The strange history of pristine gas station bathrooms


New York
CNN Business
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Gas station bathrooms are the last place most people want to stop to do their business.

But that wasn’t always the case. Spotless bathrooms were once a crucial selling point for gas stations.

In fact, oil giants’ gas station ads in the early and mid-20th century assured travelers that their bathrooms were as clean as those in drivers’ own homes.

Texaco, Gulf, Shell, Sunoco, Esso, Phillips and other companies plastered billboards on roads, ran color ads in national magazines and created catchy slogans such as “Registered Rest Rooms” and “Clean Restroom Crusade” to highlight their facilities. The companies battled to surpass each others’ bathrooms, with some companies even sending out “White Patrol” and “Highway Hostess” teams to inspect and certify them.

Companies tried to make their bathrooms feel more like home in response to the growing number of women who were driving and traveling around the country. By 1928, women bought half of gas stations’ fuel that year, according to an industry journal.

Oil companies believed women would be the ones deciding where to stop with their families, even if they weren’t driving, said Susan Spellman, a historian at Miami University who wrote her thesis on how women influenced the development of gas stations.

“She will remember the dirty rest room and avoid the station on her next trip,” read a 1938 article in trade journal National Petroleum News with the headline “Women Shun Dirty Stations.”

At the same time, companies’ efforts excluded Black women and men, who were barred from using these restrooms in the segregated South and were not a focus for these companies in the North until the 1950s and 1960s.

The development of the interstate highway system and the rise of self-service marked the end of clean gas station bathrooms’ heyday.

At the turn of the 20th century, automobile drivers would pull into a blacksmith shop, a hardware store or a pharmacy to purchase a tin can of gasoline.

But the mass adoption of cars, development of roads and the introduction of the hand-operated gas pump around 1910 led to a proliferation of curbside gas stations.

By 1920, there were 15,000 filling stations in the United States. Many of these stations, however, were in shabby condition and their designs and services were an afterthought.

The Ford Model T at a filling station in 1910. Early gas stations were often in shabby condition.

As competition for customers grew in the 1920s and 1930s, companies found they needed ways to separate their stations beyond the indistinguishable gasoline brand they sold. They began focusing on service and amenities.

They sought to attract customers by building homey, cottage-style buildings, adding courteous station attendants in uniforms, and offering an array of services and perks like oil checks and windshield wiping.

At the time, the public was anxious about the spread of venereal disease in public facilities. “Stations Must Be Clean To Overcome Public’s Growing Fears of Syphilis,” National Petroleum News warned in 1938.

Better bathrooms were meant to allay these fears, particularly to help draw women.

A gas station on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut between the 1940s and 1950s. Gas stations began improving building design and services to attract customers.

Women consistently listed clean restrooms as their top priority for patronizing a gas station, according to trade journal articles during the period that Spellman unearthed.

The bathroom layout adhered to the gender norms of the period. Unlike today, when all customers usually have to enter a gas station to use the bathroom, the typical women’s restroom of the era was built in the back of the building or off to the side to give women extra privacy. The men’s room, on the other hand, was located inside near the sales floor.

Gender roles at the time dictated that women were in charge of anything involving the home, including the bathroom, Spellman said.

An advertisement for Texaco stations in 1954, part of the company's

Companies believed that if a woman had a good experience at one of their restrooms, she would tell her friends that the bathrooms were safe for them and their children to use.

By the late 1920s, gas stations made changes to their bathrooms to cater to women, Spellman said. Stations began equipping facilities with running hot and cold water, mirrors, soap, toilet paper, powder rooms, makeup tables and couches.

Companies created a flurry of campaigns in national and women’s magazines, on billboards, and through signs posted outside gas stations in the 1930s and 1940s to illuminate their clean bathrooms.

Texaco created a “Registered Rest Room” program in 1938 for its thousands of stations in all 48 states.

The company sent out fleets of inspectors in white cars — called the “White Patrol” — to ensure restrooms were up to par. Stations that upheld a set of standards were able to post white and green “Registered Rest Room” signs outside their stops, a signal to customers that the bathrooms were safe to use.

