Friday, March 9, 2012

Then: 1916 and Now: 2012– - Gasoline and the Government

It all started when I cleaned out the attic of our house and found some old magazines that had been stored there for years.

There was a series of The Country Gentleman magazines from 1914 to about 1919 and some Life magazines from mid-century.  The Country Gentleman heralded itself as “The Oldest Agricultural Journal in the World”.   I’ve been doing a series of blog posts this last week on news stories in these old magazines with headlines similar to headlines in today’s news.  The one I’m reporting on today is dated May 13, 1916 and the article is Gasoline and the Government.  Doesn’t that sound familiar?   The article was by a fellow named Barton W. Currie.  Turns out Barton W. Currie was a journalist who was also the Editor The Ladie's Home Journal  from 1892 - 1934.
Barton W. Currie - Love this photo with the ink bottle in the forefront
This particular article caught my eye because of the title.  I didn't realize that gasoline could be so much of a problem in those days.  After all, they had fewer automobiles, but many things in those days were powered by gasoline engines other than cars.  Here's a summary of the article.

The first paragraph reads as follows:  A little multitude of honorables in Congress, always yearning – in public – to champion the cause of the people, is rushing to the front with proposed embargoes and export taxes on gasoline.  A radical few are clamoring for government ownership of petroleum products.  If you follow the newspaper reports of their oratory you are almost led to believe that they have made an intensive study of the situation and know whereof they clamor.  But if you peruse the verbatim reports of their oratory in the Congressional Record you begin to have your doubts.  And if you allow your doubts to lead you round to the fine mahogany offices in the marble edifices adjacent to the Capitol, and you interview them as to what they really know, your doubts soon crystallize into certainty – positive certainty – that their knowledge concerning gasoline is about as profound as is the average Patagonian’s perception of the domestic traits and habits of the Smith Sound Eskimos. 

You mean they mistrusted Congress ninety-six years ago?  Some things never change.

The article goes on to read that gasoline was every bit of a big concern in 1916 as it is now.  It goes on to talk about embargoes, export of gasoline to other countries and that some economists figure that the export volume of gasoline will soon reach twenty-five percent of the domestic production and that by keeping it in this country it should be possible to reduce the price of gasoline almost one-fourth.  There was concern about the waste of oil when oil wells "blew".   We were actually exporting oil back in those days rather than importing it. 
Early oil well photos compliments of

The next section of the article is titled Demand Causes Rise in Price and starts off with the words:  If we could simply take Standard Oil by the throat and choke cheaper gasoline out of it, that would be a fine thing – for a while.  But the critter is too big, too strong.  Its swollen profits cause us to gnash our teeth.  An economist was quoted as saying, “Gasoline would be every cent as high today, and very likely higher, if there were what is called pure competition in the petroleum industry.  The popular idea is to charge up the entire evil to Standard Oil.  But all the evidence I have been able to collect leads to one conclusion:  The demand ratio is chiefly if not wholly responsible for the rise in price of gasoline.  And as there does not seem any possibility of forestalling increased consumption it is only a question of time before we must develop substitutes for gasoline.”   Hmmm.  Supply and Demand - I think I've heard that somewhere before.

Photo of Standard Oil Refinery Plant # 1 Cleveland Ohio circa 1900

Did I read that correctly?  In 1916, they were suggesting that we develop substitutes for gasoline.   Out of all the technological developments in the twentieth century, this idea was put forth, but never came to a full fruition.  Just think if they had seriously put their minds to developing a substitute during the early 1900’s, we would be living in a cleaner world today.  We would not be dependent on oil from the Middle East and I could go on and on……

As this was an Agricultural Journal, the writer went on to talk about what could be the farmer’s role in tackling the development of substitutes for gasoline.  He goes on to say:  Denatured alcohol, I found, was coming into the limelight again and demanded careful investigation by the government.  I found that five bureaus of the Department of Agriculture had been assigned to look up all that could be learned of the potential production of denatured alcohol from vege-motor fuel, and how this resource might be distributed.

This was such an interesting article.  It covered the oil shale process, the feasibility of farmers digging potatoes for fifteen cents a bushel and getting the potatoes to a distillery to make denatured alcohol, and just the fact that there would be suspicion of farmers for running a distillery.  It seemed that so many problems were associated with producing alternative forms of energy....just as there seems to be now.  Have things really changed much over the years after all?

Near the end, the writer says:  “As far as I can learn from automobile engineers, it would require only a few simple changes in design to make an automobile engine to use denatured alcohol.  If we are compelled to turn to that safety valve there will be no serious mechanical obstacle in the way.  There is some consolation in knowing that we shall never be at the complete mercy of the petroleum producers”.

Wow!  In 1916, the writer of this article was optimistic that we would never be at the complete mercy of the petroleum producers!  If he could have lived to see us now - totally dependent on petroleum products for transportation and creature comforts.

What an eye-opener this was.   If only the government back then had made it a priority to find alternative forms of fuel – but maybe there’s still hope - there’s no better time to start than now.


  1. I am finding this series of post really fascinating. What a wonderful find that was, all those old papers and magazines. Amazing to think that they were talking of an alternative to petrol all those years ago! We don't seemed to have progressed very much on that one, although we do have electric cars now and some people over here are using cooking oil!

  2. Diane, we have a few electric cars but not enough to make a difference I'm afraid. And a few are going the cooking route also, but it will take much more than a virtual handful of people to make a big difference.

  3. Wow, your series of Then and Now posts are amazing. As Diane said, 'what a wonderful find.' I am loving this.

    It is interesting how some things haven't changed. I am afraid that if things don't change now, quickly, as far as oil/gas is concerned, we may be in a lot of trouble. I just heard today that depending on barrel pricing the amount of gas per gallon at the pumps could go up to $7.00 or more. That is crazy.

    Maybe we should all save our money and get horses. I for one wouldn't mind a horse and buggy, wagon, or whatever. :)

    Have a nice weekend my friend. Take care, Janet W


I love to hear your comments!