The Vault

This Spreading Tree Chart Shows the Midcentury Explosion in Uses of Petroleum

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Socony-Vacuum Oil Company produced this diagram, meant as a tool to show off the diversity of products made from crude oil, in 1957. The image showcases the industry’s progress by including a comparatively miniature “Petroleum Tree of 60 Years Ago” diagram in the bottom left-hand corner. The visual reference to the familiar family tree conveys Socony-Vacuum’s pride in the oil industry’s reach.

In the years after the government ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil in 1911, the smaller companies that resulted from the split combined and recombined. Socony-Vacuum, formed in 1931 when Standard Oil Company of New York merged with Vacuum Oil Company in 1966, becoming Mobil Oil Corporation. Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999 to become today’s ExxonMobil.

Socony-Vacuum’s product tree shows how quickly the uses for crude oil expanded in the twentieth century, in both the industrial and consumer markets. It also shows how much of the famous material abundance of the postwar era had oil at its heart. Oil could be found in all of the types of asphalt used to make the new interstate highways; the aviation fuel that powered the growth of commercial air travel; even the waxes that went into the housewife’s floor polish or the kids’ chewing gum.

I found this diagram in the new volume The Book of Trees: Visualizing Knowledge, by Manuel Lima. Lima includes it in his chapter on figurative tree charts, which are predecessors to more abstract chart techniques derived from tree structures (Sunburst, radial, and Voronoi diagrams).

Image file courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.