historian Keith A. Sculle take a broad, in-depth look at the development of the gas station, its metamorphosis over the decades between the early 1900s and the 1990s, and its impact on the automobile, American culture, and the economic growth of the United States.

Normally, I don't review academic books for Classics and Performance, instead, I focus on enthusiast-oriented material. However, a lot of my personal reading is in weightier volumes such as textbooks, journals, and academia — like this book.

Before you let that turn you off, I want to say that while the writing is far wordier and convoluted than it needs to be at times and there are no color photographs, the depth and rigor of the research done by Jakle and Sculle in the Gas Station in America lends it context and color missing from enthusiast-oriented books.

This book doesn't merely tug on the ol' nostalgic heart strings, but truly informs the reader about how and why things happened that impacted our impressionable childhoods and our formidable young adult years — things that helped to give us a deep love and appreciation of our cars and influenced how we use them to this day.

The best part is that it accomplishes all of that in under 272 pages — it's not some thick tome that you'll find yourself buried in with no end in sight.

If I haven't lost you yet, please read on for a chapter by chapter review of this interesting and informative book.

The Book

Chapter 1: Gas Stations in Generational Perspective

In Chapter 1, the authors explain the impetus and background for their study of the gas station, its personal as well as historical significance, and the need to document and even preserve it for posterity.

It might come as a surprise how and why the gas station has played such a significant role in the development of America, but maybe even more surprising, for us as individuals. I obviously grew up after much of the important evolution of the gas station described in this book, occurred, but I came along early enough to have had experiences with many of the old gas stations and their culture before they were done away with in the interest of progress. As a life-long student of the human mind, I really appreciate the effort Jakle and Sculle made to relate the gas station to our individual senses of personal significance, because, for me, it meant a great deal more than just the economical, functional, or social factors that developed a nation. Gas stations were a pivotal element of adventure for me as a child. Back when they weren't as strategically placed, and cars couldn't go hundreds and hundreds of miles on a tank, when road tripping meant finding one or running out of gas in the middle of nowhere without the ability to call for a tow truck or even find another car passing by to flag down for help.

Chapter 1 looks at the gas station from that kind of personal perspective and how it effected us psychologically — in many different ways — to form the basis of how we interact with them, travel, and even appreciate our cars.

Chapter 2: Place-Product-Packaging

Place-product-packaging is a concept developed by the petroleum industry's major players to differentiate their gas stations from one another and those of independent distributors. Chapter 2 explains what that means, and how it came to be.

That place-product-packaging was developed by the petroleum industry wasn't something I was aware of. If you've ever been to a McDonald's, a Subway, or a Union 76 station, then you've seen place-product-packaging at work. It has literally shaped modern commerce. Before this book, however, I didn't know it as place-product-packaging, I knew a version of it as branding. Which brings me to my only real gripe with this book: The concept of place-product-packaging was never clearly defined with a distinct, precisely spelled out definition – which would have made all the difference in the world for me. Please allow me to help you have a better experience than I had by referencing an online article on Taylor & Francis Online by author John A. Jakle:

The coordination of building design, décor, menu, service, and pricing under distinctive logos.

In other words, a deep and broad application of corporate branding. Or more significantly, in Chapter 2, the authors reveal that the petroleum industry was responsible for the concept to begin with and explore how they went about it and what made it a cultural phenomenon that we recognize as a part of business everywhere, today.

Chapter 3: Marketing Strategies in the Petroleum Industry

Place-product-packaging developed over time, beginning in the early 1900s as the oil industry evolved, changing its emphasis from heating and other petroleum distillate products to gasoline production for the automobile. Chapter 3 provides a synopsis of changes in the oil industry and how they effected the way marketing strategies were developed and used to promote gas consumption through market penetration, territorial expansion, and sales dominance.

This chapter is broken up into six eras significant to the understanding of how place-product-packaging changed during its maturation process. Each providing a window into the impact that changing market/social pressures, developing manufacturing technology, an evolving economy, and different business practices had on it.

Chapter 4: Corporate Territoriality

The corporate monopoly of Standard Oil and the government break-up of it had a great deal to do with the way petroleum companies and gasoline marketing would eventually come to operate. In Chapter 4, the authors lay out the foundation of that geo-political machine and proceed to show how it related to the phenomenon we all grew up with and created our experiences commuting, traveling, and engaging with our beloved cars.

