Today, pulling up to a gas station that does not have a convenience store attached is a very rare thing indeed. At virtually any gas station, be it a mom-and-pop operation, a small regional or citywide chain or a major chain that may or may not be oil company owned, the convenience store is an expected part of the deal. The “service stations” with their auto service bays and tow trucks parked out front are just about consigned to history, their operators long ago having realized that selling soft drinks and food were much more profitable than towing and servicing cars.
More than any other company, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, better known by the name of its stores, 7-Eleven, pioneered the convenience store concept. Originally, Southland’s drawing card was not gasoline but ice, which was a sought-after commodity in the early part of the 20th century when many homes did not own electric refrigerators. Gasoline would come later. The Southland Ice Company was formed in 1927 through the combination of four local Dallas-area ice companies by entrepreneur Claude S. Dawley. Through the 20’s into the 1930’s, Southland gradually added milk, ice cream and other food items for the convenience of its customers. The company really took off under the leadership of Joe C. “Jodie” Thompson, who joined one of Southland’s predecessor ice companies in 1922 and would become Southland president in 1931, a position he held for thirty years until his death. In the late 20’s, Southland adopted the name Tote’m for its stores, with a genuine Alaskan totem pole as a store logo (they were later painted on the buildings). In the 30’s and 40’s, Southland bought out a number of other small chains in north Texas, maintaining their original names.
In 1945 the company decided it was time for a common identity and a new image for all of their stores, which by that time had evolved into mini-supermarkets, minus the meat and produce sections. With an ad agency’s help, they decided on “7-Eleven”, a catchy name that played off the stores’ operating hours. The first of a succession of green and red logos was adopted, and all existing stores were converted to the new image in 1946. Interestingly, 7-Eleven offered curb service for decades. The stores utilized an “open front” design with roll-up garage-style doors across nearly the full face of the store, which were kept open when weather permitted (which in Texas, of course, is most of the time). The open front design was maintained well into the 1960’s, although by then the door design was changed to a glass sliding type.
By 1950, with 80 stores under its belt, Southland opened its first stores outside of the north Texas area with a move into Austin that year and Houston in 1952. The first stores outside of Texas were opened in the Jacksonville and Miami, FL areas in 1954. From here, Southland moved into other markets at a breathless clip, adding Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and several others by 1963 for a total of more than 1000 stores. Mr. Thompson passed away in June 1961, and the company leadership passed to his eldest son John. Southland didn’t miss a beat, and through the rest of the sixties and well into the seventies the company would experience phenomenal growth.
The sign and the two exterior photos (showing the sliding-door storefront) date from 1964. Note the promotional banners above the doors, a tradition that continues with 7-Eleven stores today. The photo of the impeccable counter man and his well-dressed customer (whose car appears to be still running outside – those were the days) is from 1966. “Oak Farms” was located in Dallas and was one of several regional dairy (and I guess, bakery) firms that were owned by Southland.