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Pain at the pump

It was the 1849 words of French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, which we remember as, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

You might even remember Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s dire warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

One of my favorites is often credited to Mark Twain, and although he may never have said it, he certainly would have endorsed the concept: “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

Let’s take a trip back to 1920 and see whether anything is still echoing back to us from so long ago.

1920 marks a national gasoline shortage that took the average price of Oregon gas from 17 cents to 30 cents a gallon in less than six months, an increase of well over 75%.

It’s not surprising that members of the Dealers’ Motor Car Association of Oregon were some of the first to voice the loudest protests when gas had just reached 24 cents a gallon.

“The committee’s opinion,” their investigative report said in June 1920, “is that there is no gasoline shortage and there has never been a gasoline shortage. … We hazard the opinion that the public is being prepared to pay a higher price for gasoline.”

Not so, said Standard Oil Company officials.

“There is no mystery in the existing shortage of gasoline,” the company said. “It is not a case of diminished supply, but one of increased consumption. The Far West has never had so much gasoline as this year.”

One newspaper headline screamed, “Gasoline Shortage Laid to Consumers.” Another said, “Oil Monarchs Use Alibi of Lower Supply.”

At the same time, Union Oil, Shell and Associated Gasoline were rationing gas to distributors. Even with a distributor’s daily allotment of 500 gallons, only 20% could be sold to the average person, and 75% was reserved for commercial use. Use of the additional 5% wasn’t specified.

The experts predicted gas prices of 35 cents to 40 cents a gallon by the end of the year, yet by the end of July, the shortage in Roseburg was so severe that a gallon of gas was costing 55 cents. In Klamath Falls drivers were limited to two gallons.

The battle lines were drawn, and neither side was ready to blink.

One letter to the editor called for price regulation by state or federal governments.

“Is it not most fitting that this commodity, one of the most vital necessities of our age, be regulated?” the writer asked.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee directed the Federal Trade Commission to immediately investigate “recent advances in the prices of petroleum products.”

The fall finally brought relief. Supplies began to return to normal, and prices slowly dropped.

“The local filling stations have all the gas they can sell,” one newspaper said, “and every automobile driver can buy all he wants.”

The oil executives were still in a defensive mood and still pushing back.

“Perhaps you think the president of an oil company simply says to his colleagues, ‘Let’s raise the price of gasoline this morning,’” a Standard Oil news release said. “Not so. No man, no company or group of companies can control the price of gasoline.”

Yes, “the shortage had been painful,” the release continued, but it was “even more painful to a harassed oil industry.”

The motoring public wasn’t so sure about that, but they quickly abandoned their protests behind the dust of a sputtering motor car — at least until next time.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.