I'm not going to sugar coat this, Chapter 4 is long. It's dry. There are a lot of numbers. It also plays a crucial role in the explanation of everything we know and love about the way we engage with our cars and the development of society in America as a whole, over the last century. So, even though it may make you yawn more than once, when you finish it, Chapter 4 will leave you with a perspective on the rest of the book and your automotive life you won't have without it — or a lot of the disparate investigation and interpretation of the resulting body of research that Jakle and Sculle put into it.

Chapter 5: The Gas Station as Form

Finally, we get to the meat and potatoes of why I read this book.

My interest in automotive-related architecture and the practical development of the facilities for my hobby are the reasons I chose to begin reading the Gas Station in America. What I ended up with was so much more valuable: An insightful perspective on the forces that developed the nation, many of my most beloved experiences growing up on the road, and my love of cars.

That said, Chapter 5 is where we get to look at the architectural development of the gas station over the decades from its crude beginnings, to its zenith as a marketing, social, and technological center during the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, to its evolution into the modern convenience store during the 80s and 90s. Chapter 5 covers not only the way gas stations looked, but how they were laid out and functioned.

Chapter 6: Gas Station Design — the Large Corporation

In Chapter 6, the meat and potatoes course continues as the authors delve into the gas station design process and the factors that effected it in large corporations by using a case study of one company, Pure Oil.

For me, this chapter was like a microcosm of the rest of the book. I went into it looking for some insight into how gasoline stations are designed and built, and came away with a greater appreciation of the forces at work that historically influenced the gas stations I grew up with. As someone who used to work in the design field as a graphic designer, I found this chapter immensely satisfying, because I got a glimpse of both the design process and the many factors that played a part in shaping the design, especially the interpersonal relationships and political forces that often play the largest role in anything that gets designed by a group.

It would be idiotic to recommend reading this chapter alone in a book that weaves so much important information throughout the preceding chapters — information that's necessary to fully understand and appreciate the events discussed in Chapter 6 — but this one is far and away the most fascinating to me.

Chapter 7: Gas Station Design — the Small Entrepreneur

Chapter 7 is the final course of meat and potatoes and it's all about how the little guy handled the complex design process perfected by the larger corporations. It features a case study of two small companies, Barkhausen Oil Company and Quality Oil Company.

The story of Quality Oil Company really floats my boat, if only because I've long loved one of their gas station designs: the Shell Seashell. If you haven't seen them, Google it or click the included link, they are really cool. The story also caused me to do a little research of my own and through it, I found Quality Oil's original company headquarters. I completely fell in love with the building. That would be where I would put Classics and Performance if I could. It's beautiful, very period, and screams "American car!" If you want to see what I mean, do a Google image search for "Quality Oil Corporate Headquarters at Reynolda and Northwest," or click the above link — it's worth a look.

Chapter 8: Gas Stations as a Feature of Urban Landscape

The authors move past gas station architecture in Chapter 8, and focus on the impact the automobile in general, and the gas station in particular, had on the growth of communities. To do that, they performed a case study of two towns they are familiar with: Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.

Much like the rest of the book, I found this chapter fascinating in ways I never expected to find within its pages. It explains the forces at play that caused the change in the landscape between these two cities, interweaving social, economic, and automobile-related influences to arrive at a comprehensive microcosmic mental picture of the development of our country over the last 100+ years, and left me with a strong sense of why the car has played such an important role in the lives of everyone, today.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

Chapter 9 is a summary of the book, reciting both notable facts from the previous chapters and drawing final conclusions on the information presented.


After reading the Gas Station in America, John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle will leave you with a very complete sense of how the gas station — something that many of us take for granted as a part of the landscape of both the towns we live in and of our lives — played one of the most important rolls in the history of the United States, developing our social and economic reality.

If you are a fan of history, the automobile, and how it all came to be, you can't miss reading this book, it's truly an eye-opener.

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As this book is no longer in publication, the publisher may not be able to provide any help, however, you can contact the Johns Hopkins University Press on the web at www.press.jhu.edu, by phone 1.800.537.5487 or by email at hfscustserv@press.jhu.edu.

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