To understand gas bootlegging, we must remember that during the years of the Great Depression gasoline was pumped into a large glasslike cylinder located above the gas pump. Thus, the customer could actually see the gas before purchase or before putting gas into their vehicle’s tank.
Two methods of gas bootlegging were very popular. First, a dishonorable dealer would simply take a third grade of gasoline and sell it as a second grade product.
The second method was more complicated. A deceitful dealer buys both kerosene and natural gasoline, both being tax free, and mixes them together to be sold as gasoline despite it not being the true pure fuel. As a result, this mixture fuel was harmful to the motors and did not allow the car to run efficiently and could cause expensive damage to the car if continuously used.
In 1932, the Skelly Company announced a plan to fight against these bootleggers by implementing a color identification in their gasolines. Each grade had a particular color. For example, red identified their best grade of gasoline, orange their regular quality, and their third grade was uncolored or white. This system allowed the customers to see what they were really buying.
Other companies also started color identification programs. In this period, gas was selling at the rate of three gallons for 50 cents. A cheaper gasoline was blue in color. Thus, during these financial hard times, people frequently went to the filling station and said, “Give me three gallons of the blue.”
A typical example of the types of gas pumps that were familiar in the late 1930s and early 1940s is on display at the farm of J.D. Ford of Osborn, MO. Manually moving a handle back and forth forced the gasoline to flow from the storage tanks into a long glass cylinder located at the top of the pump.
Evenly spaced numbers located along the side of the cylinder measured the amount of gasoline pumped into it. Reaching your desired amount, you would place the nozzle of the hose into the car’s tank and gravity let the gas flow from the cylinder into the gas tank.
— researched and presented by Wilbur Bush, Gallatin, MO