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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 2
Reading 3



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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Representational Architecture

By the late 1920s, an increasing number of unique buildings became visible on the highway landscape—a giant milk bottle, tea kettle, teepees, and even a duck. Previously limited to amusement parks, these follies attracted the attention of passing motorists. Many of these buildings were examples of literalism in advertising, that is, they were giant signs advertising the products sold inside.

Teapot Dome Service Station
Located on Old State Highway 12 in Zillah, Washington, the Teapot Dome Service Station was built in 1922. A circular frame building with conical roof, sheet-metal "handle," and concrete "spout," it is an example of the roadside architectural follies built during the expansion of the national highway system in the 1920s and 1930s.

Selling oil products from a teapot-shaped structure was intended as a humorous reminder of the Teapot Dome scandals that rocked President Warren G. Harding's administration (1921-1923). That controversy sent U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to prison for leasing government oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to private producers. The Teapot Dome station continues to operate as a full service gas station and is a familiar sight to travelers in eastern Washington.

The Big Duck
The Big Duck is a wood frame, wire mesh, concrete surfaced building designed in the shape of a Peking duck to house a retail poultry store. The building was constructed in 1930-31 on busy West Main Street in the town of Riverhead on Long Island, New York. It measures approximately 15 feet wide across the front, 30 feet long from breast to tail, and 20 feet to the top of the head. The eyes are Ford Model "T" tail lights. The interior is approximately 11 by 15 feet.

In 1937, owner Martin Maurer moved the Big Duck four miles southeast to Flanders, where it occupied a prominent roadside location near the duck barns and marshes of Maurer's new ranch. The Riverhead area, including Flanders, was the center of Long Island's well-known duck industry. By 1939 there were approximately 90 duck farms in the county.

Maurer's unusual tactic for enticing customers to purchase his ducklings was apparently a success. The Big Duck's prime location, on one of the main roads leading east from New York City to the Hamptons, earned it a lot of attention. Many criticized the Big Duck, especially in the 1960s and early 70s, but architect Robert Venturi claimed that it clearly combined functional and symbolic aspects of architecture, and therefore was noteworthy. In fact, Venturi coined the term "duck" to describe a building in which the architecture is subordinate to the overall symbolic form.

The Big Duck closed in 1984, and since 1988 it has been located in Sears-Bellows Pond County Park between Flanders and Hampton Bays on eastern Long Island. It now houses a retail gift shop operated by the Friends for Long Island Heritage.

Benewah Milk Bottle
A favorite and familiar landmark in Spokane, Washington, the Benewah Milk Bottle is an example of the concept of literalism in advertising. Completed in 1935, the bottle is stuccoed from its base to that section which tapers to the neck. The neck itself and cap are covered with sheet metal over a wooden frame. The entire structure originally was painted white.

Owner Paul E. Newport built two such milk bottles as retail outlets for his thriving Benewah Dairy Company. His advertising stated that the bottles were "designed to build better men and women by making dairy products attractive to boys and girls. No expense will be spared to make these new stores as sturdy as fine, and as good as the products they represent." To mark the opening of the new milk bottle stores, Newport sponsored a soap box derby on Post Hill, an event that was enjoyed by thousands of young people.

Shell Service Station
The Shell Service Station was built in 1930 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Shell Company had not begun marketing its products in North Carolina until the late 1920s. Therefore, the owners of the Quality Oil Company of Winston-Salem decided to attract customers with a series of shell-shaped service stations. Although at least eight of these stations were built in the area, the one-story-high structure at Peachtree and Sprague Streets is the only one known to remain.

The Shell station is yet another excellent example of literalism in advertising in the 1920s and 1930s. The building's form visually repeats the Shell gasoline brand and is a three-dimensional representation of the Shell trademark. The building is literally a sign, an advertisement that is read and immediately comprehended. The structure is an unusual survival of early 20th-century advertising techniques and merits recognition and preservation.

Recognizing its historical value, Preservation North Carolina spent a year and $50,000 bringing the landmark back to its original lustre. Workers chipped away layers of faded yellow paint to find the Shell's original yellow-orange color. They repaired the original front door and fixed a crack that had been patched with black tar. The carwash —a wooden, trellised shelter that allowed cars to be washed and serviced in the shade—has been reconstructed. Restored pumps and replica lamp posts donated by Quality Oil Company add the finishing touches to the restoration of this quirky and beloved landmark. Preservation North Carolina currently uses the former gas station as a satellite office.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why would the Teapot Dome Service Station be considered a "folly"? Why is it considered a political joke? What more can you find out about the Teapot Dome scandal from a U.S. history book or an encyclopedia?

2. The Big Duck, Shell Service Station, and Benewah Milk Bottle are examples of literalism in advertising. What does this mean? Do you think it is an effective form of advertising? Why or why not?

3. Is the Teapot Dome station a "duck"? the Benewah Milk Bottle? the Shell Service Station? Explain your answers.

Reading 1 was compiled from the following National Register of Historic Places Registration Forms: John Auwaerter, "The Big Duck" (Suffolk County, New York), 1997; Nancy Compau and Scott Brooks-Miller, "Benewah Milk Bottle" (Spokane County, Washington), 1986; Leonard Garfield and Richard L. Thomas, "Teapot Dome Service Station" (Yakima County, Washington), 1985; and Brent Glass and Mary Alice Hinson, "Shell Service Station" (Forsyth County, North Carolina), 1975.



Comments or Questions

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