by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As part of the Homestead’s collection dealing with the oil industry of greater Los Angeles and California, a key resource are oil company magazines such as the Standard Oil Bulletin, published by Standard Oil Company of California, which leased sixty acres from Walter P. Temple near Montebello from 1915 to about 1930.
While tonight’s featured artifact, comprising the October 1924 issue of the publication, is mainly concerned with the enormous growth of the hydroelectric generation of power on the Pacific Coast, which related to Standard Oil because of its production of lubricating fluids for bearings used in the machinery at these plants, the primary reason for highlighting (!) the issue is because of a short, but blunt, call for citizens to get out and vote at the upcoming presidential election.
As to the extensive coverage of the prime topic, it is interesting to read the lengthy article and peruse the photographs for such projects as the Copco Dam on the Klamath River in the far northern reaches of California near the Oregon border; a Kern River power plant built by Southern California Edison; the Kerckhoff Dam and power house, named for a prominent Los Angeles figure, William G. Kerckhoff, and built by the San Joaquin Light and Power Corporation, which he acquired in 1902; and other facilities within the Golden State.
The piece observed that tremendous changes in the hydroelectric industry transpired over the previous decades as enormous increases in the demand for power as the population of the state grew by leaps and bounds meant the need for much larger and more efficient water wheels and other machinery. It added that “the increase in size of these combined units has imposed upon lubricating oils more severe service” with much bigger bearings, greater pressure, and faster shaft speeds involved. Obviously, any shutdown due to mechanical problems “results in a very large loss to the operators” much less interrupted service to customers increasingly acclimated to the ready supply of electricity for commercial and residential purposes.
Reducing friction meant that the lubricating oils and the film applied to bearings and the like meant the development of “the perfect quick ‘film-forming'” element of these products. This was especially true as there were both conditions of partial and complete lubrication, involving moments of rest for the former and then increases in speed upon operation for the second, while the application of these oils had to guarantee safety in the bargain. Producing oils with the right “heavy medium body” to work in varying climatic conditions involving temperature and moisture and with “the appropriate research and development” involving years of experience, put Standard in an excellent position to do well in that market.
Technical though the article is, it is one of those aspects of the oil industry that is a potent reminder of just how many varied and often under-recognized uses there are for petroleum products—an essential consideration as we grapple nearly a century later with the question of fossil fuel production and use in the face of a rapidly developing change in the climate.
Another example of the use of petroleum cited in the magazine is the “asphaltic-lined” reservoir at Oroville, north of Sacramento. The piece discussed the 1 1/2″ thick line of asphalt, necessitated by the steep walls and gravel soil used for the project. The work for the reservoir, designed to hold 300,000 gallons at a depth of nine feet was completed in under ten days and the lining was considered economical in terms of initial cost and durability with respect to upkeep.
At the back of the magazine is the regular monthly feature of “Oil Field News,” showing production statistics and prices by gravity of oil. Nearly two dozen oil fields worked by Standard are listed with by far the largest being Long Beach, at over 4.6 million barrels in August and the Midway-Sunset behemoth in Kern County, the largest in area in the state and where over 3.2 million barrels were filled. Santa Fe Springs at 1.8 million and Torrance at 1.7 million barrels were third and fourth on the list, followed by Huntington Beach at just under 1.3 million and Elk Hills, also in Kern County, at 1.27 million barrels. Montebello was in the middle of the roster, coming in at eleventh in production at about 525,000 barrels. How much of that came from the Temple lease is not known, though it was probably a small fraction of the total.
As for price, it is notable the this ranged from $1 per barrel for the lightest gravity of 14 to 20 degrees to $1.82 for the heaviest, this being above 42 degrees. Today, the overall price per barrel worldwide is just under $40 with the historical peak being over $166 per barrel in June 2008. Obviously, there is some adjustment for inflation, though a dollar in 1924 is, according to one online calculator, equivalent to $15.20 today.
