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110 Years Ago: Automobile Non-Carbon Gasoline Supply Station

My how things have changed in the last 110 years. This circa 1908 to ’12 image taken at a gasoline station located at two West 6th St. in Brooklyn, NY, demonstrates just how primitive early filling stations where. The automobile being re-fueled is a 1911 or earlier White steam car.

This business apparently operated out of a small shack on the side of the street and supplied motorists with gasoline and possibly kerosene. Instead of using a rubber hose, fuel was dispensed out of a series of iron pipes connected with some type of an adjustable joint that must have leaked (note the funnel and jug on the side of the building.) We do not know exactly what was used to power light above the car, although it certainly looks like it could have been a fire hazard.

Share with us what you find of interest in the photo by Charles Phelps Cushing courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library.



25 responses to “110 Years Ago: Automobile Non-Carbon Gasoline Supply Station

  1. David,

    Thanks, great picture !!

    You’re very correct to say how primitive early filling stations were. There must have been a barrel in the upper part of the shack and the fuel was delivered by gravity. On the far left of the photograph may show the base of another dispenser of fuel [one gasoline and the other kerosene, if the station had both]. My little understanding of steam vehicles is that “adjustments” could be made to use just about any type of liquid fuel.

    Remember as a kid there were still some old filling stations that had above ground tanks behind the stations.


  2. Interesting and very high quality picture — thanks, David. The overhead light appears to have a mantle like the old Coleman lantern which burned “white gas”. The ball above the light looks like a recoil hanger so the attendant could raise and lower the unit to light, extinguish, change mantle, etc.
    But what is the gadget hanging from the driver’s seat? Does it connect to the somewhat similar thing hanging from the side lamp?

    • The gadget is for holding a spare tyre that would be carried on the running board. The wheels were non-detachable, so to repair a puncture, the car would be jacked up and the tyre removed from the wheel, the tube emoted and repaired, or the new tyre taken down and the whole lot put back onto the wheel, then finally pumped up to 60-80psi using a hand pump! On a day’s drive this could have to be done numerous times due to the poor quality of early tyres and the number of horseshoe nails on the road.

    • Or did the ball hold fuel for the lamp being fed to it by gravity rather than needing to be pumped up? Or possibly even carbide?

  3. What are the three levers for on the right side of the driver? One was a brake, but what are the others for? A steam car does not need a gear shift lever. Forward and reverse? Expansion link? But usually the expansion link and reverse lever are the same. The Stanley had a throttle on the steering wheel sector. Perhaps the throttle on a White was one of the levers.

    • Downwnload “The White Steamer Handbook” published in 1910 from the manualslib website and read the “White House Mobility” article in the March 2018 Hemmings Classic Car (it, too, is online) and enjoy.

    • The three levers are for hand brake, engine reverse/forward and shifting the two speed rear axle. White throttle is the smaller “steering wheel” inside the bigger, real steering wheel.

  4. Jim: the two “gadgets” you see are the hardware for carrying a spare tire, which is missing. There is also a third piece on the running board. The tires appear to be clinchers.

  5. The gadget hanging from the drivers seat is part of a spare tire bracket. Notice that there is another bracket under the side lamp. Our can also see the leather straps that secured the tire into the bracket.

  6. I like the stoic look of the driver.
    It seems like the three levers, at ankle level, are in a difficult place to be in regular use.

  7. I like the little detail of the catch can under the pipe joint, presumably to catch any leaking fuel if the seal isn’t perfect.

    • The funnel may have been the receptacle for the business end of the filler pipe. When the attendant was finished filling the tank, he placed the end of the pipe into the funnel, which caught any leftover fuel that drained from the pipe (assuming all of the pipe elbows were not fully tightened).

  8. One way of dispensing gas in the early days was to fill an underground tank with the fuel, then seal off the fill hole. Domestic water was then let into the tank when fuel dispensing was needed. The water, being heavier than the fuel, went to the bottom of the tank–forcing the fuel out the top connection. When the tank became full of water, another valve was opened, which let the water (and probably a good slug of fuel) into the city drain. Tank empty, cycle starts over. Early “pumps” were more dispensers than pumping devices, and had glass cylinders at the top so that the customer could see that he was getting fuel, not water. In Downingtown PA, on old rt 30, where rt 322 turns North, there is a brick building which had been a garage where motorists could leave there car, if they didn’t have a garage of their own. On the West wall you can still see the “ghost sign” faintly on the brick that says

    Gasaline (sic)

    • The sign actually says “Gasolene”; I’ve wondered how long it will last, the owner seems to have damaged some of the lettering recently.

  9. I am currently writing an article about early long-distance motoring trips and I had to research early fuel sources to round out the story. I certainly can’t say what make of car this is, but it looks similar to many high-end cars of the 1908 to 1912 era. I do not admit to being an expert on early fuel sources, but I think this photo may have been taken after 1912. I have not run across the term non-carbon gasoline in my research, but apparently, carbon build-up in engines became more of an issue after 1912 when thermal cracking and distillation methods came into use for turning crude oil into gasoline. More than one person and company claim to have developed the cracking process around 1911 or 1912 by which higher quality gasoline is produced, but it appears carbon deposits were more of a problem after thermal cracking and more modern methods of distilling gasoline came into being. I know from reports written by early drivers that carbon buildup was a problem even before thermal cracking made it more of a problem. Early long-distance drivers using whatever fuel was available prior to 1912 reported having to mechanically remove carbon build up from engines after thousands of miles of travel. I don’t have enough background in chemistry to know if benzene or kerosene produced carbon build up, but some early long-distance travelers reported using those fuels when they couldn’t get what they considered to be true gasoline. My best guess is that someone was trying to market a fuel that did not build up carbon in the engine — maybe the first attempt at a detergent gasoline. Was it something real or just a hoax someone was using to sell a standard form of early gasoline? I hope someone out there knows.

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