Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Atlantic Refining Company's Monumental Service Stations in Philadelphia, 1917-1919

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Atlantic Refining Company's Monumental Service Stations in Philadelphia, 1917-1919

Article excerpt

Introduction

Between 1917 and 1919, at the dawn of petroleum retailing to car and truck drivers, the Atlantic Refining Company built three remarkably well-designed service stations in Philadelphia that can be termed "monumental" for their dignity. Headquartered in Philadelphia, as well as in Pittsburgh, where, in 1915, the Atlantic Refining Company launched a strategy of extraordinary service stations, the company's three services stations for the "City of Brotherly Love" reached aesthetic heights in a branch of commercial architecture rejected then as often squalid and since as seldom more than mundane. How early petroleum marketing in Philadelphia brought forth Atlantic Refining Company's monumental service stations gives insight into an important aspect of the new consumer culture.

By the late nineteenth century America became a society of abundance in which the supply of goods and services so far exceeded demand that emphasis was placed on consuming those goods and services. Culture, the intricate web of symbols representing reality shared by a group of people, shifted to the values of buying and consuming. Satisfaction formerly was understood to derive from the quality of one's productivity in a relatively static social order. In the subsequent culture of consumption, for example, people gauged one's social status according to the goods and services they purchased from a hierarchy of brand names competing in the marketplace. Style became a superficial emblem to beckon consumers and, as a purchasable commodity, was freed from exclusive identification with one class (Ewen, Captains 43).

Expanding geographic markets contributed significantly to how the culture of consumption was expressed (Norris xv). Cheap and dependable transportation, principally the railroads, helped end the dominance of service and hand-crafted goods available exclusively from local businesses. Reliability could no longer depend on the consumer's personal knowledge of the commodities and producers. Superficial strategies were invoked, such as colored logos and simple slogans, to distinguish commodities once consumers accepted those commodities as reliable after assurance from earlier purchases (Strasser 26). Although historians have heretofore focused almost exclusively on the function of the printed media or advertising to explain the transformation to a culture of consumption, the role of architecture can be sketched. According to Stuart Ewen, architectural design in the nineteenth century paralleled the separation between "surface and substance" (Ewen, All 34-- 36). Design came to be the business of how architects made buildings look and engineers conceived their structure (Kidney 23-24). Style drifted free, no longer integrating all aspects of building design, and seemed to refer only to appearances (Kidney 3). To quell the ensuing aesthetic riot known as the "battle of the styles," two schools of thought emerged. Proponents of a new functionalism argued that architectural design should spring from satisfactory use. Revivalists, however, either carefully mimicked traditional designs or interpreted them but insisted they should be academically correct to historical models (Gowans 288, 366-86, 395-413). Buildings should look right, in a word. Revivalism reigned by the end of the nineteenth century. Consequently the colonial Georgian tended to provide the standard for houses, Gothic for schools and churches, and classicism for public buildings (Handlin 269-71, 304).1

Oil companies eagerly participated in the sea of change of the consumer culture's visual emphasis. Integral to the nation's industrialization facilitating the change, oil companies soon sported colorful logos as the accepted new way of marketing. As substances with no apparent difference between producers, oil, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline, especially required visual cues to distinguish between the numerous brands (Dicke 85; Vieyra 8). Gulf Refining Company exemplifies the rapid timing and initially improvised nature of the response. …

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