Fill 'er Up: A Historical Look at Service Stations | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Fill 'er Up - Image Gallery Essay

A Historical Look at Service Stations

Three uniformed employees of the Sinclair Oil Company Service Station, located at 501 East Broadway, stand in front of the station's gas pumps. Two lifesize cutouts of women are in the background. The station was constructed in 1938.

Sinclair Service Station, 1938

Waukesha, Wisconsin. Three uniformed employees of the Sinclair Oil Company Service Station, located at 501 East Broadway, stand in front of the station's gas pumps. View the original source document: WHI 2090

EnlargeA pagoda-style filling station in West Allis, Wisconsin.

West Allis Service Station, 2008

West Allis, Wisconsin. Built in 1927, this small Wadhams station, located at 1647 South Seventy-sixth Street, is one of a handful of the company's signature pagoda stations still standing. View the original source document: WHI 64040

Since their unremarkable beginnings as cheap shacks and curbside pumps at the dawn of the automobile age, gas stations have taken many forms and worn many guises — castles, cottages and teepees, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, clad with wood, stucco or gleaming porcelain in seemingly infinite variety. But, where hundreds of gas stations once stood in Wisconsin's largest cities, only a handful remain today, victims of competition, obsolescence, changing transportation needs and housing patterns, as well as stronger environmental regulation. Wisconsin's historic stations, some of which are featured in the Wisconsin Public Television documentary Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations, which is available for viewing online.

Gas stations developed in the early 20th century to provide fuel and other car-related products in a convenient location for the growing number of automobile owners. The earliest gas station was the "curbside" type, which appeared at the edge of the street, often in front of hardware and grocery stores. Evolving in tandem with the rest of America, gas stations responded with architectural and operational changes to the Depression, World War II, the postwar boom and new interstate highway system, and the environmental movements of the late 20th century, taking multiple forms over their long history.

But as ubiquitous as gas stations are to our modern society, they are possibly the most ephemeral of all commercial buildings. Built for a single, specialized use in a highly competitive business, the majority of Wisconsin's historic stations have been demolished. We may not dwell upon the evolution of gas stations or their historical importance, but in a culture directly shaped by the automobile, stations are an unavoidable and indispensable background in our daily lives.

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