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.
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.
“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.”
Appealing to women
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
Holding it in at the gas station
There are a few reasons, historians of gas stations and public facilities say.
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.
“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.
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 has become 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.”