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Throwback Thursday: drilling for oil in 1950s Texas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you’re not from Texas, the image you probably have in your head is one of tumbleweeds and oil derricks. While that’s not completely representative of the state, the oil industry is an important part of our state’s history and modern Texas.

The DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has shared photos of the Texas oil boom in the 1940s and 1950s. The 50s were a time of peak production for Texas and helped solidify the Texas Railroad Commission as the world’s first oil cartel by setting global prices with West Texas Intermediate crude. Texas retained this dominance until the 1970s when Middle Eastern oil production expanded.

There is something Captain American/Leave it Beaver-esque about these photos. Here oil is depicted much differently than it is today. In these photos we see see oil representing opportunity, and for good reason. Oil has been good for the state of Texas and its people. It’s been seen as a vehicle for economic mobility, meaning a landowner could potentially come across a windfall by selling or leasing oil rights – or by inheriting land and striking it rich like James Dean’s character in the 1956 film Giant. Young men could also find work in oil fields as long as they were willing to work in dangerous conditions.

The image of oil today is much different.

Gulf Oil Corporation, Waddell Gasoline Corp, Crane County, West Texas. Credit: Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Hat tip to Jim Malewitz at the Texas Tribune!

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:16 pm 09/27/2013

    Those were the day…right? A time when we could celebrate the accomplishments of our accelerating need for crude without the burden of what that meant for the climate, agriculture, and a sustainable future. A time when we could ignore the moral and political consequences of stealing the resources of other nations. A time of cheap but delightful comic books and comic book heroes. A time of delightfully insipid 30 min black and white TV shows. A time when we did not question the growing brown haze that was beginning to choke our cities. A time when oil spills did not consume all the air time of news organizations.

    Nostalgia is a wicked drug. It can get you to ignore the realities of history. That photo of three guys chatting by the pre 1950’s car all wearing hats might get you to think of Captain America (or was it the photo of the guy with the pipe?). Yeah, those distinctive hats and pipes…nostalgia is sweet. It can make you ignore that plume of black smoke blotting out the sky. A black and white photo will even make you think that black smoke in a colorless sky looks kind of interesting…black smoke blotting out a beautiful blue sky is ugly and the smell of burning crude will make you ill. Honestly, John, what in these photos reminded you of Captain America? Was it something in that latest movie?

    Moving on…
    “…inheriting land and striking it rich like James Dean’s character in the 1956 film Giant.” Yeah, opportunity! Name ten actual people, not movies or TV sitcoms, who struck it rich.

    “Young men could also find work in oil fields as long as they were willing to work in dangerous conditions.” Go to N Dakota…so many young men they are segregated in special communities. BP in the Gulf managed to kill a few oil workers.

    We still have jobs for a few young men and the work is still dangerous. It has never been a big employer, ever, not now and not in the past. If you get all your history from movies and dreams you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice.

    Finally have a look at this magazine ad that appeared in Life Dec 22, 1947
    http://books.google.com/books?id=_U0EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA59&lpg=PA59&dq=Shell+oil+salad+John+McAdam&source=bl&ots=XXcqphjO04&sig=BgrM5JlI1SGZRESBxAB17wo-E5k&hl=en&ei=WGmbTMysK4WClAffysGhCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Crude oil salad…mmm-mmm-good.

    There are more equally outrageous ads that demonstrate the complete disconnect from reality of the oil companies and the Mad Men who designed the ads.

    Link to this

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