Bad news, auto aficionados; Standard Oil jacked up the price of gas another half cent, raising the 1912 price to around 18 cents. "Speed burners, won't this make you slower?" the Press Democrat asked snarkily.
True, 18¢ was no small change back then. A dime in 1912 was worth about $2.50 today, so it was actually the equivalent of $4.50 a gallon.
We don't know precisely what they were paying in Sonoma County at the time; price bumps were mentioned in the local papers, but never the cost at the pumps, but it was most likely less than 18¢. A 1913 San Francisco Call article noted the market price in the city was then 16½ cents - 25 percent less than the national average - which meant a gallon of gas was possibly more like 14¢ locally in 1912. Prices were probably lower in the Bay Area simply because it was a major seaport; Shell did not begin operating the Martinez refinery until 1915.
While we may never know the real 1912-1913 gas prices around here, we surely know what they were in remote parts of the country. Open any auto enthusiast magazine from that period and you're bound to find a correspondent kvetching about how much more it cost to fill 'er up in Death Valley, Yellowstone or some other wilderness. The fellow who complained in high dudgeon about gas being 40¢ at Yosemite probably came home with snapshots of gas station signs.
The table at right shows average gasoline prices and was a challenge to assemble. The Energy Dept. has data going back to 1919 but is impossible to access without a Windows computer and a special plugin (I guess it's still 1998 over at the Department of Energy) so the link provided above is to download an archived copy of the spreadsheet. The really old data had to be scratched out of magazines from the time, particularly "Automobile Topics". So until someone replicates my work - or more likely, rips off this data - here is the most comprehensive info on early gas prices found anywhere online.
While doing this research, however, I made the most amazing discovery: Experts on the Internet don't know what they're talking about.
Searching for historic gasoline prices turned up all sorts of results that were wildly wrong; among the honking mistakes from popular websites such as ask.com, "Yahoo! Answers" and answers.com (among others), I was informed authoritatively a gallon cost 7¢ in 1912, 3¢ in 1916, 20¢ in 1920 and 9¢ in 1930. Sources are never given. Of course.
Try it yourself. Enter a search string into Google such as, "how much was gasoline in 19xx" or "price of gas in 19xx". I did a little experiment with years picked at random between 1911 and 1929, choosing the top hit on the search results. Out of a dozen trials, only one was correct (thank you, inflationdata.com).
SPEED BURNERS, WON'T THIS MAKE YOU SLOWER?
J. B. Clifford, the well known travelling representative of the Standard Oil Company in this section of the State, received the following telegram while in this city last night from headquarters: "Advance gasoline, naptha [sic] and distillates half a cent." This means that the price is half a cent a gallon greater than it was yesterday.
- Press Democrat, April 16, 1912
ANOTHER ADVANCE IN PRICE OF GASOLINE
Yesterday J. B. Clifford, the travelling representative of the Standard Oil Company in this section, received a dispatch from headquarters informing him that there had been another advance in the price of gasoline. The dispatch read:
"Effective June eleventh, advance price gasoline and naptha [sic] one half cent. Gas machine gasoline one cent. All points: all deliveries. No change engine distillate."
- Press Democrat, June 12, 1912