If you’ve ever stepped inside an antiques market out in the country, chances are you’ve
come across a good selection of old enamel gas signs, oil cans and other gas station memorabilia. Known collectively as
‘petroliana’, this is an area of collecting with an interesting history that’s been growing in popularity since the 1980s.
Petroliana falls under the umbrella of antique advertising collecting and shares its roots with automobilia. It begins with
the invention of the motor car and the need for motor oil and gasoline products. The oil business being the competitive
industry that it is, put a lot of time and money into producing colourful signs and advertising posters. It is these artefacts
from a bygone age that attract the petroliana collector.
Antique signs are the most popular items among collectors, particularly from brand names such as Mobil, Texaco, Standard
Oil, Phillips 66, Shell, Sinclair and Esso. Some collectors only collect gas pumps or glass gas pump globes, others collect
oil cans, road maps and promotional items, such as toys, clocks and plastic lollipop thermometers. Some hobbyists go as
far as revamping old gas stations and returning them to their former glory.
There are even petroliana museums dotted around the world, the largest being in Italy called Museo Fisogni, which has a
collection of over 5,000 items showing the evolution of the service station and petrol companies.
The Invention of the Gas Pump
Before the advent of the service station and the invention of the petrol pump, gas and motor oil were sold by street vendors
who travelled from town to town filling up motor vehicles from barrels and tanks and selling kerosene for lamps and . The
year 1885 saw the advent of a lever-operated piston pump by American inventor Sylvanus F. Bowser and this would form the
basis of all other fuel pumps to come.
The Birth of the Filling Station
As the Americans overtook the rest of the world in the automobile industry, motor car ownership grew and so did the need
for gas stations. Known as filling stations, the first-ever service station was built in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905, followed
by a second in 1907 in Seattle, Washington owned by Standard Oil (now Chevron).
Gasoline was now being sold right at the pump and motor oil was being packaged in tin cans and distributed across the country.
Posters, enamel signs and other advertising features began to dominate these service stations, designed to draw customers
in and sell products.
The Evolution of the Gas Pump
As the automobile industry took off, newer inventions and better technology changed the look and mechanics of the gas pump.
From the early days of the clockface pumps to the more efficient self-measuring pumps, this is one area of petroliana with
The early gas pumps were really tall, with some measuring over eight feet tall, and relied on gravity for the fueling action.
Many housed the gasoline in glass cylinders so customers could see how much petrol was being pumped. They were painted in
bright colours to attract the attention of passing motorists, and topped with glass globes branded with company logos and
illuminated at night. The esthetics of antique gas pumps make them highly collectible, but a substantial collection does
require a lot of space.
Petroliana Antique Signs
While some petroliana hobbyists opt to focus on just the glass globes for their collections, others prefer the less fragile
and easier-to-display advertising signage. According to gas and oil memorabilia expert, Dan Matthews, who heads up the petroliana
division for Morphy Auctions, this is the most popular and profitable area of collecting in petroliana.
He says that the current market value of a piece depends entirely on scarcity and condition. To illustrate this point, he
compares the purchase of a 42-inch Texaco Gasoline & Motor Oil sign in perfect condition to a Musgo sign in less-than-perfect
condition. If you paid $1,000 to $1,500 for the Texaco sign 10 to 15 years ago, you could expect to get $3,000 to $4,000
at auction today.
The appreciation value is much higher for the Musgo gas sign, which would fetch in the area of $10,000, regardless of its
condition. This is because there are fewer Musgo signs in existence. When the gas company went out of business in 1929,
their warehouse was bought by a plumber who used the old Musgo signs as septic tank lids. Avid collectors have been known
to dig up these septic tanks to get their hands on one of these rare and highly sought-after Musgo signs.
If you’re looking for a more modest investment, Matthews recommends plates from Texaco Fire Chief, gas pumps from Sky Chief,
or pumps from Gulf No-Nox. These fetch around $200-$250.
Esthetics also play a large role in the perceived value of a collector’s item. Take the Harbor Petroleum signs of the 1950s.
Painted in attractive marine blue, orange and yellow, depicting the scene of a seaplane landing on the water, these signs
have been known to sell anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000.
Other examples include a Bruin Oil sign with a painting of a
bear, which is estimated at $20,000, and the gargoyle mascot of the hard-to-find Socony five-point shield sign with a current
market value of $50,000. Also highly sought-after are the colourful petroleum signs of the West Coast companies.
Dan Matthews has authored two books on this subject called, The Fine Art of Collecting & Displaying Petroliana, Volumes I and II.
For more information on petroliana, check out these sources: