Monday, April 14, 2008

Pulling Into the Past: Fill 'Er Up!

Remember the days when a motorist would pull into the local service station - the slight bump of the rubber line under the tires setting off a cheerful bell - and an attendant would come out and, well, attend to your car? Before you even had your window down, the gas nozzle would be in your tank glugging away and your hood would be up, dip stick being wiped clean and re-dipped to check your engine's oil level. It would have been rude, indeed, to drive away without letting him squeegee your windshield sparkling clean. A fill-up would often come with the reward of a drinking glass or a plate and road maps were free. Not to mention the generously distributed sheets of S & H Green Stamps that filled up many a glove compartment of the day. My mother would squirrel the stamps away in a brown paper grocery bag until a rainy Saturday afternoon, when she would paste them all into their proper places in the official S & H Green Stamp books, for discounts on toasters and blenders and such at the S & H Green Stamp store in West Springfield. I think my dad would have just as soon deposited them in the little plastic trash bag that hung off the car's cigarette lighter, another perk from the full-service filling station for giving them your business.

The first two photographs below were published in 1939, long before my time, but when I spotted them at the Library of Congress's web site awhile back, the thought came to me that it might be interesting to compare the gasoline prices of 1939 with the gasoline prices of today. Well, according to the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE), on April 7, 2008, the per gallon cost of regular gasoline averaged $3.332 nationally. The national average in 1939? 19 cents a gallon.

Of course, anything has the ability to take on a different perspective if one backs away from the common view. A chart published online by the DOE's Vehicle Technologies Program back in March, 2005, compares current historic national gasoline price averages from 1919 to 2004 with those averages adjusted for inflation per the 2005 dollar. That 19 cents that folks were paying in 1939 was actually $2.60 in 2005 dollars. I don't know what that 19 cents translates into in 2008 dollars, but with oil nearing a bazillion dollars a barrel, I sure wish my grandparents had stocked up.

"Scene at filling station near Northampton, Massachusetts." (October 1939)

"Filling station operator talking to traveler near Northampton, Massachusetts." (October 1939)

Page 22 of the Springfield Daily News, published February 17, 1938, offered a smorgasbord of choices for the Western Massachusetts automobile-shopper. For 75 bucks, that itch for the open road could be satisfied with a 1931 Plymouth Sedan. If you had the dough, you could sit yourself behind the wheel of a 1937 Terraplane Deluxe Sedan (with heater), for $625. To be sure, in 1938, at the tail end of the Great Depression, not everyone had the luxury of dreaming about a new car in any serious way. Some folks were simply trying to stay warm, as these pages of newspaper - found stuffed in the walls of my parents' home as makeshift insulation - attest to.

(<--- Can't help but wonder if Mr. Cook ever found his wheel...)

Big money, big car, big advertisement in the Springfield Daily News, circa 1938. Seems to me this ad is sending mixed messages to the prospective buyer. In large, dark letters at the bottom of the ad, the reader is told (with an exclamation point for emphasis) that they "Better buy Buick!" But directly to the left of that three word command, in smaller typeface against a black flag-shaped background, is the strange disclaimer: "When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them." Okay. Which is it? Should I better buy a Buick, or have the better ones not been built yet? Maybe "Better buy Buick!" is an overt statement of affordability rather than a subversively veiled threat to 'purchase, or else.' Perhaps Buick is a better buy, but better will Buick someday build.

More intriguing to me is the advertisement's promise that if I, "Go look at the price tags and what's behind them," I'll, "...spend from now on in a Buick enjoying life." I wish someone would have told me that before I traded my Ford in for a Chevy.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

Photo/caption one source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Russell Lee, Digital ID:
Photo/caption two source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Russell Lee, Digital ID:

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Andrew said...

Thanks for the blog you. You have some entries for old/new prices of thing here is a link to inflation price calculator:

Gas prices would be:
What cost $.19 in 1919 would cost $2.38 in 2004.
And in 2007
What cost $.19 in 1919 would cost $2.60 in 2007.

Keep up the good work.

Mark T. Alamed said...

Thanks Andrew!