Vintage Gas, Oil, and Service Signs

While some cities today have a gas station on every corner, complete with huge signs illuminating a variety of multinational oil giants’ slickly produced logos, the industry was a whole lot different when the car began its rise to prominence in the early 20th century.

Before automobiles were widespread, gas stations were extremely rare, generally doing business only in larger cities and on the busiest highways. Gas stations often performed service and repairs, while gasoline was also sold in drugstores and elsewhere. For awhile, lubricating oil and fuel oil were easier to find than gasoline.

In the 1910s, the market began growing, as did the competition, especially among lubricating oil companies. The first signs advertising lubricating oil appeared in grocery stores and were produced in a variety of materials: baked enamel, sheet steel, and tin. Designs on tin signs were printed using lithography while designs on sheet-steel signs were screen-printed.

These signs allowed a store to tell its customers which automotive products and brands it sold, which, in turn, lured customers inside. The signs were often clever and engaging. One particularly rare sign by Oilzum Motor Oils and Lubricants, for example, featured an attractive graphic of a man in a hat, along with this tongue-in-cheek slogan: “If Motors Could Speak we wouldn’t need to Advertise.”

In the 1920s, gas stations became more common, as did gas pumps, which spawned a new type of sign called the pump plate. Pump plates were affixed to the pumps that indicated and advertised the pump’s brand of gasoline. The plates came in a variety of shapes—round (or “hubcap”) and otherwise—and a wide range of sizes, from as small as five inches across to more than a foot wide.

Often created by the Burdick Sign Company of Chicago, these signs were generally made out of porcelain, which lent them both attractive visibility and impressive durability in almost any weather. Porcelain signs remained common through the 1950s, despite a decrease in production during World War II.

People collect signs bearing a variety of company names, though the most coveted are often the smaller, regional brands—Signal, Gilmore, and Wilshire, with its distinctive Polly ...

Aside from plate pumps, some people like to collect “lubesters,” which were the signs attached to oil and grease dispensers. Other collectible signs at gas-and-service stations were warnings—“No Smoking Stop Motor” signs, for example, are one popular niche within this category. Finally, some of the rarest gas-and-service signs are those used at marine and aviation stations.

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