E is for Esso

Esso stations, unusual in franchising to African Americans, were a popular place to pick up a Green Book.


When I was growing up, as often as not, we got our gas from the Esso station. Esso (“S-O”) “is derived from the initials of the pre-1911 Standard Oil.” I didn’t remember this, but I read that it became the focus of so “much litigation and regulatory restriction in the United States [that in] 1972, it was largely replaced in the U.S. by the Exxon brand… while Esso remained widely used elsewhere.” Ironic, since the Exxon brand name has been forever tainted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, not to mention purposefully manufacturing uncertainty on climate change.

Whereas Esso had quite a positive image, at least with many people of my father’s generation. For there was a time in the United States when many African-American travelers were uncertain where “they could comfortably eat, sleep, buy gas, find a tailor or beauty parlor…or go out at night…without [experiencing] humiliation or violence where discrimination continued to hold strong. These were facts of life not only in the Jim Crow South but in all parts of the country, where black travelers never knew where they would be welcome.”

In 1936, a “Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor H. Green” [no relation] developed “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide …abbreviated, simply, as the ‘Green Book.’ Those who needed to know about it knew about it. To much of the rest of America, it was invisible, and by 1964 [when the Civil Rights Act was passed], when the last edition was published, it slipped through the cracks into history…

“The 15,000 copies Green eventually printed each year were sold as a marketing tool not just to black-owned businesses but to the white marketplace, implying that it made good economic sense to take advantage of the growing affluence and mobility of African Americans. Esso stations, unusual in franchising to African Americans, were a popular place to pick one up.”

So I have a soft spot in my heart for Esso; not so much for its successor, ExxonMobil.

Classic commercials, likely from the 1950s:
Esso extra commercial
Esso Happy Motoring commercial ….Aye Right!! – targeting the UK

ABC Wednesday – Round 11

ABC Wednesday – Round 11

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

38 thoughts on “E is for Esso”

  1. Huh. I never thought of the problem “How to I get from Point A to Point B without encountering potentially dangerous jerks in between?”

    Great post! Never heard of Esso or the Green Book.

    Chris H
    ABC Wednesday
    E is for Elephant Evolution

  2. Great post, Roger. I remember Esso from the late 1960’s, and I also remember the attempts by the company to rebrand as Exxon in the early 1970’s. Of course, when I traveled into Canada on occasion, I noticed that their stations were still listed as Esso. Now there’s a culture shock.

  3. A depressing by fascination piece of history. Here in Toronto, and I suspect elsewhere, the Queer Community publishes a similar guide, the Pink Pages. Also here the stations are still called Esso.

  4. What a fascinating and dark part of our history.
    I remember when traveling and seeing the Esso sign. I never knew what it stood for, nor have I ever heard of the green book

  5. You always seem to be able to give us much information with your posts. Great historical information, Roger!
    Thank you for your kind remarks on my post, too. Kate, ABC team

  6. I remember ESSO from the 1960s in California,of course I also remember Richfield(ARCO)GULF(Mobil) and Standard(Chevron). To travel without fear is something we should all be able to do,unfortunately people fear the unknown and if they never travel for that fear it becomes a cycle unbroken.
    Thanks for the history lesson and good for Mr.Green!

  7. That was a fascinating bit of history about the Green Book, Roger. Of course,
    Esso was part of the everyday for those of us riding in our fathers’ fin-tailed gas guzzlers. Great post!

  8. Great post and photo for ABC Wed ~ (A Creative Harbor)

    Yep ~ evening is best for photography and especially when it is HOT weather ~ thanks for coming by ^_^

  9. Our ‘surrogate parents’ while we were in college in Canada had an Esso Station. Interesting post. Somehow we missed the whole racism thing. Left England before it it grew strong over there…were in college in Canada after that where we were never aware of any problems. Plenty of good friends there were black and other colors. Amazingly racism caught up with us here south of LA when we discovered to our amazement there was Hispanic discrimination. That was a shock!! Had no idea that existed. How naive we were.

  10. I also know Esso since ages ! and even today I still fill my tank at Esso, because it is the cheapest one in my area !

  11. I remember Esso and also with a very positive image. I am glad to hear that at least in a few cases this image was actually warranted. Great post – have a great week (and thanks for your favorite running song 🙂 )

  12. I’ve never heard of Esso. Must not have been where I grew up in the Midwest. Interesting facts as always.

  13. Very interesting. I don’t think we had Esso stations around here, though we don’t really have Exxon, either.

    And that’s fascinating about the Green Book. Sad that it was necessary, but good that there were at least resources to make a difficult situation at least a bit easier.

  14. Yes, Esso … they had them here in the Philippines back then. An informative post, indeed. Many thanks for sharing Incidentally, I worked as paralegal in the Exxon Building in NYC. I remember back than when I’d lose cell phone signal while up on the 50th floor — Fish & Neave (intellectual property law firm).


  15. Oh, Roger, I remember an Esso Station on the Vestal Parkway. I also remember my mother mentioning that Esso stations were “safe havens” for Black folks to fill up, so she patronized them often. Of course, my dad was strictly a Sinclair man, so we pulled up to the green dinosaur on occasion…!

    Thanks for the jingle. You continue to be a font of truly wonderful Americana, and I so enjoy your posts! Peace, Amy

  16. Interesting history lesson, Roger.
    We have had Esso stations in Canada as far back as I can remember (as far back as I remember gas stations, anyway) and, of course, my father told us how the name had been derived from Standard Oil’s initials. He loved imparting information, which Clint and I absorbed like sponges.
    I like the fact of the Green Book, but it’s sad to find out even gas stations were guilty of discrimination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial