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Progressive Era to New Era
Automobiles in the Progressive and New Eras
FIll It Up, Sir?

The following excerpt is from an oral history interview conducted by the WPA in August 1940, in Vermont, and now included in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. The person interviewed was Bill Maitland. What are this fellow's views about the automobile? Although he worked in a service station, what did he think of the work?

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The yard was a brilliant area in the long busy main street. Red-capped arc-lights shone upon red-and-white gasoline pumps standing in a double row. The place was clean and attractive. The smell of gasoline and oil was pleasantly diluted by the keen autumn air. The attendants, in blue uniforms with red piping and letters, more young men with fresh faces. Their voice were cheery as they said: "Fill it up, sir?". The family question that is heard all over America, and a decade ago was answered, "Sure." Nowadays the general reply is: "Make it five."

"We had a swell place there [where he was born, in the northern part of the state]. Guess I was happier there than I'll ever be anywhere else. Didn't know it at the time, of course. Thought I had to get away from home the first thing I did. I was brought up to work -- and work hard. Started doing farmwork when I was a kid. Can't say I really liked it. But it was a great place to live. They call it Maitland Hill. My family had been there a long time. But we sold the place after my dad died. The last few years we were there my mother took in tourists. I didn't like that much. Don't like tourists. But I didn't have to see much of them. I was working in a service station in Newport then. You see enough tourists in this business, too. . . .

"I tried quite a few things and finally landed with Standard Oil. I've been with them ever since. I worked about three years in the Newport station. Then I got transferred here. We had a nice station at home and a good bunch working there. Not so much competition there. We did a wonderful business in the summertime. We all got bonuses. But there are too damned many stations everywhere today. Look at this town. Look at this main drag. Every other place is a gas station. The ones in between are beer gardens. That's all they have in this town. Filling stations -- for cars and people. . . .

"I think I'm going to get a station of my own before long. In New Hampshire. It'll be tough going though. Competition's awful keen. New stations going all the time. There ought to be some restriction, some way to limit them, it seems to me.

"I've got un old Ford to bang around in. I'd be lost without a crate of some kind. Always had a car to drive at home. Delivered milk with it mornings' took the fellows, or a girl, out nights. We always had a lot of fun around Newport. During prohibition we were up over the border half the time, drinking that canadian ale. I go for that stuff. We had a speedboat on the lake, too. [Memphremagog's?] a great place for boats. . . .

"We don't get many stonecutters in here. Most of them drive cars though. They probably patronize their own countrymen who run stations. Can't blame them for that. We get more tourist and through trade, I think, than local. Of course we do have our regular local customers.

"Some of the people are pretty decent. Some of them are snotty as hell. Order you round like a dog. You know. Until you feel like cracking a wrench over their heads. Once in awhile you pick up a good tip. For changing a tire, or a grease job. But not so much nowadays. And some stations don't allow tipping.

"The hours are long, but you got some time off every week. The night hitch isn't bad in summer, but these winter nights are long and cold and empty. Nobody stopping in. Nobody going by. Well, it's a job. And that's about all you can say for it. It's a living -- and that's what we have to make."
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View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.