“Falls Fills” a Jolt of High-Octane Design

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

A new exhibit at the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls offers a primer on the history of the pumping station, and high-octane graphic design.

"Falls Fuel: Full Service Gas & Oil" traces the history of mass-produced petrol to the days when everybody was reading Middlemarch by kerosene lamp light, then through the mass production of the automobile, and the consequent proliferation of filling stations — with memorabilia from Sioux Falls-based petrol product makers like the Beaver Oil Co., Penn Soo Oil, the (still running) PAM Oil Inc., and the regional Midwest Oil Company (maker of Ace High petrol products), 

Gas stations often started simple — with a couple pumps and maybe a service bay, and quickly grew into one-stop behemoths servicing a wide-variety of consumer wants. 

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To behold the bright, bold colors of this exhibit, and place them in the context of their times, is to realize how influential the stylistic language of the places where you fill up, squeegee, maybe buy a cup of Folgers, (or a French Tickler from the quarter machine in the rest room) have been. 

Architecturally, most structures were cheap, but they did have an aesthetic — one that was radically different from the more traditional styles that informed the look and feel of the banks, post offices and other fixtures of Main Street America. 

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From the pumps to the station-dwarfing signage, gas stations are where the colors and fonts of the druggist aisle started to conquer external commercial space. Their shiny mod exteriors reflect the mobility, and consequent freedom, derived from the primordial ooze and delivered to your engine. If gas stations still looked like this, exhorting against fossil fuels would be as hopeless as inveighing against Elvis.  

But the colorful puffery of the filling station won out over the staid architectural conventions of downtown a long time ago. Main Street crumbled while a frenzied scramble of vinyl and corrugated aluminum estranged us all in desolate burger joints with laminated menus and frozen margueritas. With the battle over ambient optics safely won, the filling stations stopped bothering to try very hard. The colors faded. Bold fonts faded to spineless cursives.

A vinyl-signed big box-weary generation of middle Americans cast their eyes longingly back at Main Street. And the cycle continues. 

But to look back at these first waves of petrol-driven design now is like idling at the intersection of a Warhol exhibit and a strip mall, a mash of the pedal away from a neon bright horizon.

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