The Vault

Gas Thieves and Gas Defenders in the 1973-4 Oil Crisis

The Vault is Slate’s new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This photo of a belligerent citizen and his son advertising their shoot-first attitude toward gasoline thieves is part of the Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored Documerica project (1971-77). The Documerica photographers were hired to record American relationships with the environment. Because they were on the job during the 1973 oil crisis, they ended up getting a great visual record of people’s reactions to gasoline scarcity.

Like all of the Documerica photographs of the shortage—images of shuttered stations, lines of cars, and reluctant pedestrians and cyclists—this one provokes questions about citizens’ behavior toward each other in a crisis. Was it as “Mad Max” out there as this photo would imply?

Citizen-on-citizen gasoline thefts like the ones this man feared seem to have been more common in some areas of the country than others. The Los Angeles Times—the newspaper of record of car-dependent Southern California—reported in February 1974 that gas siphoning, in which criminals used a tube to get gas out of a parked car, was rampant. A policeman thought that most of the perpetrators were juveniles: “These young people are going to drive and they are determined to get the gas somehow.”

This report about siphoning emphasized the intimacy of the crime: Law-abiding citizens, who had planned ahead to secure gas in order to “get to work,” were being defrauded while they sat in their homes unaware with their cars parked in their driveways. Many bought lockable gas caps to thwart siphoners. In LA and Chicago, dealers reported shortages of these anti-theft devices.

The people most at risk of being on the violent end of gas-shortage-related crimes were gas station owners. In an April 1974 recap of the past few months’ shortage, the New York Times reported that at least one such businessman had been shot by an irate customer, and many more had stories of outrageous behavior. One told the reporter: “It was mayhem. They were fighting in the streets and one customer pulled a knife on another one. And that was before we opened!”

The Documerica photographs can all be seen on the National Archives’ website and make for great browsing. (Some intriguing categories include “Ghost Towns,” “Hunting,” and “Beaches.”) If you’re in or planning an upcoming visit to the Washington, D.C., area, the National Archives is now exhibiting a selected group of these photos through Sept. 8.

Thanks to Bruce Bustard of the National Archives.

Gas Thieves Beware

“Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in finding gas as well as paying much more for it, and resulted in theft from cars left unprotected. This father and son, made a sign warning thieves of the possible consequences.” Portland, OR, April, 1974. Photograph by David Falconer. National Archives.