“Put a tiger in your tank!” exclaims a 1964 fuel advertisement from Esso Extra Gasoline. Esso would continue the Tiger motif for many more years to come in bumper stickers, more ads, and even faux tiger tails that people would attach to the caps of their gas tanks. In the US, manufacturers would go on to sell 2.5 million fake tiger tails.
Today, collectors hunting share a similar love and fascination in vintage gas memorabilia, especially mint condition fuel advertisements that seem impervious to age. Stepping back into the period of the automobile’s birth when the masses had a newfound appreciation for gasoline cannot be any more real than seeing the gas ads of the era. From White Rose to Mobilgas, the competition between gas companies back then produced the most creative, colorful, even whimsical ads of the time.
Classic Fuel Advertising
Before personal automobiles rose in popularity in the early 20th century, service stations were rare. Anyone looking to fill up his Model T would often stop at the nearest station. Thus, the industry did not perceive advertising as necessary during the early 1900’s. With stations few and far in between, competition between oil and gas companies was barely present. Moreover, many car owners still had the practice of getting their gas at local hardware and grocery stores, even their blacksmiths.
However, when faced with the growing number of automobile owners, gas companies and oil companies jumped at the chance to meet demand. Filling stations would soon blossom through the country and would eventually transform the American landscape. Along with the affordable Ford Model T, the automobile and gasoline industry was entering the golden era of the service station.
Missouri would see the world’s first gas station in 1905. Two years later, California’s Standard Oil would build the second gas station Seattle. In 1913, Gulf Oil, or Gulf Refining Company as it was known then, would open the first ever gas station that featured a drive-in filling station. Gulf sold gasoline at 27 cents to the gallon. By the 1920’s, over 200,000 gas stations existed in the U.S.
With the boom of cars, gasoline, and oil, new gas brands would spring up one after the other. Thus, market competition grew. Gas and oil advertisements poured in, with each brand touting their product as the best, cleanest, and most efficient for any car.
The Look and Feel
It would be difficult to confuse the look of a vintage oil or fuel advertisement for a current ad: large bold headers screaming for attention, colorful art and pin-ups to lure (and keep) you in, and the distinct fine print the would go on to boast of a product or brand’s many attributes. The competition between gas companies gave birth to one of the most creative and distinct ads in history. In fact, their appeal can still be felt today with many a collector keeping their eyes open to the rarest, most mint, and yet, most vintage of these fuel advertisements.
Green Eggs and Ham
Did you know that beloved, children’s book author Dr. Seuss created cartoons and art used for fuel advertisements in the 30’s? Before his zoological oddities graced our kids bedtime, rhyming books, Theodore Seuss Geisel illustrated for several gas companies such as Flit and Standard Oil. His work, particularly for Standard Oil, provided a steady income for Geisel and his wife during a period marked by the Great Depression. In the book, Dr. Seuss Goes to War, Geisel is quoted saying, “It wasn’t the greatest pay, but it covered my overhead so I could experiment with my drawings.”
Who knew that 1900-fuel advertisements would serve as the creative kindling for Geisel who would go on to create many of the most popular kids’ books in history?
The Value in Fuel Advertisements
Like other petroliana memorabilia, the right type of vintage oil cans and fuel advertisements on posters and other media, in the right condition and from the right period can be incredibly valuable. Consider the following factors below so you’ll only be adding the best vintage ads to your collection.
Although some collectors appreciate patina and the occasional tear, ads, and posters with the most value or typically those kept in mint condition. Thus, avid petroliana collectors would usually protect their precious wares by keeping them in glass cases or hard clear plastic. The best-kept gas advertisements would look like they came out of a printer a week ago.
Learn from the pros: Mint is best. But if you find one unprotected in the wild, take it home immediately and give it the love and care it deserves. You’ll find that it’ll repay you soon enough.
Mobil, Gulf, and Shell are just some of the most popular gasoline brands. However, there were also Penn Drake, Wolf’s Head, Sinclair, Pennzoil and many more! Don’t just stick with familiar brands. At times, the more obscure brands could be rarer and therefore have more value. Some research on gas companies and their history will do you well here.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: Old is gold. However, it is not a hard and fast rule. The earliest fuel advertisements were typically in black and white with minimal illustrations. The ads would then move into color with more intricate or bombastic artwork.
Incidentally, you may fare better with using history as a gauge then a vintage ad’s print date. Often, the more-storied an item and the more history it has, the higher it's value. So, avoid getting the first colorful vintage ad you see. As you would the many gas brands that came and went (or stayed, if you ask Shell), a little history lesson will ensure that the ads you add to your collection will be unique.
Whatever reason you may have for collecting vintage oil and fuel advertisements, be it nostalgia, appreciation for historic Americana, selling at our auction, or as a casual hobby, one thing cannot be denied. Old-timey gas ads have this profound power to transport one’s mind and heart back to simpler times. Twenty-seven cents to the gallon. Really.