Saving gasoline (8-8-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (August 8, 1941)

Background of news –
By editorial research reports

Any compulsory rationing of gasoline would be something of a new step in the United States. Certain states ration the amount of liquor which an individual may purchase over a period of time, or at any one state liquor store, but here the end in view is social rather than economic.

Families on relief now receive cards entitling them to purchase, at what amounts to a 33.5% discount in price, foodstuffs of which a surplus exists, but here the purpose is to encourage, not discourage, consumption. In the last war, when the amount of grain used in beverages had to be curtailed, Congress imposed, not rationing of the consumer, but flat wartime Prohibition. European countries, of course, have long been accustomed to rationing. In many commodities rationed in Europe, the supply is so short that long queues line up to be served, and only persons toward the front of the queues get supplied.

The present gasoline shortage in the East is expected to be only temporary, until more tank cars and pipelines get into operation. That was also true of the gasoline shortage in the last war, which obtained for only about two months toward the end of the war. The remedy then used to conserve gasoline was the “Gasless Sunday,” in effect for seven weeks of September-October 1918. “Gasless Sundays” were highly effective in saving gasoline, but the place of the auto in American life was far different then than now.

Very few families in 1918 relied entirely on the auto to get them to places where they wanted to go. The number of passenger cars registered in 1918 was only slightly above 5.5 million, about one in every four families, as against more than 26.5 million today. The gasoline consumption by motor vehicles was not much more than 3 billion gallons in 1918; in 1940, it was almost 22 billion.

True, the 1918 car used more gasoline per mile than the 1941 car, but poor roads kept annual mileage down, and the average consumption of gasoline per car during 1918 was only around 450 gallons, while the average annual consumption today is around 750 gallons per car. The average price per gallon in 1918 was 25.75¢; no state had a gasoline tax yet.

Theoretically the seven “Gasless Sundays” in 1918 were voluntary, not compulsory (filling stations stayed open), but in actuality compulsion was frequently used. Most communities produced what amounted to vigilante groups, often containing soldiers and sailors in uniform, which took it upon themselves to stop and question Sunday motorists. One newspaper reporter announced that on one road leading to Coney Island, 470 cars appeared on the first gasless Sunday, of which more than 400 were turned back, the others successfully pleading urgent business. In Chicago, police took down the names and addresses of all Sunday drivers. Taxis ran in New York, but not in Chicago.

Even passengers on motor buses were jeered and horse-cabs did a thriving business. In Washington, President Wilson went to church via carriage. Between 8 and 9 p.m. on the first gasless Sunday, not one motor vehicle crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.