Once upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.
I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.
As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.
[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]There were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”
I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.
Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.
I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”
As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.
[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;