“A new crusade on America’s highways…the White Patrol,” a 1938 Texaco advertisement in Collier’s magazine read. “In each car…trained inspectors” ensure “spic-and-span rest rooms, fully equipped for your comfort.”

Read another Texaco advertisement explicitly targeting women: “Our ‘Powder Room’ on every road.”

“You’re lucky, Betty,” a mother says to her daughter in the ad. “I remember when it was hard to find clean, attractive rest rooms like this.”

Phillips 66 launched a similar “Certified Clean Rest Rooms” program around the same time and sent out “Highway Hostesses” — registered nurses in blue military-style uniforms — to inspect conditions.

A 1938 advertisement for Phillips 66's

Shell responded with its “White Cross of Cleanliness” advertising campaign in partnership with Good Housekeeping Magazine. Shell stations put up signs alerting customers that restrooms were kept “Home Clean” in accordance with the magazine’s standards.

Gas stations continued to advertise prominently their bathroom conditions in the following decades. Texaco in the 1960s, for example, aired television commercials spotlighting its bathrooms. “Clean and neat” restrooms are “Something a lady really appreciates,” the narrator says.

Texaco station restroom key fob, 1950-1965.

Images of mothers and daughters, nurses, white gloves and other themes were meant to reassure White women, in particular, of gas stations’ bathroom standards. Black drivers were excluded from companies’ strategies.

“It’s an appeal to a domestic world of White women,” said Mia Bay, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance.” Gas stations’ advertising at the time was attempting to convey “safe spaces for White women.”

In the Jim Crow South, segregation laws required separate facilities for Black and White people. And there were few separate “colored restrooms” at the major gas stations, Bay said. She added that Black drivers in the South were typically forced to look for Black-owned gas stations, which were often advertised in traveling books for Black motorists — or go around the back or outside at major companies’ gas stations.

So how did gas stations go from so prominently advertising their clean bathrooms to the dismal reputation they have today? (Here’s a helpful reminder from BuzzFeed on why you might want to just hold it in the next time you have to go at a gas station.)

There are a few reasons, historians of gas stations and public facilities say.

The development of the interstate highway system and rest stops along the highway reduced the importance of gas station bathrooms, said Matt Anderson, the curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Michigan. “It would be quicker to duck into a rest area rather than exit the freeway and find a gas station.”

Traffic in Los Angeles in 1973. The development of rest stops on the highway lessened the need to go to a gas station to use the bathroom.

Gas stations stopped directly featuring restrooms in their advertising campaigns and, by the late 1960s, stations’ “restrooms were starting to get a poor reputation,” Anderson said.

In major cities, many gas station owners decided that the cost and effort involved in maintaining their bathrooms wasn’t worth it anymore — especially as city and state-run public bathrooms shuttered and more people flooded into gas stations, said Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University who is working on a book about the history of public bathrooms in the United States.

“Gas stations were pissed off at the government outsourcing” bathrooms to them, Simon said. “They see it as a drain on their bottom line.”

As stations focused less on upkeep, bathrooms deteriorated and customers treated them worse, Simon said, describing it as “vicious spiral.”

Bathroom conditions also fell off as gas prices spiked in the 1970s and self-service replaced station attendants.

Cars line up in two directions at a gas station in New York City in 1973. As gas sprices spiked during the 1970s, restrooms fell off.

Drivers became more focused on finding the cheapest gas — not the station with the cleanest bathroom or best service — and many were willing to sacrifice clean toilets if it meant saving a few cents per gallon.

“Gas became more transactional with self-serve,” Simon said. “Service and amenities fall by the wayside.”

However, a handful of gas station chains today still borrow tactics from the earlier era of clean bathrooms as a way to draw customers.

Kwik Trip in the Midwest posts a “Clean Restroom Promise” sign in all of its bathrooms with CEO Don Zietlow’s name and a hotline number to call for complaints. Zietlow personally receives and responds to every call.

And Buc-ee’s in Texas regularly ranks as having the top-rated bathrooms in the gas station industry. The company uses billboards along the highway to advertise its facilities, including “Top Two Reasons to Stop at Buc-ee’s: Number 1 and Number 2” and “Rest-Rooms You Have to Pee to Believe.”