Thursday, February 2, 2012

Esso touts the oil culture in these 1950s books for kids

I have a pair of interesting staplebound books published by Esso Standard1 in the 1950s and intended for use in classrooms. What better way to indoctrinate fledgling Baby Boomers into the wonders of automobiles and petroleum than to pepper their schools with propaganda?

The first book, published in 1957, is titled "What Makes a Car Go?" It features an unnamed boy and girl, their little black poodle, the friendly service-station attendant pictured at the top of today's post, and "Men."

In the 16-page book, students learn that:
  • "Gasoline comes out of the hose into our car."
  • "Gasoline is not made at the service station."
Well, that's not all they learn. Students learn about crude oil and drilling deep into the ground and refineries and pipelines and jet fuel and heating oil. And the fact that most of the roads we use are paved with asphalt, which is made from crude oil.

And they learn who makes this all happen: Men.

Men. Men. Men.2

"Men use oil to make many things to help us work and play and travel."

Here are two additional illustrations from Esso's "What Makes a Car Go?"...

"Men can make many things we need from oil." This illustration must be straight out of James Howard Kunstler's worst nightmare.

"Hey Sis, did you know that 32 years after the publication of this book, an oil tanker much like this one will hit a reef off the coast of Alaska and spill hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, which will turn birds like the ones in this illustration as black as our pet poodle?"

The second book was published in 1959 and is titled "Travelers' Island." It's the story of Tom, a young man who is very excited because he gets to work at Bart's service station for two weeks in the summer. This leads to the following family scene:
"That's wonderful, Tom. You always did like to work around cars."

"Do you know enough about them to be a helper?"

"Oh, sure, Dad. There's nothing to it."

Tom's sister, Penny, made a face. She said, "Oh, Dad, you should know that Tom knows everything." They all laughed and sat down for supper.3
Tom discovers he doesn't really know everything. At Bart Carlson's service station, he puts on coveralls and learns words like "island"4 and "bay."

Tom also learns how to use tools. And watches as Men deliver gasoline and other oil products to the service station.

Tom is left with many wonderful memories, as clearly evidenced by this illustration at the end of the story:

I am strongly considering making this my new Twitter avatar. Thoughts?

1. Esso is an international trade name for ExxonMobil, which is a direct descendant of Standard Oil. Esso stations were widespread in the United States until around 1972. They can still be found throughout the rest of the world.
2. Within the 16 pages, there are 11 references to "men" making this all happen.
3. That scene is an accurate reflection of real family life in the late 1950s. I checked this blog post for historical accuracy by watching an episode of "Leave It to Beaver."
4. "This concrete island keeps cars from bumping into the gasoline pumps," Mr. Carlson explains.


  1. Funniest thing about the first picture is the coin changer the Esso serviceman is wearing.

  2. Chris: YES!!! It MUST be your new avatar. Wonderful post, and great minds think alike - we posted an hour apart and we both did gasoline-related posts today! WEIRD! :D