There are three ads on the inside front and both sides of the rear covers, one being for the firm’s Pearl Oil, used for heating, and the accompanying illustration shows a smartly-dressed gent in a suit and tie filling a portable heater. The rear cover one is for Zerolene, the company’s motor oil brand, though it shows three men lighting up their cigarettes and the tag line “THREE LIGHTS FROM ONE MATCH!” This was a reference to the fact that “Pacific Coast Crude Is Best” when it came to the refining of Zerolene through “high production standards” and a “high-vacuum refining process” that was said to provide “about 5% better gasoline mileage than when other oils are used.” With seven years bringing a 700% increase in sales, the motorist benefited from getting the highest quality for less money.
On the inside front cover, however, is an interesting ad because it reflected a decided change in roadside advertising, which exploded as the automobile became nearly universal throughout much of the nation, especially in car-centric California. Standard was as aggressive as many other companies in establishing signs, such as for its Red Crown brand of gasoline, along the burgeoning highways and byways of the Golden State, but a pointed campaign against such devices was mounted with great success. Consequently, the company was compelled to note here that “to preserve the natural beauty of the great routes of travel of the Pacific Coast, we have removed all of these signs, 1200 in number, from the highways.”
Finally, to the featured editorial, simply titled “Vote!” Here, the company noted “apathy at election time is a well-known American characteristic,” but lately, it lamented the fact that “literally millions of citizens fail in their duty and privilege” and this was “almost incredible.” It pointed to statistics that showed that between the presidential campaigns of 1896 and 1920 the percentage of participating citizens in the elective franchise dropped from about 80% to under 50%. This meant that some 27 million eligible voters declined to participate in this vital civic responsbility.
The editorial continued, “there may be explanations of this indifference, but there is no excuse for it.” When it came to the “slacker vote,” the article went on, “the individual slacker does not realize his [and, starting with that 1920 election, her] very definite and personal interest in the ballot; that to neglect the ballot is to be indifferent to the country’s government and its welfare; and that his [her] own personal welfare is dependent upon right government.” This was, purportedly, obvious and the matter a simple one to understand.
So, “the prerequisite of voting is registration” and Standard announced that “recently a movement was started within this Company to bring about complete registration of employees” involving a contest to see which agency or unit could achieve 100% results. It was asserted that “returns are in from all points, and indications are that the voters of the personnel of this Company, which numbers 20,000, are fully registered.” In addition, among “great zest and enthusiasm,” it was observed that “some offices not only registered all employee voters, but reported back that their effort included all wives and in some cases all relatives.” This grand result “gives gratifying evidence of the Americanism of the organization.”
Yet, as the editorial ended, it was pointed out that such efforts were “utterly useless unless followed by a visit to the polls on November 4th,” though “it is confidently expected” that Standard employees “will again show its good citizenship on that important day.” The company, however, was careful to conclude by proclaiming “the movement to ‘get out the vote’ knows no partisanship—all parties preach the obligation of the ballot” as represented in the popular motto of “Vote as you please—but VOTE!”
A timely sentiment this is for our own time 96 years and twelve presidential elections later, though in 1924, there was no question about the outcome of the race between Republican Calvin Coolidge, who ascended from vice-president to chief executive after the death, the prior summer, of Warren G. Harding, and Democratic challenger John W. Davis. Nationally, Coolidge garnered nearly 16 million votes to 8.4 million for Davis, a swamping of 25 percentage points. Even with populist Robert M. LaFollette receiving nearly 5 million votes, with presumably many of those siphoned from Davis, Coolidge won a resounding victory with 382 electoral votes to 136 for Davis and 13 for LaFollette.
To show how poorly Democrats fared in the Golden State, Coolidge garnered 733,000 votes, or 57% of the total, but it was LaFollette who finished second with about a third of the votes at nearly 425,000. Davis could only muster 105,000 votes, a pathetic 8% of the California electorate. In fact, Republicans dominated the state since the 1896 campaign and would do so again in 1928, though, as was the case in much of the country, the tables were turned in 1932 as Franklin D. Roosevelt beat incumbent Herbert Hoover by over 20 points.
This issue of Standard Oil Bulletin, one of dozens in the museum’s holdings spanning from the first number in 1913 through 1930, is an interesting one for the various uses of petroleum products in a transforming industrial environment, for the monthly production statistics in a couple of dozen California oil fields, for the several advertisements included in the publication, and, particularly, for its pointed pronouncement and prodding concerning the importance of voting in that year’s presidential election, a message that resonates today nearly a century later.