Touring the History of Vintage Gas Pumps

How did vintage gas pumps become a favorite American collectable? Remember Standard Oil that became Amaco that became B.P.?  The evolution of the gas pump tells the story of American car culture. Vivid colors, vintage writing and old brands that have merged and moved on exude nostalgia and patriotism. 

At Garage Art, we sell a plethora of gas pump memorabilia including life size model pumps, gas pump gumball machines, beverage taps and signs. In this post we’ll explore the history of vintage gas pumps and why we’re so passionate about them! 

Early History of Gas Pumps 

The very first gas pumps were built by the Bowser Company in 1880 in Fort Wayne, IN. They were originally meant to serve as kerosene pumps for home use. S.F. Bowser noticed they could accommodate refueling of horseless carriages or early cars so he added a hose and nozzle to his pump model. 

By 1989, pumps could pull from underground tanks. The popularity of the automobile rose in a meteoric fashion in the roaring 20’s. In turn, gas pumps became ubiquitous to support driving Americans. They also served as key marketing tools for oil companies. 

Early tanks sported clear glass cylinders to pump five to ten gallons at a time. The idea was to provide transparency to customers since “dirty gas” was a big issue. Operators would use a manual pump to bring gas from underground into the 8-10’ glass cylinder. 

Next iterations of gas pumps were powered by electricity so operators didn’t need to pump gas manually. Consumers still wanted the glass cylinders. The new pumps included a clock face to keep track of the gallons pumped. The vendor would then calculate the amount due and charge the customer. 

By the 1930s, pumps got shorter and were powered by turbines making them cheaper to produce and move. Gas quality improved in the 20’s and 30’s and consumers began to trust the product more. Thus, the glass cylinders became obsolete. 

Gas pumps continued to evolve into the 1940’s but the illuminated globes remained as a lasting feature. Due to the lack of street lights, these globes not only served as marketing mediums, but also a beacon in the night for travelers desperate to refuel.  

Collectable Vintage Gas Pumps

Some of the most collectable pumps are the second generation pumps with the glass cylinder and clock face. According to Collectors Weekly, the most in demand gas pump collectables are those of the earliest iterations as well as models from the 1930’s and 1950’s. Many of the pumps from the 1930’s also sport decorative art deco logos and decals. By the 1960’s, gas pumps were modernized akin to the pumps we use today and became more boxy and plain.