Gilbert & Barker Gasoline Pump, 1911

Gilbert & Barker Gasoline Pump, 1911

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For almost a century, the gasoline pump has symbolized changing relationships between consumers, the oil industry, and government. In addition to its practical use, each modern pump is a measure of supply and demand, an agent of taxation, a corporate advertisement, a dispenser of cleaner blends that reduce emissions, and a reminder of motorists' growing dependence on domestic and imported oil. Gasoline pumps have served as flash points for energy issues that directly impact consumers. Rising gasoline prices influenced demand for smaller vehicles and stimulated programs aimed at greater fuel efficiency. In the 1970s, gasoline shortages led to massive inconveniences, flaring tempers, and even riots. More often, higher gasoline prices have led to frustration, distrust, or misunderstanding of corporate practices and government energy policies. The gasoline pump has become the most visible symbol of the value of portable energy and recurring discontent and concern over its cost and availability.
This Gilbert & Barker Model T-6 is one of the first gasoline pumps that counted the number of gallons pumped. In 1865, Charles Gilbert and John Barker formed a company to manufacture a "gas machine" that vaporized petroleum distillates for lighting systems. Gilbert & Barker later manufactured oil burners for industrial furnaces, and in 1910 the company added hand-operated gasoline pumps to its product line.
When automobiles first came on the market, gasoline was available in large quantities, but it was a little used by-product of oil refining. Kerosene was in great demand for lighting; gasoline was used as a solvent and, to a limited extent, as fuel for cook stoves. Much of the gasoline produced at refineries was treated as waste. The growing use of automobiles greatly increased demand for gasoline. Initially gasoline was retailed much like kerosene; it was transported from bulk oil storage facilities on the edge of town to general stores, hardware stores, and drug stores, where it was sold in metal cans. Repair garages and livery stables were added to these outlets. In some locations, gasoline was sold in barrels using a spigot that released the liquid into a measured container. Motorists soon began driving to bulk storage facilities to refuel, but they still had to transfer the liquid into the gasoline tank with a can, bucket, or pitcher and a chamois-lined funnel--a slow, cumbersome, dangerous method. The first direct refueling station, equipped with a gravity-feed, above-ground tank, hose, and glass gauge, opened at a St. Louis bulk oil facility in 1905.
The most significant retail innovation--an underground tank with a hand-operated pump--made driving an automobile much more practical. Like oil wells, the refined product was out of sight until needed, offering maximum convenience. By the 1910s, gasoline was dispensed in a continuous flow, with occasional replenishing of underground tanks. Curbside gasoline pumps proliferated at stores that sold hardware, feed, drugs, and general merchandise, as well as at repair garages. Mechanical gauges like the one on this Gilbert & Barker pump made retail sales more practical, efficient, and accurate.
Demand for curbside service soon led to traffic congestion at the pump. Dedicated, off-street gasoline stations, set back to accommodate several cars, appeared in the 1910s and spread rapidly. By the 1920s, vertical integration within oil companies created branded gasoline products sold at stations and repair garages throughout regional territories. Since the 1930s, electric pumps, price computation, credit cards, advertisements, standardized corporate design and gas station architecture, and self-serve controls have made gasoline pumps an even more intimate part of the driving experience and have brought motorists into closer contact with oil companies.
In recent decades, gasoline pumps have symbolized concern about finite oil supplies, volatile prices, global politics, and negative effects on the environment and the economy. Since the 1970s, efforts to replace gasoline with homegrown energy sources--ethanol, hydrogen, and electricity generated by coal, nuclear power, wind, sun, water, and biomass--have gained limited momentum. Recent concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming have strengthened the argument for an entirely new form of energy for vehicles. But any modifications to the gasoline retail-distribution infrastructure would have to take into account a century of development and refinement as well as the habits, preferences, and economic choices of motorists and energy producers and retailers.
Object Name
gasoline pump
pump, gasoline
Date made
Gilbert & Barker Manufacturing Co.
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, Springfield
Physical Description
steel (overall material)
fabric (overall material)
overall: 81 1/2 in x 21 1/2 in x 12 in; 207.01 cm x 54.61 cm x 30.48 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Gilbert & Barker Manufacturing Company
See more items in
Work and Industry: Transportation, Road
Artifact Walls exhibit
Road Transportation
Artifact Walls
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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